UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed bet on his Yemen war to consolidate his maritime and security ambitions. It may have backfired.
On 3 January, a UAE-flagged vessel carrying ‘military supplies’ was seized by Yemeni resistance movement Ansarallah, which disseminated photos of the war contraband widely on social media.
One week earlier, Yemen’s Armed Forces launched a ballistic missile strike on Shabwah province, an area under the control of UAE-backed militias.
If a new strategy of targeting Emirati interests – instead of mainly Saudi ones – is taking shape in Yemen, these incidents are likely to have a ripple effect on the UAE’s role in both Yemen and the wider region.
Ambition and contest inside a house of glass
At the onset of the war on Yemen in 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates divided their military-strategic roles in Yemen in accordance with country’s former partition lines of 1967–1990.
Back then, Yemen was divided into two separate states, north and south. The oil-rich north was attached to Saudi Arabia, while the communist south received significant aid and other assistance from its alliance with the USSR.
After the dissolution of the USSR, the nation unified under Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of the former North Yemen since 1978, firmly consolidating the country under the influence of Saudi Arabia.
The UAE began its role as a regional player in West Asia after the death of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 2004.
The ambitious Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MbZ), subsequently took full control of the UAE. He overhauled his predecessor’s visions and prepared the UAE for a post-oil era, in which the country would transform from a traditional Gulf oil-dependent country to one with a diversified economy.
Briefly, the UAE’s diversified economy rested on the construction of mega projects funded by oil revenues, such as ports and airports that turned the UAE into a regional, free trade zone hub for importing and exporting oil, jewelry, electronics and other goods. The economy of the UAE would be further boosted by foreign investments in tourism, air transport, and real estate.
In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, foreign investments as well as real estate sectors depreciated, and the UAE struggled to achieve full recovery until 2019. Then, as others in the Arabian Peninsula, the Emirati economy took another bashing from the effects of COVID-19 on its tourism industry and the subsequent instability of the global oil market.
These downturns increased the importance of ports and airports in MbZ’s grand scheme. Today, re-exports (non-petroleum) account for almost 50 percent of total exports, making maritime security an ultimate priority for UAE foreign policy.
Ultimately, the success of MbZ has been in transforming the UAE from an absolute realm of sand to an absolute realm of glass, and his fortunes can remain intact as long as those glass towers stand.
A coalition of differing goals
When Ansarallah (the Houthis) – a northern Yemeni resistance movement against western and Gulf interventionism – took over the capital city of Sanaa, a coalition spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE was formed to push back and destroy it.
UAE officials claim that their role in the coalition is to support the ‘legal’ government of Hadi, who was overthrown by the Yemeni people in a popular uprising, and who subsequently sought protection in Riyadh.
Generally speaking, the UAE adamantly opposes any popular Islamic or resistance movements across the region, from the Polisario on the Atlantic Ocean to the Islamic Brotherhood on the Persian Gulf. The UAE has also periodically employed the hollow excuse of ‘restraining Iran’s influence’ to justify their aggressions in Yemen and elsewhere in the region.
However, the real reason for the conflict waged on Yemen by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has little to do with politics – and much more to do with the geography of South Yemen.
It’s all about geography…and location
Along the coastlines of Yemen are ports and islands overlooking the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, and the Bab al-Mandab strait.
The foreign policy of the UAE today is determined mainly by maritime trading and security. Control of Yemen’s south will assist the UAE in maintaining its regional trading dominance and will secure the waterways and airports to avoid future vulnerabilities.
Maritime trading will be determined in the upcoming years by the Maritime Silk Road, which is part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Engineered to connect around 60 countries, the $4 trillion project will bolster the strategically-located Yemen as a vital hub of maritime trading, naturally diminishing the UAE’s location and role.
For the UAE, the three key sites in connection with maritime trading are the Aden governorate, Socotra Island, and Bab al-Mandab strait:
First is Aden province which includes Aden Port City, purported to be part of the Maritime Silk Road. It has the biggest container terminal in Yemen and is located on the Gulf of Aden near one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
Aden also now hosts the country’s largest airport after the war coalition in 2015 destroyed the airport in Sanaa. Currently, Aden is under the control of the UAE.
Then there is Socotra, a unique natural and isolated wonder, a well-sized island surrounded by the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. It faces the Horn of Africa from the west, and is also located on one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Currently, Socotra is controlled by the UAE.
