Dubai, United Arab Emirates | AFP | A surprise UAE troop drawdown in war-torn Yemen aims to restore the Gulf country’s reputation, but may strain ties with key ally Saudi Arabia at a time of heightened tensions with Iran, experts say.
“The political, reputational and operational risks Abu Dhabi incurred in Yemen stood in no relation to the anticipated benefits,” said Andreas Krieg, a professor at King’s College in London.
The United Arab Emirates has been a key player in the Saudi-led coalition which intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to back the internationally-recognised government against the Tehran-aligned Huthi rebels, only months after they captured the capital Sanaa.
Since then, tens of thousands of people — mostly civilians — have been killed in the conflict described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, which has left the impoverished country on the brink of famine.
The two sides have fought to a stalemate, and several rounds of UN-sponsored talks, the last held in Sweden in December, have failed to implement any deal to end the war.
Yet in a sudden move on Monday, the UAE announced it was redeploying and reducing its troops mainly from northern Yemen. In four years of combat, it has sent in thousands of troops and helped train some 90,000 Yemeni soldiers.
One factor driving the drawdown may have been hopes of limiting the damage to the UAE over its role in Yemen, with both the Saudi-led coalition and the Huthis standing accused of war crimes by rights groups.
The reputation of the Emirates, a staunch US ally which aims to be seen as “a liberal US partner in the region,” has “taken a severe hit as of late,” said Krieg.
Amnesty International said last year that human rights violations in a string of UAE-run prisons in Yemen could amount to war crimes — a report Abu Dhabi has vehemently rejected.
“Human rights abuses, torture camps, war crimes and support of Al-Qaedaesque groups in Yemen severely damaged the UAE’s standing in the US,” Kreig told AFP.
Last week, a US Democratic senator warned Washington could cut off arms sales to the Emirates over a report the UAE shipped US missiles to Libyan rebels in violation of a UN arms embargo. The UAE denied the claims.
– ‘Quagmire’ –
Increasing regional differences with Iran may also have helped seal the troop reduction, said Middle East expert James Dorsey.
“If that were to erupt into a military conflict, then the Emirates alongside Saudi Arabia is going to be a battlefield,” he told AFP.
“I think the Emiratis want to be ready for that, even though they don’t want a military conflict with Iran.”
Tensions between the United States and Iran spiked in June when Iran shot down a US drone over strategic Gulf waters following a series of tanker attacks off the UAE coast that Washington blamed on the Islamic republic. Tehran denied the accusation.
“Tensions with Iran were not the impetus for the withdrawal, but they have certainly complicated it,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group think-tank.
“Abu Dhabi has been alarmed by the escalations in recent months and sought to limit the risks to itself.”
Krieg added that the UAE decision meant “troops can now be moved to the home front amid rising tensions with Iran. Saudi is now left on its own with dealing with the quagmire in Yemen.”
– ‘Challenging conversations’ –
Experts, however, agree that while the UAE decision to reduce troops may strain ties with powerful Gulf ally Saudi Arabia, it was unlikely to severely affect their strategic regional alliance.
“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,” said Dorsey.
The two countries have too much in common to let differences over Yemen tarnish their relationship, he added.
Over the years, the oil-rich Gulf neighbours have stood side-by-side on regional issues. And the emergence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the throne, as a main regional player has only strengthened ties.
On Monday, the UAE official reiterated his country’s commitment to the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition, saying the drawdown decision was only reached after intensive talks with their Saudi partners.
“No one except those in the room can truly know the dynamics between the two sides, but one can imagine there have been challenging conversations in recent weeks,” Dickinson said.
“The alliance with Saudi Arabia is in its interest. The drawdown in Yemen is in its interest. If they (the UAE) went forward with the latter, it’s because they assessed that it wouldn’t irreparably damage the former.”