The war in Yemen has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. After three years of escalating conflict, more than 22 million people – three quarters of the population – rely on humanitarian assistance. In Yemen today, eight million people live on the verge of starvation, two million people have been internally displaced, and nearly every child in Yemen is in need of assistance. And, yet, as the Arab world’s poorest nation lies on the brink of famine, the world has largely ignored this “Saudi war”. What little attention it has garnered has obscured a much darker reality: the role the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has played in using the war to achieve its own objectives. From secret prisons to stolen ports, the UAE has treated Yemen as a testing ground for its military and a pawn in its aim to control access to the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. The war in Yemen may be a consequence of Saudi designs, but it has become the key to the UAE’s emergence as a profoundly engaged regional player.
In 2014, the idea of a war in Yemen was unthinkable. Four years later, the war has become one of the deadliest and destructive in the world. But the war was never meant to last this long. In 2015, facing the loss of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, to Houthi forces, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the internationally recognized President of Yemen called for Saudi intervention to restore his rule. Saudi official statements and private deliberations from the period [insert link Ar] viewed a quick and lethal intervention by a Saudi-led coalition as the most effective solution to the Houthi insurgency. Spurred on by the possibility of a Iranian proxy on its borders [link – Al-Monitor, Al-Arabiya] and the ambitions of an untested war cabinet led by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudis called on their allies and prepared a coalition of the biggest players in the region. Once established, the coalition was comprised of the vast majority of the Arab states and many traditional allies of the Saudi government. Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan all quickly joined the coalition, while Somalia, Djibouti, and Sudan opened up their airspace and facilities to the Saudi-led coalition. Oman and Pakistan, traditional allies of Saudi Arabia, were notable for their dissent. Yet, despite this, the coalition had not only a broad based coalition within the Arab world, it also had the implicit and explicit support of the the U.S. and the U.K., both of whom provided extensive intelligence analysis and military equipment.
Among the earliest members, the UAE stood out for several reasons. From the very beginning, the depth of its involvement differed considerably from other coalition members.. Unlike other coalition members who pledged airsupport and facilities use, the UAE agreed early on to bring to bear its military forces, providing the forces on the ground necessary to secure control of Yemeni cities. For the UAE, which had spent millions building a military force composed of mercenaries and ex special operatives, trained by western intelligence agencies, Yemen was the perfect opportunity to battle-test its newly purchased military force.
But its involvement on the ground was also inspired by previous experience working alongside an American coalition in the invasion in Afghanistan. The only coalition member with extensive experience with counter-terrorism tactics, the UAE, was primed to play a critical role in dealing with both intelligence extraction from Houthi targets but also in implementing counter terrorism techniques against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) forces in Yemen.
Moreover, the UAE also held considerable interests in Yemen. Alongside its growing military expenditure, from building an extensive intelligence gathering network to its highly trained mercenary forces, the UAE had also begun projecting its force economically, obtaining concessionary agreements for key ports on the Bab-al Mandeb strait. In Somalia, it had reached an agreement to run the port of Bussouso in Puntland through a holding company. In Somaliland, it obtained a decades long concessionary agreement to control the port of Berbera. In Sudan, the UAE held joint-military exercises with Sudanese forces at Port Sudan. In Djibouti, it had developed and expanded the main port alongside a military base. In Eritrea, the UAE has an agreement to use a military base from the port city of Assab. Even within Saudi Arabia, the UAE held a contract for the prominent port city of Jeddah.
And so, for the UAE, Yemen was a natural next step. Whether it was the city of Hodeidah or the island of Socatra, Yemen was key for access to the Bab-al Mandeb. In the eyes of the UAE leadership, whoever controlled Yemen, controlled the strait through which $3 billion dollars worth of goods travel every day, and the vast majority of the world’s oil is shipped. In fact, the UAE already controlled Mukalla and Aden – key port cities within Yemen – but Hodeidah, the largest port and the most strategically located remained untouched. This calculus made UAE intervention in Yemen a foregone conclusion. Afterall, what did it have to lose?
