Yemen in Focus: UAE, Sudan announce withdrawal of troops as coalition 'reconsiders' brutal war

Yemen in Focus: UAE, Sudan announce withdrawal of troops as coalition 'reconsiders' brutal war
This week we focus on the UAE's withdrawal from Yemen, a gradual Sudanese reduction of troops and more.
8 min read
11 February, 2020
The war escalated in March 2015 [Getty]
Hundreds of Emirati soldiers returned home on Sunday after years of taking part in a Saudi and UAE-led military campaign in Yemen that has triggered the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

In a ceremony held at Zayed Military City in Abu Dhabi, troops were received by senior Emirati officials including Dubai's head Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum and the UAE's de-facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

A report by Asharq Al-Awsat confirmed that the returning troops "constitute the largest number of UAE soldiers serving in the coalition in Yemen".

It is unclear how many Emirati troops remain in Yemen, where the UAE has spearheaded a coalition of countries – alongside Saudi Arabia – to battle the Houthi rebels since March 2015.

The UAE itself has been accused by Yemen's Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi government of attempting to occupy the south of the country, where it has established a strong base and trained thousands of fighters.

In 2018, the government accused the UAE of seizing Yemen's Socotra Island when it unloaded tanks and troops there.

Saudi Arabia, the main backer of the UN-recognised Yemen government, had to send troops to Socotra to defuse a standoff between Emirati and Hadi forces.

Read also: Yemen in Focus: UAE wants its $100 million Aden power station back

In 2019, Yemen's government accused the UAE of deploying its troops on the archipelago during a visit by Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Daghr.

Last May, Yemen's interior minister criticised the UAE and said it should concentrate on fighting the Houthis instead.

Despite what is projected as a united front between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, cracks in the Saudi-Emirati alliance showed last year after the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council turned on Hadi and seized Aden, leading to weeks of infighting before a truce was declared.

The coalition itself has faced global controversy for its activities in Yemen, which has unleashed the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN, which says 80 percent of the population – 24 million people – are in need of aid. 

Nearly 10 million people are just a step away from famine, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warned, and figures suggest that more than 100,000 have been killed, more than half of which has been blamed on coalition airstrikes on the neighbouring country.

Sudan's 'gradual reduction'

Meanwhile, a Sudanese minister on Monday also announced a gradual reduction of fighting forces in Yemen, noting Khartoum believes the crisis cannot be solved militarily.

Sudan's Minister of Culture and Information, Faisal Muhammad Salih, suggested the coalition itself is rethinking the conflict, in comments that would explain the UAE’s withdrawal of hundreds of troops.

"There is now a reconsideration of the Yemen war in general, even among the major countries in the coalition, and it was not easy for Sudan to take a sudden decision to withdraw the forces, so a gradual reduction is taking place with the approval of the Arab coalition countries," Saleh said, according to Sputnik.

"There is a conviction that military action will not solve the problem but rather make it more complicated, and we believe that the current efforts will lead very soon to the decline of military action and will be replaced by negotiation and dialogue efforts," he added.

Sudan's transitional government has dramatically downsized the country's troop presence in Yemen this year, but the Sudanese armed forces have fought in the Saudi-led coalition since 2015.

The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces have been accused by rights groups of taking large sums from Saudi Arabia to recruit poor young men – and even children – from Sudan's deprived Darfur region and neighbouring country Chad to serve in Yemen.

Meanwhile, a coast guard battalion belonging to Yemen's internationally-recognised government defected from the Hadi administration earlier this week and joined forces with the UAE-backed southern separatists, according to local reports.

The Yemen army's 1st Marine Brigade on Socotra Island declared its allegiance to the Southern Transitional Council (STC)Almasdar Online reported, citing a coast guard official on the island.

The move was prompted by promises made by the UAE-backed STC to increase salaries for members of the coast guard battalion to match those of the Security Belt Forces – the southern separatists' military arm.

The battalion reportedly announced the move on Monday, raising the STC's red, white, black and blue flag.

The separatists – who seek renewed independence for the south, which was ruled by a separate state until 1990 – have received arms and training from the UAE.

Socotra's Governor Ramzi Mahrous slammed the move as a renewed attempt by the UAE to cause further chaos on the island, where it has cultivated widespread animosity in recent years. 