Finally, there is the Bab al-Mandab strait, which will be an essential part of the Maritime Silk Road. The strait connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and is shared by three countries: Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea. Around 20,000 ships pass through the strait each year, and the total petroleum flows through Bab al-Mandab account for nine percent of global supply.
The UAE is currently in control of the Bab al-Mandab strait.
A colonial strategy that never tires
While the coalition may have ostensibly sought the unity of Yemen by re-establishing what they called the ‘legal’ Hadi government in Sanaa, the intent – at least by the UAE – was quite the opposite.
MbZ’s ambition within the coalition differs significantly from that of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). Saudi Arabia sought mainly to dismantle Ansarallah, regain Yemen as its pawn, and eliminate any threats that might emerge from its southern border.
But the UAE saw in this war an opportunity to establish an oversized maritime role for itself by deploying the colonial principle of divide and conquer.
The Emiratis achieved their ‘self-styled maritime empire’ in Yemen with the aid of the Southern Movement, which came into existence in 2007. The Southern Movement was formed by tribes and groups seeking to divide Yemen along the old partition lines of 1967–1990.
The movement, however, would soon be restructured to match the aspirations of the UAE, and thus the formation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) was announced in 2017.
Known for its brutality and ruthlessness, the STC was trained, equipped, and fully funded by the UAE. The council was established to provide the illusion of a governing authority, which could then bestow a semblance of “legitimacy” on the UAE’s unlawful actions in Yemen’s south. The STC even have their own ‘elected’ president in Aden, while Hadi has been holed up in Riyadh since 2015.
Through the STC, the UAE was able to seize both Aden and the island of Socotra. Without the formation of the STC, the UAE would have had absolutely no influence in Yemen.
The takeover of Bab Al Mandab strait, however, took a different route. The UAE established its dominance over the strait simply by building a military base on the tiny and uninhabited island of Perim (Mayyun).
Perim lies on the narrowest corridor of the strait at 26 km (16 miles) wide – and faces Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia to the west. Incidentally, the UAE has also built military bases and ports in both Eritrea (Assab port/base) and Somalia (Berbera port/base), whereas in Djibouti, the UAE established the port of Doraleh in a joint project with China.
With typical colonial-style flair, the UAE took on the ‘guardianship’ of the strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
The spoils of war
So how was all this achieved by a 50-year old emirate with a population of just over one million?
Certainly, none of this was possible without an American green light and the complete cluelessness of the Saudi crown prince.
Unlike his Saudi counterpart, MbZ is viewed in Washington (and London, for that matter) as a trustworthy ally who can achieve US foreign policy interests in the region without the public embarrassment associated with MbS.
Accordingly, the Bab al-Mandab strait fell neatly into a vital component of the Cold War 2.0 buildup between China and the US. The Arab ally that can control this essential strait will give the US leverage with which to jeopardize the Maritime Silk Road. Hence, its support for the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
MbZ also knew how to keep the UAE in the shadows by taking advantage – as he always does – of MbS’ inexperience and ignorance in matters related to geopolitics.
While the idea of a Saudi-led coalition and a regional show of force might have initially rung enticingly in the ears of MbS, today, after several costly years, many documented war crimes, and a shattered global reputation, the Saudi crown prince has essentially been cornered in defeat.
This, despite spending billions more than the UAE and taking on a barrage of targeted Yemeni ballistic missiles since 2019, when Ansarallah went on the offensive.
That same year, Ansarallah Leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi warned the UAE not to escalate its attacks on Yemen as the resistance movement’s retaliatory ‘options’ had expanded well beyond Yemen’s borders. The threat itself resulted in a partial withdrawal of Emirati troops, and later a full withdrawal in 2020.
Despite its military withdrawal, the UAE did not lose an inch of its dominance in the south due to the generous support and diplomatic protection it provided to the brutal STC.
Gains and losses
Official reports indicate that by 2018 the UAE had recorded 112 military personnel deaths and injured soldiers in the thousands.
Further reports indicate that the UAE spends well over $16 billion a year to maintain its dominance in the war on Yemen. Billions of dollars have been spent just on logistics, propaganda, and the amassing of foreign mercenary militias.
Logistics are essential to maintaining the security of the maritime corridors and helping to puppeteer the UAE’s southern minions.