Within weeks of the start of the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis, coalition members realized that this was not going to be a simple skirmish. The Saudis has underestimated the strength of the Houthi rebel forces. Armed with weapons seized in San’aa and Aden, Houthi forces were far better prepared than expected. Moreover, their timely and unlikely alliance with their former foe, Abdullah Salah, the ex-president of Yemen, had caused substantial numbers of the Yemeni military to break away and fight against the coalition. Yemen’s topography and Houthi control of major urban centers complicated the Saudi strategy of a limited air campaign. This was no longer an intervention, but an all-out war.
As civilian casualties mounted and harsh fighting continued, the Saudi leadership grew increasingly hesitant to place their soldiers on the frontlines. The UAE moved in. Recruiting Colombian mercenaries, buying support of local tribesmen, and paying off AQAP members, the UAE significantly expanded its direct military involvement in Yemen. Soon, Emirati officers began rotating in and out of Yemen, in order to ensure the army gained crucial battlefield experience. UAE elite forces moved from a supporting role to an offensive one – working alongside coalition forces on the ground to seize cities and land.
All the while, the UAE began to significantly expand its role in intelligence extraction. Under the guise of counter-terrorism, UAE officers arrested, kidnapped, or disappeared ex-Houthi fighters, local leaders, AQAP members, and suspected dissidents. An increasingly complex assortment of secret prisons were set up to house those captured for “enhanced interrogation”. Replicating American torture tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq, including at the Abu Ghraib prison, UAE officers worked alongside contractors from Blackwater, the infamous defense firm, to interrogate detainees. Physical torture was reinforced by isolation, sexual assault became a routine tool, and all the while, new UAE officers were rotated in to gain experience.
As reports leaked out about the existence of these prisons, Yemeni officials were outraged at the extent of the UAE’s involvement and the violation of Yemeni sovereignty. Tellingly, however, for all their complaints, even the Yemeni Foreign Minister was denied access to UAE prisons within his own country. For all its involvement, the UAE remained a relative non-player in Western eyes. Blame from the UK and American politicians was directed at a Saudi led coalition whose airstrikes bombed civilians and non-civilians alike. As concern over those war crimes mounts, Western media organizations and think tanks have remained silent on the far more disturbing and widespread practices of UAE forces in Yemen.
But UAE military involvement in Yemen is just a tool for the UAE – the real objective remains economic control of the Bab al Mandeb strait. In 2016, UAE forces used the pretense of a cyclone to send armed forces as security agents to the Yemeni island of Socrata. Local community leaders protested the infringement on their sovereignty – the war had never reached Socrata, they said. Why was the UAE there? Socatra, while small, is strategically located at the opening of the Bab- al – Mandeb. Control of Socatra would give the UAE control of the entire strait, placing military forces within striking range of passing ships and enabling the UAE to effectively blockade the entrance to the Bab-al-Mandeb at will.
While Saudi intervention eventually re-opened the airport and removed the UAE soldiers, the UAE has remained undeterred. It openly courts AQAP fighters, local tribesmen, and ex- Houthi fighters all while managing a dual counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency military role. These complex, fragile, and ever-shifting alliances have not clouded its objectives, however. The UAE has been instrumental in reviving a Yemeni Southern separatist movement, one that would ostensibly control all of Yemen’s major ports and be far more friendly to its patron than a Saudi-led government.
As the war in Yemen rages on, it is critical to remain aware of the broader picture. This is not a war for the UAE – it is an investment, one that must pay dividends in blood and seawater, returns in disappeared dissidents and torture cells, and results in mercenaries and politicians.
UAE has committed war crimes
Self-determination of the Yemeni people
With every bomb dropped and child killed, the war in Yemen inches closer to an uncertain future, one in which Yemen’s fate as a nation, politically, economically, and militarily, hangs in the balance.
The military identity Abu Dhabi is acquiring in the meantime, however, compounded by a sense of immunity provided by the lack of accountability on its actions in Yemen (Human Rights Watch, 29 June 2018), could lead “Little Sparta” to undertake further destabilising actions.
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