Ukraine Crisis Spills Into Yemen Diplomacy

The UAE withholds criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as it seeks Moscow’s diplomatic backing in Yemen. 

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
A meeting of the United Nations Security Council is held in New York.
A meeting of the United Nations Security Council is held in New York.
A meeting of the United Nations Security Council is held in New York on Sept. 23, 2021 AP Photo/John Minchillo

The United States on Monday backed an initiative by the United Arab Emirates in the U.N. Security Council to characterize Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist group, despite warnings from four European and Latin American council members that the move could complicate efforts to reach a political settlement of the seven-year war in Yemen and accelerate a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East’s poorest country.

The resolution—which condemns Houthi missile and drone attacks against the UAE and Saudi Arabia—has been a key priority for the two Gulf powers, which have been the target of increasing military attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency. But the council vote comes just three days after the UAE broke with Washington on its most important foreign-policy objective: isolating Russia over its military invasion of Ukraine.

In a critical vote in the U.N. Security Council on Friday, the UAE abstained on a U.S.-sponsored draft resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanding Moscow withdraw its troops from its neighbor’s territory. The abstention by the UAE, along with China and India, weakened U.S. efforts to confront Russia with a unified diplomatic front.

The United States on Monday backed an initiative by the United Arab Emirates in the U.N. Security Council to characterize Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist group, despite warnings from four European and Latin American council members that the move could complicate efforts to reach a political settlement of the seven-year war in Yemen and accelerate a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East’s poorest country.

The resolution—which condemns Houthi missile and drone attacks against the UAE and Saudi Arabia—has been a key priority for the two Gulf powers, which have been the target of increasing military attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency. But the council vote comes just three days after the UAE broke with Washington on its most important foreign-policy objective: isolating Russia over its military invasion of Ukraine.

In a critical vote in the U.N. Security Council on Friday, the UAE abstained on a U.S.-sponsored draft resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanding Moscow withdraw its troops from its neighbor’s territory. The abstention by the UAE, along with China and India, weakened U.S. efforts to confront Russia with a unified diplomatic front.

The UAE’s decision to abstain on the U.S. draft resolution on Ukraine underscored Russia’s persistent influence in the Middle East. Washington’s other Gulf allies, including Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel, declined to co-sponsor the Security Council resolution, which was drafted by Albania and the United States. Russia has extensive political and economic interests in the Gulf, and its military presence in Syria has the potential to constrain Israel’s ability to carry out airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias there.

Russia made it clear that it has serious concerns that the terrorist designation would potentially undercut prospects for a negotiated political settlement of the crisis, according to a council diplomat. Three diplomats told Foreign Policy that they believed the UAE abstained on the Ukraine resolution to avoid a potential Russian veto of the UAE’s Yemen resolution.

“For the UAE, the situation in Yemen is an overriding national priority, and that means steering a tricky course between the U.S. and Russia as veto powers,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at the International Crisis Group. “It is possible that a prolonged confrontation over Ukraine will freeze Security Council diplomacy. But for a lot of non-Western states, it is necessary to try to calibrate between the big powers, and that involves some pretty tricky acrobatics.”

The United States agreed to back the resolution because it believed it was necessary to impose penalties on the Houthis for their attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure inside and outside Yemen, and it only signed on to the initiative after ensuring it would not have a negative impact on the political process and the humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people, according to diplomatic sources involved in the negotiation. The U.S. position, those sources said, was based on its independent assessment of the Houthis’ conduct, not on the UAE’s position on Ukraine.

The description of the Houthis as a terrorist group has proved tricky for the United States. In February, the Biden administration shelved a plan to re-designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization following objections from within the administration, the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations, which contended that doing so could precipitate a collapse of the Yemeni economy. The concern is that private traders—who are responsible for importing about 90 percent of the country’s food—and their suppliers would stop doing business in Yemen because of fears that they might be prosecuted for violating U.S. sanctions.

Four Security Council members (Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, and Norway) raised similar concerns that the designation of the Houthis as terrorists—a term that has not been defined by the United Nations—might frighten off private importers that supply Yemen with the vast majority of its food and other vital supplies.

The Trump administration first designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization in its the final days in office, but the Biden administration subsequently lifted the designation on humanitarian grounds in February 2021. But the United States, facing pressure from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to reconsider, has been looking for ways to ramp up pressure on the Houthis.

During negotiations on the Yemen resolution, the United States succeeded in softening the original draft to address many of those humanitarian concerns. The final text stripped out a provision imposing financial sanctions on the Houthis and included language underscoring the need to facilitate commercial imports into Yemen. Any new measures linked to the Houthis’ terrorist status would apply only to Houthi violations of an existing U.N. arms embargo. The UAE also dropped a provision authorizing the interdiction of vessels in the region’s shipping lanes, following objections from China. In addition, the resolution explicitly envisions a role for the Houthis in peace negotiations with the government and other key players, an attempt to address critics’ concerns that the terrorist designation would undercut peace talks.

The UAE’s U.N. ambassador, Lana Nusseibeh, defended the resolution, saying it “will curtail the military capabilities of the Houthis and push toward stopping their escalation in Yemen and the region.” She added that “it will also prevent their hostile activities against civilian vessels and threats to shipping lines and international trade. The resolution will also stop the suffering of Yemeni civilians and those affected in neighboring countries by their terrorist acts.”

Yet Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, and Norway still abstained when it came time to vote.

“We remain concerned that the use of this term in a Security Council resolution dealing with sanctions in Yemen may have unintended negative consequences for the millions of Yemeni people living under Houthi control,” Ireland’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Jim Kelly, told the council. “This is against the backdrop of severe humanitarian funding shortfalls and an already fragile economy.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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