The Yemen war and the UAE's charm offensive

The Yemen war and the UAE's charm offensive
Analysis: This weekend, Emirati soldiers were welcomed home from missions in Yemen. But the campaign is being held up as the UAE's mission to stabilise the Gulf against outside forces.
7 min read
10 November, 2015

On Saturday, thousands of flag-waving Emiratis lined the streets of Abu Dhabi to welcome home troops from what has been described as the UAE's most important overseas mission in its history.

The soldiers have spent the past seven months pitched in battle with Houthi rebels and their allies in Yemen.

Their long term objective is to support forces loyal to Yemen's President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and help them retake full control of the country.

In a broader view, the expedition is a way of the UAE affirming its position as a "force for good" on the Arabian Peninsula, and committed to stability in the region.

During the parade, patriotic songs blared from speakers, while the 15km-long military convoy made its way from the Saudi border to Abu Dhabi city.

Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, delivered a galvinising speech to the columns of soldiers lined on the parade ground.

The famous Emirati poet Jumaa al-Owais read out a eulogy to the veterans of the war, paying homage to those who never returned home.

UAE military leaders have been quick to declare the success of the Gulf-Arab military force in Yemen, despite a stalemate in the ground offensive around Taiz and conceding ground in other parts of the country. 

Still, it is claimed that 70 percent of Yemen has now been "liberated" from an alliance of Shia-Zaydi Houthi fighters and soldiers loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

For those who dismissed the UAE and Gulf militaries as expensive but ineffective armies, the GCC ground offensive - known as Operation Golden Arrow - has been suprisingly effective.

The question is, can the Gulf troops survive a long and drawn-out campaign if "liberated" territories are overtaken by extremists and separatists, casualties mount, and domestic support for the overseas expedition waivers? 

Long war

What many analysts say is clear is that there is no quick or easy victory in sight for the coalition forces in Yemen.

At the same time as UAE soldiers stood proudly on parade in the Abu Dhabi military base, their Yemeni allies lost key locations to the rebels in a province just north of Aden.

Among the other strategic points to fall to the Houthis was a hilltop overlooking al-Anad airbase, which is an invaluable logistics base for coalition forces.

"The locations are critical because they are near al-Anad, which is the most important base in South Yemen and the gate to Aden," said Abubakr al-Shamahi, a journalist at TRT World.

"I very much doubt that Aden will fall to them again, as that would be a massive embarrassment to Saudi Arabia and its allies [and they] will put all their efforts into making sure it doesn't happen."

Eight months ago, Gulf forces launched air raids on Houthi-Saleh forces who had captured Aden - Yemen's second city - having already taken control of the capital and forcing Hadi to flee the country.

But despite heavy bombing from a Saudi-led aerial armada, a massive Gulf-Arab coalition ground offensive, and a crippling siege on Houthi territories, victory for the GCC and pro-Hadi forces is still beyond reach.

The Saudi-led siege on Yemen has brought the country to the brink of famine as it also deals with a battering from tropical storms, bringing a barage of criticism from human rights groups.

But it has little effect on the military capabilities of the Houthi militants - who still hold on to the Yemeni army's arsenal - and also appears to scupper repeated Gulf accusations that the Zaydi-Shia fighters are fully backed by Iran.

Instead they have stowed their surviving weapons away from coalition war planes, and continue to fire rockets and shells into Saudi territory from their northern heartlands.

"After a period of advances the coalition has slowed down of late," said Shamahi.

"They are still way off their stated goal of retaking Sanaa, but this war could go on for a long time yet, so it is too early to talk about successes or failures."

With the threat of Aden falling again, 400 Sudanese troops were rushed into the port city on Monday, while a "general mobilisation" was announced by pro-Hadi forces in Dahleh province.

Emirati pride

Although these recent setbacks are a blow for the UAE and its allies, it is unlikely to be the beginning of the end for their campaign in Yemen.

So far, the UAE army has proven to be one of the Gulf's most effective military forces, said Michael Stephens, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Judging from the successes of Operation Golden Arrow, UAE troops could likely hold off any Houthi and pro-Saleh offensives for now. 

