Friday, 17th June 2016

UAE withdraws troops, leaves Saudi Arabia to run Yemen conflict

Two days after the UAE Armed Forces suffered two separate fatal aircraft crashes, minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash unilaterally declared that the UAE had completed its mission in Yemen and that its involvement in the Saudi-led coalition had changed focus – from a military campaign to civil development. Details of the military withdrawal had yet to be revealed as GSN went to press, but UAE forces are expected to be repatriated in phases over the next few months. There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Co-operation Council allies.

Gargash made the announcement in a lecture delivered on 15 June at Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ)’s diwan. On Twitter MBS summarised Gargash’s remarks, saying: “Our standpoint is clear: war is over for our troops. We are monitoring political arrangements, empowering Yemenis in liberated areas.”

While Emirati troops have achieved some strategic successes, these have been almost entirely in Sunni-dominated southern Yemen, while Saudi forces have struggled against Houthi forces in the north. With rising UAE deaths a source of mounting complaint in the northern emirates (GSN 1,001/7, the Emirati leadership has used UN-led peace talks in Kuwait as a distraction to exit the conflict environment.

The UAE’s decision to declare its involvement in the Saudi-led coalition a success is a calculated move on behalf of Abu Dhabi. A genuine resolution of the Yemen conflict appears unlikely in the short term. Reports from the UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait suggest the usually upbeat UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has hit an impasse with his planned ‘roadmap’ for peace. Meanwhile Saudi forces are largely failing to deliver on their objectives to defeat the Houthis and their ally ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his General People’s Congress (GPC). The Emiratis have thus initiated a process to exit the conflict with their head held high. Abu Dhabi daily The National quoted Gargash saying “after 50 discouraging days of Yemeni peace talks in Kuwait, there is no unified vision for the future. There are alarming signs that the south wants to defect and that radicalism is on the rise.” Frustrated by a lack of political cohesion, the UAE has placed responsibility for the conflict firmly in King Salman’s hands.

This comes after a shift in Saudi rhetoric that has consistently designated Houthi rebels as Iranian proxies. Foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s mid-May reference to the Houthis as neighbours and “part of the social fabric of Yemen” (GSN 1,015/6) marked an abrupt shift from the previous characterisation of the Zayedi rebels as Iranian proxies bent on expanding a Shia sphere of influence throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It helped to create diplomatic space for the Houthi/GPC delegation head Mohammed Abdul Salam to visit Riyadh for inconclusive talks in early June.

The change in tone since peace talks began in mid-April has significantly reduced the sectarian rhetoric that had exacerbated the year-long war in Yemen. Some observers in the kingdom suggest this was partly intended to allow defence minister Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) to distance himself from the conflict, amid recognition that the promised quick victory would not be forthcoming. The UAE’s unilateral withdrawal could make this much harder. More conciliatory language may also point to a recognition in Riyadh that a deal must eventually be struck with the Houthis (if not with Saleh, who has many enemies).

The military conflict is stalemated, while an array of factions manoeuvre for advantage. Neither does the multi-faceted conflict that pits Riyadh and its allies against Tehran seem any closer to resolution. Abu Dhabi may have done Riyadh few favours with its new Yemen policy, but attitudes to Iran haven’t shifted. In his 15 June speech, Gargash criticised Iran for fuelling sectarian divisions and “exporting chaos”. The UAE may have drawn a line under military intervention in Yemen, but whatever the approach, “legitimacy needs to be restored and the Iranian influence has to be stopped. It’s time that the line be drawn.”

Fighting continues on multiple fronts, and continued conflict tends to reinforce hardliners, who include the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). While not on the front line in Yemen, the IRGC has exploited cold war in the Middle East to gain advantage against rival factions in Iran (GSN 1,003/1). Yemen remains a source of tension between Iran and the Arab Gulf states – even if the main theatre of proxy war is Syria, and Iran sees Yemen as peripheral (within the perceived Saudi zone of influence), while Iraq is central to its concerns (GSN 1,014/12).

There remains real antagonism towards Iran among key Gulf Co-operation Council players (notably Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia). The depth of that antagonism was clear at the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC’s) meeting in Istanbul in April (GSN 1,013/7), which was initially expected to provide an opportunity for President Hassan Rouhani to reintegrate Iran following the nuclear deal. But his delegation retreated to Tehran apparently isolated and humiliated as the OIC’s hostile final communiqué was drafted with criticism of Iran for interfering in the internal affairs of Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Somalia, and “continued support for terrorism”.

Rouhani’s hope that he could separate Yemen from other thorny issues when dealing with regional rivals has not proved possible – Iranian observers say falling short in his commitments to Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ali Khamenei in the process. Riyadh is unwilling to discuss the situation in Iraq and Syria with Tehran, unless it removes itself entirely from Yemen. While Iran is not a major actor in Yemen, the IRGC and hardline factions are unwilling to give up what influence they exert there, which mainly consists of providing some money and training for its allies, in addition to some arms. Iran is likely to remain one among many players in Yemen, a divided country that shows no sign of healing soon, even if the UN peace process does succeed in reaching an accommodation between key belligerents led by the Houthis and Riyadh.

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