Propaganda is funded by both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, known for their ability and willingness to throw cash at such projects. Global and regional media has been well controlled: it is rare after seven years of war to hear details in mainstream media about Yemen that doesn’t focus primarily on the humanitarian dimension – often blamed on Ansarallah – and it is almost impossible to find analysis or data that highlights the monumental geopolitical and material losses encountered by the various coalition partners.
But the bulk of the UAE bill goes to STC ‘politicians’ who enjoy a life of luxury in a war-torn country in tandem with the 200,000 well-equipped and armed members who, as stated by an Emirati official, are the ‘biggest accomplishment’ of the UAE.
The gains made by the UAE since 2015 are utterly unmatched by its material losses.
The road ahead for the UAE
Both MbZ and MbS assumed the war on Yemen would be a blitz that would end rapidly and allow them to bask in the glory of victory. But for those who know Yemen well, the uncalculated consequences of that rosy, inexpert outlook would quickly emerge to flip the war’s course.
One of these consequences would be the growth of Ansarallah’s military sophistication and capabilities.
Ansarallah first started fighting with light arms, but was gradually able to manufacture its own accurate ballistic missiles and drones. And Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, unlike other leaders, did not hesitate to use these capabilities to strike at Saudi Arabia.
In 2021, Al-Houthi said in a broadcast: “We will liberate all of our country and take back all the areas that were occupied by the enemies. Our enemy’s aim is to subjugate our land to the US, the British and the Israelis.”
Currently, the ongoing battles are in areas surrounding Sanaa province, specifically in Marib. After the Saudi militias are defeated, the next confrontations are likely to be in areas under the control of the UAE.
MbZ will shortly face two choices: First, to withdraw completely from Yemen and cease his support for the STC, thereby losing control over the southern waterways and ports and scuttling his oversized regional ambitions.
His second choice is to take the risk and face Ansarallah’s retaliation, which may result in attacks on facilities and military bases inside and outside the UAE. In this event, tourism and foreign investment sectors in the UAE would be adversely affected, and a new kind of war will commence.
MbZ has prepared for the second option, both militarily and politically. This year alone, the UAE has attempted to conceal multiple military deals related to air defense systems with various countries that include Russia, the US, Greece, Israel, and South Korea.
The UAE has also invested in manufacturing its own air defense system to counter the threat escalation triggered by its foreign policies.
On the political side, MbZ has recently managed to ease tensions with Iran and Turkey and has allowed China to build a port/base on the shores of the Persian Gulf. He has also struck unmatched cordial relations with Israel, and has – so far, unsuccessfully – tried to invest in an Israeli port that is, ironically, geared to be part of the Maritime Silk Road.
Perhaps, in his own mind, MbZ believes this may gain him more protection from the west and his neighbors, and bestow his maritime schemes with some legitimacy.
However, Mbz’s recent actions to strengthen the UAE’s defensive capabilities suggests that he expects his emirate to take direct hits from Ansarallah.
His friendly diplomatic overtures to neighboring countries is a tactical move on his part to ensure strong condemnation from the international community against any Ansarallah strikes on the UAE. How effective an international response might be as a result of a strike on the UAE remains to be seen.
The stakes are high for all parties. A coalition loss in Yemen will shake the emirates and monarchies of West Asia and shift the course of the Maritime Silk Road away from the UAE and its allies.
An Ansarallah-ruled Yemen would reap huge material benefits and geopolitical clout from the nation’s strategic location and unexploited natural resources, and would likely seek to establish regional and international ventures with trusted partners in the new multipolar system emerging.
The Saudis are on their way out, leaving the UAE with little cover for their Yemeni project. The current US administration, despite continued arms injections into the war front, is publicly attempting to keep a careful distance.
An Emirati counter using western mercenaries and Israeli special forces, while possible, could delay an Ansarallah victory, but would also invite countless additional consequences. It may even, this time, entirely flip the Arab discourse – already highly critical of “normalization” with Israel – against Abu Dhabi and Gulf monarchies in general.
With Ansarallah attacks on Emirati interests in and around Yemen this past week, the spotlight is now suddenly – certainly uncomfortably – focused on a UAE that prefers its place in the shadows of conflict. So will the UAE fully withdraw from Yemen, or will MbZ risk shattering the fragile glass towers of his realm?