Yemen in Focus: UAE hands over Yemen mission to its local proxies

Yemen in Focus: UAE hands over Yemen mission to its local proxies
This week we look at the official UAE reduction of troops in Yemen, more snakey coalition moves in Yemen, and general who is in 'major' trouble.
8 min read
12 July, 2019
The UAE said it was partially withdrawing from Yemen [AFP]
Questions arose among Yemen watchers this week after the United Arab Emirates confirmed it was going ahead with plans to reduce the number of troops in the war-torn country, and shift from a military strategy to a 'peace-first' strategy.

"We do have troop levels that are down for reasons that are strategic in (the Red Sea city of) Hodeida and reasons that are tactical" in other parts of the country, a senior UAE official claimed to reporters.

"It is very much to do with moving from what I would call a military first strategy to a peace first strategy, and this is I think what we are doing.”

In late June, a Reuters report said UAE, a key component of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, was planning to scale back its military efforts in Yemen to focus on security threats posed by US-Iran tensions which have since bubbled over in close proximity to the wealthy Gulf nation.

The Gulf state, which has continuously antagonised Yemen's internationally recognised government for its activities in the south of the country, is expected to withdraw some troops from the port of Aden and Yemen’s west coast, diplomatic sources said, having built up local militias who will continue battling Houthi-aligned forces on the ground.

The diplomats revealed that the Emirati leadership now wants its troops and equipment to be close to hand in case US-Iran tensions escalate further after a series of attacks on tankers in and around the Emirates, as well as Tehran shooting down a American drone in recent weeks, culminated in the US almost 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No details on the movements of number of troops being withdrawn were given in the report, however a Western diplomat said "a lot" of Emirati forces were pulled from Yemen over the past three weeks.

'Undermining the government'

While for many the news of its withdrawal sounds like a positive and genuine step toward peace, those who have been following the details of the UAE’s troublemaking in Yemen have yet to applaud the Emiratis.

Military and government sources in Yemen have revealed to The New Arab’s Arabic-language service that the UAE have been funding and equipping militias including an outfit affiliated to the secessionist Southern Transitional Council in order to install pro-Emirati factions in areas seized from Houthi control.

The sources said the aim of the militias is designed to undermine the authority of the Hadi government.

The UAE, who supported the establishment of the Southern Transitional Council in 2017, has led a drive to form dozens of military brigades and several military hubs across southern Yemen in recent months. 

The newly established brigades have been concentrated in areas that formerly surrounded the North-South Yemen border prior to its unification in 1990, including the provinces of Lahj, Aden, Dhali, Abyan and Yafa.

Sources close to the Southern Transitional Council leadership say the UAE directed them to form a parallel army to that of the Hadi government, consisting of between 25 and 35 brigades based in southern Yemen, which Abu Dhabi fully supports and arms. 

Read more:

The UAE's 'withdrawal' from Yemen is merely an illusion

Each brigade consists of around 1,500 fighters, meaning the militia army may be 52,000 strong.

In context, government forces are said to number around 200,000 though many suspect these figures are inflated.

The militia brigades have been reportedly ordered to take control of the southern provinces and their resources, in order to secure former border areas while pushing out government forces from the same areas.

The support from the UAE comes in the form of hundreds of armoured vehicles and machinery, as well as military training centres. Sources from the Hadi leadership also accused the Emiratis of spreading negative propaganda about the internationally recognised government.

These initiatives have angered the Hadi government who see this as an attempt by Abu Dhabi to usurp control from the legitimate Yemeni leadership.

'Major' Trouble

Meanwhile, Yemen's Riyadh-based president ordered the arrest of a senior military official on Thursday for his fierce criticism of the Saudi-UAE coalition fighting in Yemen, which he said had "failed to supply" his military with weapons.

President Hadi's order included the removal of Major General Mohsen Khasrof from his post as the director of the guidance department after he made the comments during a live television interview, according to an official source from the Ministry of Defence, news agency SABA reported.

The president "ordered an investigation as a result of violations of the rules of the profession and regulations and laws governing the military", SABA reported.

