Sana’a (GPA) – “…now is the time to double down on the political process,” wrote Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs in an op-ed for the Washington Post this week. As the UAE claims to scale back its military presence in Yemen, will this open the door to another round of — genuine — peace negotiations? With regional differences between the Gulf monarchies exposed, it’s not as simple as it seems.
Current events in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula set the stage for a split between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with Iran and Yemen taking center stage.
- UAE seems “over” its war in Yemen and ready to divert resources to other theatres, but its occupation of Yemen remains.
- Abu Dhabi is not interested in escalating US-Saudi hostilities against Iran, meeting today with diplomats in Tehran.
- Saudis and the US expand ties as Washington sends troops to Riyadh and Saudis continue bombing Yemen.
UAE doubles down on its occupation of Yemen but distances itself from Riyadh
In early July, the United Arab Emirates announced it would scale down its troop presence in Yemen after consultations with Riyadh. Speaking to Al Jazeera, an anonymous Emirati official claimed the decision was part of a new strategy to move from “military first” to “peace first.”
However, removing Emirati troops from Yemen is much easier said than done. In fact, the UAE is currently carrying out a full-fledged military occupation of Yemen while maintaining a stranglehold on the majority of the political scene throughout the southern provinces.
Although Gargash claimed to highlight the need for peace talks with Ansarullah in his WaPo piece, he simultaneously reaffirmed his country’s need to maintain a military occupation of Yemen:
“But just to be clear, the UAE and the rest of coalition are not leaving Yemen. While we will operate differently, our military presence will remain.”
The announcement doesn’t actually mean much on the ground. Instead, it seems to serve as a reminder to Riyadh that the UAE is not an unconditional military partner in the Gulf. In fact, the UAE has yet to even remove its affiliated troops from Hodeidah port in accordance with the Stockholm Agreement as per the latest round of peace talks in December 2018.
Speaking to Geopolitics Alert, Yemen-based journalist Naseh Shaker said that the UAE’s supposed troop drawdown is nothing more than a “practical formality” and a message to the Sana’a government (led by Ansarullah) that the Emirati withdrawal is just like its redeployment from Hodeidah: nonexistent.
“UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has confirmed the Ansarullah unilateral redeployment from Hodeidah ports according to Sweden Agreement, but the UAE pull-down of forces from Yemen still must be at least confirmed by Martin Griffith,” Shaker told Geopolitics Alert.
Despite both fighting under the banner of the “Saudi-led coalition,” Abu Dhabi and Riyadh support opposing militias and politicians in Yemen. The Yemeni island of Socotra exposed a particularly sore spot between the two Gulf kingdoms last year. Here, the UAE erected a military base, airstrip, and communication infrastructure while occupying the island with troops and angering indigenous Yemeni residents with pressure to annex the island as an eighth Emirate.
At the end of the day, UAE-backed political parties like Yemen’s southern secessionist movement have effectively defeated Saudi puppet politicians as well. Unlike the northern provinces, clashes on the ground between opposing UAE-backed and Saudi-backed militias (including al-Qaeda affiliates) are common in the southern provinces. In fact, the UN envoy Martin Griffiths has expressed fear traveling through the Saudi-UAE-controlled south while noting the relative peace in the north (aside from Saudi Arabia’s frequent airstrikes).
A conditional alliance reaches its breaking point in the Gulf
Interestingly, the United Arab Emirates has remained unusually quiet as their US and Saudi allies rushed to blame Iran for missing and damaged oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region.
Last week, when news broke that a Dubai-based oil tanker had supposedly gone missing in the Strait of Hormuz, the UAE immediately distanced itself from a potential conflict with Iran. Speaking to the Washington Post, an anonymous Emirati official denied such claims entirely stating that the vessel in question was “neither UAE owned nor operated” and “does not carry Emirati personnel.”
In June, Gargash was one of the few Gulf officials to call for negotiations and political discourse rather than military escalation after the Republic of Iran was left with no choice but to shoot down an unmanned US spy drone when it violated Tehran’s airspace.
Taking to Twitter, Gargash said
“Tensions in the Gulf can only be addressed politically. [The Gulf crisis] requires collective attention, primarily to de-escalate and to find political solutions through dialogue and negotiations. Regional voices [are] important to achieve sustainable solutions.”
Tensions in the Gulf can only be addressed politically. Crisis long in the making requires collective attention; primarily to de escalate & to find political solutions thru dialogue & negotiations. Regional voices important to achieve sustainable solutions.
— د. أنور قرقاش (@AnwarGargash) June 23, 2019
UAE foreign minister bin Zayed al-Nahyan elaborated this sentiment in regards to the series of oil tanker attacks at a press conference in late June:
“We cannot point fingers at any state because we do not possess this evidence. If there are other nations that possess clear evidence, then the international community will listen to them. Evidence has to be clear, precise, scientific and therefore convince the international community. We do not wish for any instability. We want more stability and more development.”