Mahrous warned the defectors would be given just 24 hours to revoke their move, in a sentiment that was shared with the island's highest tribal leader Sheikh Issa Bin Yakut.

In January, the separatists withdrew from a key facet of the agreement it signed with the government in November to end the "civil war within a war", a further blow to those seeking a wider deal to end years of war.

The Separatist Transitional Council (STC) pulled out of joint committees working to implement the Riyadh agreement, a STC spokesperson told Reuters. 

The Riyadh Agreement, signed on November 5, also stipulated the creation of a new 24-member cabinet with equal representation for the southerners within 30 days.

The UAE has denied Yemeni accusations that it is seeking control of the island.

The lack of concrete progress since the Riyadh agreement was signed comes as a blow to those hailing it as a stepping stone towards ending the wider conflict.

Houthi obstruction

But the UAE is not the only faction facing the brunt of public anger in Yemen

On Tuesday, reports said the massive aid operation for war-torn Yemen is under severe threat in the face of mounting obstruction from the Houthi rebels, officials told AFP ahead of a crunch meeting expected to be held in Brussels.

Humanitarian agencies describe a deteriorating situation in the Houthi-controlled north where aid workers face arrest and intimidation as they attempt to distribute food to millions in dire need after five years of conflict.

But the Yemeni government sounded the alarm at reports the United States is considering suspending much of its humanitarian assistance by March 1 in response to the pressures that include a new two-percent rebel "tax" on assistance projects.

Abdul Raqib Fateh, a minister and the head of Yemen's relief committee, said although the government believes the militia misuses aid "as a cover to finance its war efforts", cutting off supplies would hurt the wrong people.

"Scaling back on aid in governorates under Houthi control will affect citizens, not the armed Houthi militias," he told AFP.

The Houthis hit out at the criticism, which includes allegations of systematic interference and layers of bureaucracy imposed by the Supreme Council for Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation (SCMCHA), the rebel's aid body that was created late last year.

"Some UN agencies play a political role and use aid as a card with which to threaten the Yemenis," said the head of SCMCHA, Abdul Mohsen al-Tawoos.

Read also: Yemen in Focus: Hundreds of Yemeni students stranded in 'apocalyptic' Wuhan amid coronavirus outbreak

"This blackmail of reducing aid doesn't work on Yemenis, and if they continue with this threat, then things will turn against them," he said, according to Houthi media.

'Violence and coercion'

Allegations of aid being diverted and obstructed are not new in Yemen.

One battleground has expired food, with the Houthis accusing the United Nations of distributing maggot-ridden rice and flour, and aid workers saying that supplies due for needy families had been held for months until they spoiled.

The UN World Food Programme, which feeds 12 million Yemenis a month, halted deliveries in Houthi-controlled areas for two months last year as it pushed for a biometric registration scheme to avoid the diversion of supplies meant for Yemeni civilians.

However, the New Humanitarian news agency last week cited a United Nations report that said threats to aid workers were increasing along with bureaucratic delays that bogged aid agencies down.

"The issue of the manipulation of beneficiary lists and/or pressure to share these lists is of particular concern, and cases involving the use of violence and coercion at aid distribution points have increased in 2019," it quoted the unreleased report as saying.

The thorny topic of how to respond to the pressure, and the implications of suspending humanitarian aid in a country already on the brink, will be discussed at a meeting of aid agencies and donors in Brussels which opens on Thursday.

"Too many red lines have been crossed by the authorities," a Sanaa-based aid worker told AFP. "Our job is to get aid to people. What do we do when we're being blocked from doing that?" 

Humanitarian officials say they are hoping there is still room for negotiation to avoid a suspension, but that the outlook will be clearer after the Brussels meeting.

"I think we're all hoping that it will not come to that," one aid official said. "We are trying to coordinate with all the donors including the US to come up with a more unified approach."

Lise Grande, the UN resident coordinator for Yemen, indicated that the agencies would be forced to act if they cannot uphold their principles in Yemen.

"If we reach a point where the operating environment doesn't allow us to do that, we do everything we can to change it," she told the BBC.

"We may have to go in a different direction for a little while until we can get those conditions back in place. That's our responsibility," she said. "We are committed to find ways to cooperate."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino