Human Rights violations: UAE confirms pull back in Yemen war, but denies full withdrawal
The United Arab Emirates has denied it is withdrawing from a five-year war in Yemen, but says it is drawing down and redeploying troops to focus on issues like counter-terror in the south and east of the country, officials have said.
Experts have claimed the surprise drop may strain ties with key ally Saudi Arabia, a point Emirati officials also denied in interviews with The Independent.
The UAE has been a key player in the Saudi Arabia coalition, which intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to back the internationally-recognised government against the Tehran-aligned Houthi rebels after they captured the capital Sanaa.
Since then, tens of thousands of people – mostly civilians – have been killed in the conflict that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in terms of numbers and driven the country to the brink of famine.
The two sides have been locked in a stalemate over the strategic Red Sea port city of Hodeida after a tentative ceasefire deal was hammered out in Sweden in December.
The UAE, whose forces have helped trained some 90,000 Yemeni tribesmen, former security forces and southern militiamen, announced this week it was redeploying and reducing its troops mainly from areas like Hodeida in northern Yemen.
One official told The Independent they would shift their focus on operations against jihadists groups like Al Qaeda in the southeast of the country.
It is in this area that they have been spearheading, sometimes controversial, counter-terror operations in strategic cities, like Mukalla, once held by the so-called Islamic State.
The same official said it was not indicative of strained ties with Saudi Arabia, which has been repeatedly consulted about the move that was planned for over a year.
However there have been signs of tensions: violence already flared last January when Southern Transitional Forces, trained by the UAE, briefly seized control of the southern port city Aden, from the recognised Yemeni government that is backed by Saudi Arabia and is temporarily based there.
A separate senior UAE official said the Emirati deployment consists of a “strategic redeployment” in Hodeida as well as other “very tactical” places based on needs.
The redeployment conversation has been going on for “over a year,” and the conversation “heightened” following the signing of the Stockholm Agreement.
The redeployment is “fundamentally not linked to an increase in tension”, he added.
“Our commitment in Yemen remains”, the official concluded, adding they remained part of the coalition.
But analysts have said that the drawdown may “isolate” Saudi Arabia at a tricky time.
Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Studies, said that the decision is “almost certainly causing tension with Riyadh”.
“[Saudi Arabia ] must now rethink its own approach to the war. Previously, the Emiratis swallowed their war fatigue and stayed the course in order to maintain a united front with the Saudis,” she wrote.
Andreas Krieg, a professor at King’s College London told AFP the reputation of the Emirates, a sold ally of the UK and the US, had “taken a severe hit as of late” due to the war, in which both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have been accused of war crimes.
"Behind closed doors, the Saudis aren't going to be happy, but I don't think that either Saudi Arabia or the Emirates have an interest in a public rift," he added.
Increasing regional differences with Iran may also have helped seal the troop reduction, Middle East expert James Dorsey told AFP.