Yemen in Focus: UAE 'retreats from conflict' to protect its own borders

Yemen in Focus: UAE 'retreats from conflict' to protect its own borders
This week we look at reports claiming a UAE partial withdrawal from Yemen, more Houthi fails at peace and an Islamic State group loss.
7 min read
29 June, 2019
The UAE is a prime culprit in the deadly Yemen conflict [Getty]
To break with tradition, we'll jump into this week's Yemen in Focus report with a slightly positive story from Yemen.

According to a report by Reuters, the United Arab Emirates, one of the main culprits in the deadly war in Yemen, is to scale back its military efforts in the war-torn country to focus on its own mess.. or "security threats" posed by US-Iran tensions which is bubbling close to the wealthy Gulf nation.

The UAE, a prime ally in the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, will allegedly withdraw some troops from the port of Aden and Yemen's west coast, having pumped millions of riyals, or dollars, into establishing teams of local fighters who will no doubt continue battling Houthi-aligned forces on the ground, according to diplomatic sources.

The diplomats revealed that the Emirati leadership, which has witnessed its own turmoil in recent weeks, now requires its troops and equipment close to hand in case US-Iran tensions escalate further.

A series of attacks on tankers in and around the Emirates, and the shooting down of an American drone by Tehran last Thursday, culminated in the US coming close to launching airstrikes against Iran.

"It is true that there have been some troop movements... but it is not a redeployment from Yemen," a senior Emirati official told Reuters.

They added that the UAE remains fully committed to the Saudi-led coalition and "will not leave a vacuum" in Yemen.

No details on the movements of number of troops being withdrawn were given in the report, however a Western diplomat said "a lot" - and there are a lot - of Emirati forces were pulled from Yemen over the past three weeks.

However, an Emirati official claimed that the withdrawal was a "natural progression" as the coalition attempts to implement a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeida, where fighting has raged for many months.

The news, if verified, would prove to be a positive step for many following four years of war, power play and what many believe to be an Emirati occupation attempt of the southern provinces.

Concerns have been raised surrounding the UAE's intentions in the south, where it has built a solid link of alliances and established control over major cities, especially Aden.

The Emiratis boast several bases in the coastal city where the country's forces operate all military activity, including training local men-turned-soldiers.

But in 2017, an investigation by the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch revealed that the UAE was running a network of informal detention centres in southern Yemen where hundreds of people were detained and tortured.

Not a parody

Meanwhile, in more humorous but totally real news this week: Yemen's Houthi rebels have attempted to weigh in on the region's most topical event by proposing a rival Middle East peace plan amid a conference in Bahrain that has been rejected by Palestinians and the majority of Arabs.

The rebel-run newspaper Al-Masirah published the militant group's alternative plan on Tuesday that aims to find a military resolution to the occupation of Palestine by Israelis.

"To challenge projects aiming to wipe out the central cause - Yemen places plan to liberate Palestine," the newspaper's headline reads.

The Houthis, who are staunchly anti-Zionist, called for Palestinians to form a united military force armed by "five percent of the arsenals of Arab and Islamic states".

One of the points of the plan calls for "implementing a military strategy against the Israeli enemy".

The plan also urges the Muslim world to "back a development programme that contributes to reinvigorating the economy and overcoming unemployment", and to provide five percent of their budgets.

For those who missed the joke: the Houthis are of course embroiled in a conflict of their own in Yemen, where the rebels have battled pro-government forces and a Saudi-led coalition for some four years.

Their proposal to solve the Middle East's biggest and longest conflict came on the opening day of the US administration's conference to reveal its long-delayed Middle East peace plan.

But the rebels themselves have yet to implement peace in Yemen.

Blocking aid

Last month, the Houthis allegedly turned back a World Food Programme (WFP) shipment meant to feed some 100,000 families in the war-torn nation, which has been pushed to the brink of starvation, a spokesperson for the aid agency said on Tuesday.

The rejection of the shipment came amid intense talks between WFP and the rebels, who had blocked the agency's attempt to register millions of Yemenis in need of aid by using biometrics as a means of preventing food aid theft.

The WFP has mainly blamed the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, for stealing the food aid, who they say rejected a shipment depriving thousands of families of essential aid.

Last week, the WFP partially suspended aid following a stalement in the talks, with the agency accusing the rebels of consistently stealing aid and using millions of dollars worth of international donations for their war economy.

Earlier this year, WFP said it aims to feed around 12 million Yemenis in 2019 at a cost of $175 million a month.

Fatality in the kingdom 

Sticking with the rebels' terrible attempts at peace, this week a Houthi attack on a civilian airport in southern Saudi Arabia killed a Syrian national and wounded 21 other civilians on Sunday, according to the Riyadh-led coalition, the first such death amid increased cross-border attacks.

The attack on Abha airport - which the coalition said left a McDonalds outlet at the site littered with shattered glass and damaged 18 vehicles - comes amid spiralling regional tensions with Iran.

While the escalation of attacks by the rebels on Saudi cities threatens a hard-won UN-sponsored ceasefire deal for the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, war-ravaged Yemen's main conduit for humanitarian aid, it also risks adding numbers to an already increasing death toll in Yemen due to coalition counter-attacks in the country.

"A terrorist attack by the Iran-backed Houthi militia on Abha airport... killed a Syrian resident and wounded 21 civilians," the coalition said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The wounded - from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India and Bangladesh - also included three women and two children who had been taken to hospital for treatment, the coalition said.

It did not provide details on how the airport was attacked, but Houthi rebels have repeatedly struck the civilian facility this month with drones and missiles - as we know.

Earlier on Sunday, the rebels' Al-Masirah TV said they had targeted Abha and Jizan airports in the south of the kingdom with drones.

The coalition did not confirm the attack on Jizan airport, though a lack of acknowledgment has not previously proven to add any weight to those who doubt the rebels' capabilities.

Abha airport authorities said on Twitter that air traffic had resumed and operations were running normally, without saying how long they were disrupted.

But the Saudis weren't the only ones to face disruption this week. Remember the Islamic State militant group?

Remember the Islamic State group?

Saudi and Yemeni special forces captured the head of the IS branch in Yemen, the Saudi-led military coalition backing the country's government proudly announced on Tuesday.

The leader identified as Abu Osama al-Muhajir was caught in a raid early June along with other members of the militant group including its chief financial officer, coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said in a statement.

Saudi special forces in cooperation with their Yemeni counterparts "conducted a successful operation that resulted in the capture of the leader of the Daesh (IS) branch in Yemen - Abu Osama al-Muhajir", Maliki said.

"A house kept under close surveillance proved the presence of the terror group's leader, and other elements, along with three women and three children."

Maliki did not specify the location of the house or where the raid was conducted, but said there were no civilian casualties.

While headlines focus on the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, many seem to miss the activity and chaos curated by militant groups in Yemen. In fact, it's safe to say IS and other militant groups have flourished in the chaos of the country's civil war and at times as a result of government and Saudi-Emirati backing. Yes, you read that correctly.

IS has lost its self-styled "caliphate" across large parts of Syria and Iraq but is said to run camps and has a number of active fighters across Yemen, many of which have been revealed to fight alongside pro-government-Saudi-Emirati forces.

On the other hand, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered by the US as the radical group's most dangerous branch, is also active in Yemen - and is also waltzing around with the coalition forces.

Meanwhile, and if it wasn't already complicated enough, a long-running US drone war against AQAP has intensified since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

All in all, a peaceful week in Yemen.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino 

Yemen In Focus is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.

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