He also warned that the military leadership should be more disciplined.

Fierce criticism

Hadi's decision to fire the commander comes after a fiery interview with Khasrof, which was aired live on the government-run Yemen television channel. In it, the military official unleashed a barrage of criticism targeting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Khasrof said the coalition, which has been backing pro-government fighters battling the Houthis in Yemen since 2015, has failed to adequately arm Yemen's military,  compared to the support given allegedly by Iran to the rebels.

"The Iranians have sent rockets to the Houthis, what has the coalition offered us? The coalition has not given us heavy weaponry, or a tank, or a rocket launcher or a fighter jet - we do not have anything," the major general said.

The Iranians have sent rockets to the Houthis, what has the coalition offered us? - Major General Mohsen Khasrof

"The Yemeni army is fighting with basic weapons and nothing more," he confirmed. He noted that the coalition itself uses heavy weaponry but "does not give them to the Yemeni army".

"We do not have the means to fight according to our capabilities - they don't need to fight alongside us, we just need the coalition to provide us with the means to achieve victory," he said.

"We are facing real obstacles. The world does not want the Yemeni army to be victorious because that would mean the victory of the Islah," he adds, referring to Yemen's branch of the coalition’s worst nightmare - the Muslim Brotherhood.

Houthi hand out mass death sentences

The Houthis caused outrage in Yemen after sentencing dozens of academics, trade unionists and preachers who were to death for allegedly spying for the Saudi-led coalition.

Thirty men, among 36 defendants tried by the criminal court in the rebel-held capital Sanaa, have been in custody for at least the past year,  a judicial source from Yemen’s Houthi rebels told AFP.

"The criminal court today (Tuesday) issued a verdict condemning 30 people to death on charges of spying for the aggression countries," the source said, adding that the other six were acquitted.

He said the men were convicted of supplying the coalition with information on locations for airstrikes.

Amnesty International condemned the verdicts, saying they had targeted "political opposition figures" in "sham trials”.

Among those condemned to death was Yussef al-Bawab, a 45-year-old father of five and linguistics professor, who had been "arbitrarily arrested in late 2016", it said in a statement.

"Since the Houthi de facto authorities assumed control of the justice system in 2015, they have progressively utilised the Sanaa-based SCC (Specialised Criminal Court) to target persons they deem to be opponents or even just critics," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty's Middle East research director.

Since the Houthis took control of the capital in September 2014, their so-called courts have issued several death sentences for spying.

In May last year, a Sanaa court sentenced two men to death for spying for Riyadh, while in January, the same court condemned to death 22-year old mother Asmaa al-Omeissy and two men on charges of aiding the United Arab Emirates, a key partner in the coalition.

The Houthi rebels have also abducted thousands of people since seizing power, many of which remain missing in Yemen as the war rages on, according to a report.

Civilians, activists, academics and politicians remain under Houthi arrest in undisclosed locations around the war-torn country, according to the Rights Radar report entitled Yemen: Victims Behind Bars.

The rebels, who we have to say, are taking their role as the authoritative party in Yemen quite seriously, on Tuesday called for the full withdrawal of the Saudi-led military coalition after the UAE said it had begun reducing its deployment. 

"We call on the aggressors to withdraw from Yemen, as the Republic of Yemen rejects aggression, siege and air embargo," tweeted Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the rebels' Higher Revolutionary Committee and an influential political figure.

"Withdrawing from Yemen is the ideal decision that must be taken at this time," he added, in comments which for the first time probably echoed calls of millions of civilians in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s rebels - who have faced persistent coalition bombing since March 2015 that has exacted a heavy civilian death toll - have stepped up missile and drone attacks across the Saudi border in recent weeks.

The coalition intervened in support of the Yemeni government in 2015 when President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled into Saudi exile as the rebels closed in on his last remaining territory in and around the second city Aden.

Since then, the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians, relief agencies say.

The fighting has triggered what the United Nations describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with millions of people displaced and in need of aid.


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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