In another blow to Saudi hegemony on the Arabian Peninsula, Tehran hosted a peace delegation from Abu Dhabi on Friday, July 26. The United Arab Emirates is clearly aware of its role as an extension of imperialist US military presence in the region as military tensions flare.
The current round of sanctions is expected to slash the Emirates’ trade with Iran in half, amounting about $10 billion lost each year. Property prices in Dubai are down a staggering 25 percent since 2014 as well while the country’s GDP trickled to just 1.9 percent in 2018.
Like Qatar, the UAE enjoys a solid trade relationship with Iran and does not appreciate the increased sanctions against Tehran nor the heightened military escalation in its backyard.
US cozies up to Saudi Arabia with show of force, sending troops to the kingdom for the first time since Iraq war
Amid a Persian Gulf crisis of its own creation, the United States announced it would send troops to military bases in Saudi Arabia for the first time since the invasion of Iraq 16 years ago. Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud confirmed the decision through his office.
Clearly, Washington has amnesia.
Osama bin Laden used the presence of American troops in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to drum up support and justify attacks. If al-Qaeda loses Saudi support in Yemen as part of some deal between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, attacks on US bases in the region could resume.
With the Saudi economy on life support through oil sales, foreign investment down, increasing austerity measures against the public, the introduction of a VAT, and reduction in public subsidies, American troops will not be a pleasant sight for Saudi citizens.
Despite the sensitive situation, the US announced it had already sent at least 500 American troops to Prince Sultan Airbase just south of Riyadh, bringing Patriot missile defense systems, aircraft, and other weapons with them. Additional troops are expected to arrive through summer as well.
The United States made a clear decision to station the troops on the eastern side of the kingdom at the Prince Sultan Airbase which implies that this build-up serves as hostile posturing against Iran and not necessarily Yemen. If the goal was to involve more US troops in Yemen, they could have chosen to start fortifying the King Khalid Airbase which is much closer to the Yemeni border.
Yemeni forces routinely attack the King Khalid Airbase with domestically produced missiles and drones in response to the Saudi monarchy’s devastating war against the Yemeni Republic.
But the US didn’t make any announcements about increasing US troop presence along the Yemeni border, where Yemen’s resistance forces actually control over 100 miles of Saudi land.
In reality, the US troops in Saudi Arabia really seem to only benefit the kingdom (militarily) and American military contractors (financially).
Infiltrating Yemen through foreign armies and NGOs
The United States already has troops intertwined with Emirati ground forces in Yemen. Not only does the UAE host American soldiers on Yemeni soil for training purposes, but Americans also participate directly while wearing the UAE uniform.
Last year, Buzzfeed revealed that Stephen Toumajan, a former US Army lieutenant colonel, had essentially come out of retirement to accept a promotion as a major general for the United Arab Emirates Joint Aviation Command.
Toumajn’s job was no secret. In fact, the UAE bragged about Toumajn’s experience and professionalism on its official website.
Toumajn is far from alone as an expat in the UAE armed forces. Mike Hindmarsh, for example, is a former senior Australian army officer publicly listed as commander of the UAE’s Presidential Guard.
This does raise the question of not if but how many Americans and foreigners share a story similar to Toumajn’s?
The US military is also deeply embedded in Yemen under the guise of providing humanitarian aid.
In 2015, Yemeni Ansarullah resistance forces arrested (and later released) an American military spy named Scott Darden working for the Red Cross as a front. Darden provided humanitarian aid through the Red Cross by day and carried out clandestine military operations, such as building hideouts, in Yemen by night.
This is all before even mentioning the countless foreign Blackwater contract mercenaries paid to fight indigenous Yemenis on behalf of the Saudi-UAE coalition.
“Sanaa forces [Ansarullah and their allies] are national forces, while the UAE are occupiers that have recruited tens of hundreds of militias to occupy Hodeidah,” Shaker confirmed to Geopolitics Alert.
Time for a “graceful” exit or new phase of aggression?
In announcing a troop pull-back from Yemen, the United Arab Emirates served Saudi Arabia with two notices:
- We’re only allies under certain conditions.
- This is your opportunity to get out.
Riyadh has a perfect opportunity to exit Yemen gracefully, at least in terms of international public perception. There’s certainly nothing “graceful” about massacring thousands of innocent civilians and using starvation and disease as a weapon of war through a military blockade, of course.
However, Riyadh can simply blame Abu Dhabi for abandoning it in Yemen, scale back Saudi Arabia’s own involvement, and concede that genuine political negotiations with Ansarullah (aka. “the Houthis”) are inevitable.
At this point, a sliver of hope remains.
