Why the United Arab Emirates Is Abandoning Saudi Arabia in Yemen

With the war in Yemen stalemated, the UAE has started pulling back—leaving its powerful ally holding the bag.

Yemeni security forces loyal to the Houthi rebel government stands guard at a square in the capital, Sanaa, on June 5.
Yemeni security forces loyal to the Houthi rebel government stands guard at a square in the capital, Sanaa, on June 5. Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates announced that it would be withdrawing at least part of its military contingent from Yemen, hinting at serious trouble in the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The announcement came on July 8, when the UAE noted that it would be changing its “military first” strategy to a more diplomatic approach. It also said it would reduce the number of troops it has in the area. A Yemeni official confirmed the news, pointing out that UAE soldiers had already “totally vacated” a military base in Khokha, which is about 80 miles south of the Red Sea city of Hodeida. UAE officials stressed that they discussed the withdrawal with Saudi Arabia last year and argued that it would not leave a vacuum, because the UAE had trained some 90,000 Yemeni tribesmen, former security personnel, and militia members from the south who could fill in.

Saudi Arabia has not been particularly vocal about the withdrawal, but officials in Riyadh are reported by the New York Times as having “intervened with the Emirati leaders to try to dissuade them from the drawdown.” With those efforts having failed, Saudi forces recently took over command of Khokha and the port city of Mokha to its south. Riyadh also sent troops to the southern city of Aden and the adjacent Perim Island in the strategic Bab el-Mandeb waterway. It had taken major conquests by the UAE to seize and hold those areas, so its departure is more serious than its initial statements implied.

The UAE is leaving behind competition and potential conflict between the militias it nurtured in the areas it held.

There’s also the problem that the UAE is leaving behind competition and potential conflict between the militias it nurtured in the areas it held. Today, the Southern Transitional Council—led by former Aden Gov. Aidarus al-Zubaidi, who was sacked by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in 2017—has for all practical purposes taken over government functions in Aden and has plans to sue for independence.

Riyadh may have a hard time accommodating the council’s wishes and managing other UAE-supported militias, such as the Security Belt Forces and the Shabwani and Hadrami Elite Forces, all nominally part of the Yemeni army, and the Salafi Amalqa and Abu al-Abbas Brigades. Saudi Arabia’s ostensible reason for intervening in Yemen was restore Hadi to power and to help maintain Yemen’s unity. So recognizing and cooperating with his rivals in the south would undermine Saudi Arabia’s original rationale for the war and harm its credibility.

These uncomfortable truths beg the question of why the UAE decided to leave in the first place. There are a few possibilities.

For one, the UAE, experiencing an economic slowdown at home, may have finally decided to retrench from a clearly stalemated battle against a determined opponent. It understands that allied militias will still control the southern part of the country and that Saudi Arabia, irritated though it may be, will not deprive the UAE of access to the area’s naval facilities, which are essential for its strategic goal of controlling maritime bases from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. However angry Saudi decision-makers are about the UAE’s departure, they are unlikely to prevent it from using Yemeni facilities, because they need Abu Dhabi’s support against Iran and in an ongoing dispute with Qatar.

Beyond that, if the stalemate leads to Yemen’s partition, the UAE’s overall interests would still be served. If the Houthis succeed in controlling parts of northern Yemen—thus potentially providing a foothold for Iran—the threat to the geographically distant UAE would be limited. At the same time, an independent south Yemen controlled by pro-UAE politicians and forces would be reliant on support from Abu Dhabi and is likely to give the latter unfettered access to its facilities and territory.

The UAE is also under more pressure than ever to protect the home front.

The UAE, still deeply concerned about the Iranian challenge in the Persian Gulf, is also under more pressure than ever to protect the home front. Previously, it believed it could count on the United States to help contain Iran, but with U.S. President Donald Trump’s retreat from striking Iran after it downed an American spy plane, the UAE now prefers to gather its soldiers closer to home.

Emirati leaders have likewise grown very uncomfortable with the level of criticism levied against the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the halls of the U.S. Congress over atrocities committed against civilians in Yemen. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed legislation circumscribing the supply of U.S. weapons to the two countries. Only Trump’s veto has so far sustained weapons sales to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Over the long term, being on good terms with Congress is essential for UAE-U.S. relations.

All this makes a clear case for withdrawal. But whatever the exact reasoning behind the UAE’s decision to leave Yemen, one thing is clear: Saudi Arabia is in a bind. It cannot pursue an endless engagement in Yemen without partners with military means like the UAE, and it cannot simply pack up and leave, because that would amount to a strategic defeat that ensconces the Iranian-allied Houthis in northern Yemen.

It is thus not hard to imagine Saudi Arabia rethinking its relationship with its smaller neighbor, which would be detrimental to UAE’s interests. As a small state, the UAE needs the support of the kingdom on at least two fronts: facing up to challengers inside the Gulf Cooperation Council such as Qatar and Oman and opposing Iran’s activities in the Persian Gulf.

Imad K. Harb is the director of research and analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

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