It is why there is a glowing sense of pride in the armed forces' performance at home, and a growing sense of militarism is said to be palpable since the Yemen campaign began.

Authorities have been careful to portray the war in Yemen as an "existential battle" that the UAE has been forced to face up to, Stephens said.

Media and propaganada has been directed at portraying the UAE as a force committed to "freedom and security" in the Arabian Peninsula.

At the country's annual Dubai airshow this week, activity is said to have shifted away from civilian aircraft sales and towards military aircraft and technology.

It comes at a critical time, when the US begins to disengage from the Middle East region, while Gulf military spending has been in ascendency. 

The Emirates have also introduced conscription, which has been widely backed by men and women in the country.

The UAE and its Gulf allies appear proud to show the world that they are capable of fighting without direct Western support, and soldiers look primed for future overseas operations.

Their rival, Iran - and now Russia - have become entrenched in Syria and Iraq's wars propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and aiding Shia militias in Iraq, while the US has stood aside.

An end to sanctions and subsequent rapprochment with the West will undoubtedly extend Tehran's influence in the region.

Stephens said that the message the UAE wants to send to Iran with its Yemen campaign is that the Gulf would be happy to intervene in the region to protect its interests.

When they first intervened in Yemen they might have also been telling Assad "watch out, you're next" - until Russian military intervention made this unlikely.

The fact that Gulf air raids on Islamic State group targets in Syria and Iraq have slowed since the Yemen expedition began shows that the GCC still views Iran as the greater threat to the region. 

All-in-all, the parade laid on for the UAE's returning soldiers fitted the narrative that times are changing and the Gulf is united and ready to respond to any threats from Tehran.

"The way it has been covered and held shows a strong nationalistic tint," said Stephens. "And clearly there is a sense that the soldiers have been serving a just cause. They were saying what the UAE is doing is moral and this is liberation rather than interference overseas."

The heroes' welcome also shows a maternalistic side of government, taking care of its soldiers, as the summer offensive grinds to a halt and generals prepare their soldiers to "dig in".

"There needs to be momentum behind the campaign as it is going to be long war," the analyst added.

So far, it appears that most Emiratis are behind the war, but if heavy casualties occur - such as the repeat of the Marib rocket attack which killed 45 Emirati soldiers - then support might wane.

There is also the challenge of justifying high military spending while oil prices remain low, and cuts in other quarters might have to be made.

Yemen objectives

Unity at home has been assured for now, but divisions are said to be emerging between the coalition's two principle allies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh spearheaded the campaign against the Houthis and takes a lead in the air offensive, while the UAE is more committed to the ground war.

While it is not clear how many Emirati soldiers are in Yemen, Stephens believes that the UAE could have committed up to 1,500 soldiers, making up the bulk of the coalition's ground forces.

Abu Dhabi's strategic interests diverge from Riyadh's and a long campaign could see this lead to wider divisions in the coalition, although a public spat would be unlikely. 

The UAE has directed military matters in Yemen hand-in-hand with a relatively successful public relations campaign, showing aid handed out to Yemeni civilians - even those in Houthi-held Sanaa.

Abu Dhabi also looks more committed to finding a political solution to the conflict than Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia remains fearful of the Zaydi-Shia Houthi rebels on its southern border, as well as any possible Iranian interference in the Gulf, and is hugely distrustful of its former ally Saleh.

In brief, Riyadh's motives appear political and ideological, while the UAE appears a more pragmatic partner.

"The Yemen war is massively complex and there are so many different factions that the Gulf states have to deal with," said Stevens.

There will have to be an element of diplomatic flair and policing of occupied areas if the Gulf forces want to minimise any potential fallout from the myriad of forces jostling for control of Yemen.

This includes managing Yemeni nationalists and southern seperatists; al-Qaeda militants and Muslim Brotherhood-alligned politicians; conservative tribal leaders against old school socialists.

Meanwhile, there is the very real threat that the Islamic State group could profit from a power vacuum, poverty, and lawlessness.

"The narrative still is that the Emiratis have gone in to liberate the country and free it from Iranian-backed tyranny. They say they are trying to rebuild the country and bring prosperity to Yemen," said Stephens. 

"I think that the line being taken is this - if you side with the UAE, then good things will happen."