UAE Embrace of Islah Marks Major Shift in Yemen
Once upon a time, Qatar was the small Gulf monarchy exerting influence around the Middle East and North Africa. It was frequently described as “punching above its weight” or, more innovatively, as “A Bouncy Bantam” and a “Pygmy with the Punch of a Giant.” But those days are long gone for Qatar. Instead, it is the United Arab Emirates, Qatar’s neighbor, that has taken the role of the small Gulf state operating in far-flung destinations, exerting influence far outstripping its small geographical size. The descriptive nomenclature for the UAE that has caught on so far is that of “Little Sparta,” which accurately reflects a key Emirati modus operandi: the use of military force.
Nowhere is the UAE’s military-led strategy more apparent than in Yemen. Since 2015, the UAE has been, alongside Saudi Arabia, deeply involved in what amounts to a civil war. The UAE and Saudi Arabia launched their military-led intervention in 2015 concerned that the Houthis, an indigenous Shia group that had expanded its control across the country, would become a Hizballah on the Arabian Peninsula. Specifically, entrenched in power and with a number of ports under their control, it was feared that they could be supplied with a range of weaponry by Iran. Given that Yemen and Saudi Arabia share an 1,100-mile border, this was seen as an unacceptable security risk.
Some of these fears are justified. Iran has a long history of effectively supporting proxy forces around the region, notably in Lebanon and Syria. Either as a way to antagonize a geopolitical adversary at minimal cost or because of Iran’s culture of strategically and defensively-minded deterrence, it was always likely that Iran would offer some support to Houthi forces. But it has never been persuasively established that Iran has control over Houthi forces. One scholar, assessing the relationship until late-2015, concluded that Iran earned a “limited return on a modest investment” and its support was “far from enough to significantly impact the balance of internal forces in Yemen.”
While Iran’s control of the Houthis still appears questionable, recent reports indicate that Iranian support to the Houthis is becoming more substantial and important. This includes a forensic report into apparent technology transfers that benefit the Houthis. Similarly, Iranian components are turning up in Houthi missiles that are being fired deep into Saudi territory. However, the U.N. report into this matter remarks that the “identity of the broker or supplier” remains unclear.
The resulting scorecard is mixed. Missiles are still being fired sporadically into Saudi Arabia, perhaps with extra range and accuracy because of Iranian know-how. A key strategic goal going into the conflict – stopping these missiles – thus remains unfulfilled for Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the Houthis appear to have access, at least indirectly from Iranian-linked sources, to increasingly advanced equipment such as drones and remote-controlled bombs. However, though the Houthis remain a power in Yemen, they control less territory, so the coalition has at least achieved one of its core aims.
Another enduring strategic concern, particularly for the UAE, is the regionwide proliferation of religiously inspired extremist groups. The UAE has long been a leading member of regional and international coalitions against extremist groups. In the south of Yemen, the UAE has focused extensively on countering Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the evident initial successes of Emirati counter-AQAP operations belie a more difficult reality.
Within six months of commencing counterinsurgency operations in 2016, UAE forces and local allies secured Mukalla, a key provincial capital that AQAP had ruled for a year. Liberating Mukalla was a positive move and a setback for AQAP, but should not be confused with a strategic defeat. The ease with which the city was retaken suggests that, taking away AQAP’s own positive spin on the story (“we did it to protect the civilians”), the group melted away, but was not defeated. This pattern has emerged elsewhere. Local groups put together, trained, and equipped by the UAE, act with either Emirati or U.S. air power and direction from elite UAE forces on the ground. Most recently, in the oil-rich Shabwa governorate, this approach worked once more, and liberated key towns and cities. But, like bubbles moving under wallpaper, a sense remains that AQAP is just relocating time and again, avoiding the single, large direct engagement that the UAE would win, where their overwhelming fire power could be decisively brought to bear.
While there is widespread international agreement on the need to counter AQAP, the UAE has long insisted that groups like Islah, with established links to the wider Muslim Brotherhood, are also beyond the pale. This puts the UAE in a minority of states that are unwilling to coexist with groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. In Yemen, this led to repeated conflict with Saudi Arabia over whether Islah-aligned forces could be embraced. This is because an article of faith underpinning recent Emirati foreign policy is to, wherever possible, support forces that are ranged against those groups and parties that seek to mix politicized Islam and governance.
Consequently, it was surprising to see the UAE’s de facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, sitting alongside the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and senior members of Yemen’s Islah Party, Mohammed Abdullah al-Yidoumi and Abdulwahab al-Anisi, in mid-December. This signals a profound change in UAE strategy in Yemen. Though in the works for weeks, such a rapprochement became entirely unavoidable after the death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the man who, under the logic of being the least worst option, the UAE hoped to return to power in Yemen to assemble a viable coalition. The UAE secured from Islah its disengagement from the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement, paving the way for the establishment of a pragmatic alliance without compromising core Emirati policy objectives.
Strategically, this means that the Houthis become yet more politically isolated. Islah has been a significant power broker in the past and enjoys support in both the north and south. With Islah allied with the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis are running out of options. While a Houthi-Islah political alliance would have been unlikely, Yemeni politics has been full of unlikely temporary alliances in recent decades. For its part, the coalition gains a potentially significant political partner with real domestic support in Yemen. Operationally, it means that new gains are feasible in critical central regions of Yemen. Only days after the meeting, the Houthis were pushed from Bayda, a front that had seen a protracted stalemate. More importantly, there is now a chance that control of the lynchpin city of Taiz might, with coordinated and mutually supportive action from the Saudi-led coalition and Islah, tip in favor of the alliance forces.
Winning and Losing the Peace
There is an abundant realization in Emirati circles of the critical importance of winning the peace. The Emiratis are developing and employing their own counterinsurgency programs, training and equipping local Yemeni forces in the south, and investing significant sums in reconstruction efforts.
But there are profound obstacles, one of which is being allied to the United States. While the U.S. drone program has killed a number of key AQAP leaders, inadvertent civilian deaths caused by the drone campaign and special forces raids gone awry have reinforced local anger. This is compounded by the devastation caused by the wider coalition bombing campaign – with the United Nations reporting 136 civilian and other noncombatant deaths in the 11 days following Saleh’s death in December – and the Saudi-led blockading of ports, which exacerbated what has been described as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster. Recent accusations that the UAE or its proxies in Yemen are running secret prisons where torture has been conducted with connivance of the United States further undermines the moral authority of the coalition.
Still, the geography is compelling. Yemen borders Saudi Arabia and Oman, and Houthi missiles can reach at least five of the six capitals of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The core conundrum for the UAE and its coalition partners is whether, in essence, the cure has proved to be worse than the disease. As the coalition focused on removing the Houthis from untrammeled power, AQAP prospered; in countering the increased threat from extremists, drone and other airstrikes embitter communities. These dynamics run the risk of negating the UAE’s considered counterinsurgency plans, undermining the chances for southern communities to rebuild and ward off future incursions by extremists like AQAP.
Indeed, if these setbacks are not to have enduring consequences, the UAE and the coalition need to not only engage with a herculean Marshall Plan-like reconstruction effort, but change tactics to embed pragmatic, long-term perspectives in decision making, avoiding measures that play into the hands of extremists, and make the Houthis – a deeply brutal actor in the war – appear less culpable for the suffering in Yemen. The UAE’s shift to embracing Islah, shorn of its international links, is a model of the kind of pragmatic, longer-term thinking that is required. Whether this new alliance can have a measurable impact on the war is the key question that remains unanswered.
David B. Roberts is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.