The UAE’s drawdown from its Assab military base in Eritrea comes as the new Biden administration is re-evaluating America’s commitment to the War in Yemen.
However, as much as the UAE’s retreat from Yemen in 2019 was nominal in character, the dismantling of the Assab base in Eritrea should be considered a tactical withdrawal from a strategic engagement of the Emirates in the Horn of Africa. That is to say, for the most part Abu Dhabi’s withdrawal is an exercise of signalling to Washington rather than a true retreat from the area.
In conducting expeditionary operations in Libya, the Horn of Africa and Yemen, the UAE has found ways to operate below the threshold of war, delegating warfighting and disruptive operations to a broad network of surrogates.
As a master of deception, the UAE maintains its strong foothold and influence in Yemen via the Southern Transitional Council (STC), mercenaries and other militia groups who provide Abu Dhabi with discrete means of achieving strategic objectives with plausible deniability.
Thereby, Abu Dhabi has masterfully used Saudi Arabia as a shield to hide behind amid global criticism over grave human rights violations and war crimes committed by the infamously framed ‘Saudi-led coalition’.
Looking at the coverage of the conflict over the past six years, the Emirates have widely been described as a junior partner supporting its senior partner Saudi Arabia in their war against the Houthis. In reality, however, the alleged junior partner was able to deflect criticism over torture camps, disappearances and war crimes as global public opinion was predominately preoccupied with the role of Saudi Arabia in this conflict. Meanwhile, the UAE was able to secure its objectives in Yemen often at the expense of Riyadh. Abu Dhabi’s strategy in the region has effectively been a zero-sum game with Saudi Arabia: any objective secured by the UAE is an objective lost by Saudi Arabia.
In 2019, there was an outcry over an apparent UAE abandonment of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Almost two years on, however, it has become clear that the UAE’s shift from direct to indirect surrogate warfare has come at great cost to Saudi.
The reputational and human costs for the Emirati military were no longer in proportion to the benefits the campaign yielded to the UAE. In reality, Abu Dhabi had long achieved its primary objectives in the country: securing access to maritime chokepoints around the Bab al Mandeb Strait. The Houthis who by the time had been confined to the north of Yemen along the Saudi border did not feature in the UAE’s neo-mercantilist grand strategy nor did they touch upon any serious Emirati national security considerations.
Just like the British until 1967, the UAE are not interested in the inaccessible hinterland of Yemen’s strategically important coastline. Securing a foothold in Aden and maintaining control of Yemen’s coastal waters in the south was something Abu Dhabi was able and willing to delegate to a network of surrogates of which the STC became the most important one.
Training, equipping, and bankrolling a vast network of over 90,000 fighters in Yemen’s South, Abu Dhabi has learned from its lessons in Libya, that warfare by delegation might provide strategic depth overseas with limited or no reputational, human or political costs. As Saudi Arabia still continues to receive the brunt of international criticism over the humanitarian catastrophe it helped bring about, Abu Dhabi has effectively outsourced the reputational costs of this war to Riyadh.
Working through its surrogate network in Yemen, however, Abu Dhabi has all but withdrawn from the conflict. Removing its military from Yemen’s mainland was a tactical withdrawal at best, signaling to the international community that it did not want to be associated any more with the atrocities it had committed, and its surrogate network continues to commit. The STC in particular has been instrumental in the UAE’s counterterrorism’ operations, relying on 27 detention sites where political rivals and Islamists of all colours have been subjected to extrajudicial torture and execution. At the same time, Abu Dhabi could tap into its Israeli and American mercenaries to hunt and kill political rivals in Yemen. The UAE effectively outsourced war crimes and human rights abuses to its surrogates in Yemen.
In so doing, Abu Dhabi has managed to purge the strategically important parts of southern Yemen from any opposition to its neo-mercantilist project. The STC and other UAE surrogates have been installed as viceroys who although bankrolled by Abu Dhabi are allowed to rule with considerable autonomy. So much so, that the STC becomes an increasingly unhinged network of uncontrollable surrogates, actively undermining Saudi objectives in the country. Several Riyadh Agreements between the STC and the Saudi-backed Hadi government have been spoiled by the UAE’s surrogates undermining the central government in the face of ongoing aggression from the Houthis. Thus, rather than just abandoning Saudi Arabia, the UAE has created a Frankenstein monster that now actively challenges the Kingdom’s objectives in Yemen.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has invested great efforts in providing the STC with the legitimacy of a quasi-state actor in its own right. STC President Aidarous al Zubaidi has been chauffeured around the diplomatic community by Abu Dhabi as if he was the President of Yemen himself. In an effort to raise the STC’s international standing, the UAE has used its diplomatic relations to introduce al Zubaidi to interlocutors of the UN, Russia, the US, Britain, and even Israel. On Socotra Island, which is used as a kind of aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, the STC allegedly even endorsed the setup of an Israeli intelligence component following the Abraham Accords.
As a consequence, the UAE’s significant leverage over the conflict in Yemen will not just remain but grow – albeit indirectly. Its surrogate warfare capabilities allow Abu Dhabi to retain control over important matters of interests in the maritime domain. Providing its surrogates with significant autonomy on all other matters means that the UAE has effectively unleashed a potent political and military force onto the already polarized conflict. Following a policy of divide and rule, the UAE’s surrogate operations in Yemen’s south exploited southern secessionist narratives to undermine the very integrity of Yemen. As the Hadi government increasingly succumbs to the pressure from the Houthis in the North and UAE surrogates in the South, Saudi Arabia is losing badly in the conflict – all that while absorbing most of the negative PR on the Yemen War.
Dr Andreas Krieg is a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London.
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