Ansarullah has abided by the UN-sponsored peace talks in Sweden and removed affiliated troops from Hodeidah port — the UAE and Saudi coalition forces have not. Meanwhile, Saudi-backed officials have held meetings with Ansarullah officials on a ship in the Red Sea. If Saudi Arabia agrees to a comprehensive ceasefire, Ansarullah could very work out their differences between their Southern brothers who receive support from the UAE.
On the battlefield, however, Saudi Arabia’s actions show no interest in ending the war.
Just yesterday, Riyadh launched over 25 airstrikes in less than 12 hours on various parts of Yemen and Saudi-backed mercenaries on the ground killed a child. At the time of writing this, Saudi Arabia has just launched airstrikes on civilian homes in Hodeidah and parts of Saada province while Saudi-backed ground forces attack the same locations with artillery fire.
Meanwhile in Washington, unlimited support for Saudi Arabia is running dry — at least in spirit.
After keeping their mouths shut for five years, congressional representatives have grown frustrated with their lack of control over Washington’s support for the kingdom. But congressional efforts to halt Saudi arms sales are too little too late: Every bill drafted and voted on to curb support for the Saudi-led coalition ends up vetoed once it reaches President Trump’s desk.
In fact, congressional efforts seem to backfire. In typical dramatic Trump fashion, he uses each of these vetoes as an opportunity to increase hostilities against Iran in the form of announcements and executive orders.
What’s the next phase?
If a US-Saudi war against Iran breaks out on the other side of the peninsula, Riyadh will be forced to reevaluate its military budget.
Its war against Yemen is not financially sustainable, costing the Wahhabi kingdom $200 million every day. Deciding to attack Iran would require considerable resources so Yemen may get a small break.
The UAE has met its objectives in Yemen, that claim from officials is technically true. It won the political war against Saudi-backed Yemeni politicians and occupies Yemen militarily. Instead, Abu Dhabi appears more focused on combatting Saudi-backed militias in Libya, avoiding a costly war with Iran, and increasing its cold war in Africa.
If Yemeni resistance forces continue striking high-value Saudi economic targets like military stockpiles, Aramco, oil refineries, airports, and others, the war will simply become too costly for Riyadh to continue.
Attacks on Saudi airports from kamikaze drones and long-range Yemeni missiles aren’t exactly great for encouraging private foreign investment in anything planned for Saudi Vision 2030.
Yemenis remain steadfast despite hellish conditions
Yemen’s resistance forces and revolutionary government in Sana’a, led by Ansarullah, aren’t letting their guard down.
As always, despite what Saudi-financed western media claims, Ansarullah remains open to peace negotiations. However, the success of any peace must involve Saudi Arabia ending its widespread bombing of Yemen, allowing the Sana’a International Airport to open so civilians can receive medical treatment, and lifting the suffocating land, sea, and air blockade so aid can flow into the country.
Contrary to western media claims, it is not Ansarullah hindering the flow of aid. Rather, a combination of the Saudi coalition’s invasive blockade and the United Nations sending over 24,000 tons of rotten or infested aid prohibits civilians from receiving anything useful.
In the meantime, Ansarullah is committed to rebuilding territory under their control.
In May, the Ansarullah-led government in Sana’a released a Yemen National Vision strategy that focuses on combatting ISIS-style terrorism, improving education, uplifting the status of women, encouraging foreign investment in Yemen, and maintaining comprehensive military defensive capabilities.
It’s worth mentioning that for the first time in its history, Yemen now has its own missile and military research development program thanks to Ansarullah. Previously, Yemen was reliant on foreign powers like the United States for military aid and incapable of defending itself against any real threat, internal or external.
Civilians suffer bombs, famine, and disease as weapons of war
According to a May report Geopolitics Alert received from the Republic of Yemen, Saudi airstrikes destroyed 21 water treatment facilities, 58 agricultural fields, 131 commercial food and retail shops, 13 livestock farms, and roughly dozen other vital pieces of civilian infrastructure.
May also saw the killing and wounding of 185 innocent civilians, including 76 children and 43 women.
Saudi Arabia has not budged on the blockade either which has resulted in over 22 million Yemenis requiring urgent humanitarian aid for survival and prohibited Yemeni employees like teachers and nurses from receiving a salary since 2016.
Riyadh also continues to skirt its obligations under the Stockholm agreement and carrying out war crimes by launching airstrikes and military attacks on civilian homes.
According to Yemen’s Legal Center for Rights and Development, nearly 40,000 civilians have been killed or injured since Riyadh launched its war against Yemen. Tens of thousands more have lost their lives from famine, blockade, and lack of adequate medical care.
Founder and editor of Geopolitics Alert, Randi is an American geopolitical analyst and content strategist. She covers US imperialism with a special focus on Yemen and Lebanon.