by Thomas W. Lippman
The decision by the United Arab Emirates to withdraw most of its troops fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen is unlikely to end the multiple conflicts raging in that unhappy country, but it could have wider implications for relations between the UAE and its most important regional partner, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, in the person of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, is committed to the war against the Houthis and is usually identified as the leader of the “coalition” conducting the long-running operation. But it is the UAE that has been doing most of the fighting on the ground; the Saudis have limited themselves almost entirely to air strikes.
Even with the UAE fully on board, the Saudis are no closer to achieving their aims than they were when they intervened in the Yemen conflict four years ago. Now they remain committed to the campaign but lack their most important tool for waging it.
UAE officials have said that the withdrawal decision has been under discussion for some time and that the Saudis were on board with it, and so far the Saudis have not said otherwise, at least publicly. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that the UAE withdrawal has left Saudi Arabia to play a much weaker hand.
A recent report in the New York Times put it bluntly:
While the Saudis have fought almost entirely from the air, the Emiratis, seasoned by years of combat alongside the American military in Afghanistan and elsewhere, led virtually every successful ground advance. Behind the scenes, Emirati officers, weapons and money played an equally critical role in holding together a fractious alliance of mutually hostile Yemeni militias, which have already begun jostling to fill the power vacuum left by the Emiratis. The Emirati drawdown has also severely weakened the Saudis’ bargaining power, raising the potential cost to Prince Mohammed of any negotiations to end the Houthi attacks.
Nevertheless, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein predicted recently that the Saudis “will carry on their campaign regardless of what the Emiratis or the United States do” because they believe they have no alternative. The Saudis have made clear that they regard the conflict with the Houthis as a war of necessity, not a war of choice, and by all accounts they have convinced the Saudi public. The Saudis are not prepared to tolerate the presence of an Iran-backed military force just across their southern border, especially because the Houthis have been firing missiles into Saudi airports and cities.
As recently as May, after meeting in Washington with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, the UAE’s minister of foreign affairs, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, gave no indication that his country was preparing to retreat either from the war against the Houthis or from the separate conflict in central Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“The UAE welcomes ongoing cooperation with the U.S. in Yemen to confront the Iranian-backed Houthis and the terrorist group AQAP that has launched multiple attacks against U.S. citizens and interests,” he said.
Now, however, the Emiratis say they need to redeploy some of their forces back home in case of aggression by Iran, cornered by crippling U.S. sanctions and lashing out at U.S. partners and allies. Emirati officials say they have trained enough Yemeni soldiers that the Yemenis can carry more of the burden.
While the UAE and Saudi Arabia have supported different factions in the complicated Yemeni conflict, they have otherwise been acting in policy lockstep all around the region, not just in opposition to Iran. Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, or MbZ, the crown prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, has been a mentor and friend to his young Saudi counterpart, MbS.
Together they were the architects of the boycott imposed on neighboring Qatar by their countries, along with Egypt and Bahrain. And they have been united in financial support for the autocratic Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The boycott of Qatar, like the Yemen campaign, has not only failed to achieve its goal of forcing Qatar to turn on the organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood, it has driven Qatar into closer economic cooperation with Iran. Nor has Qatar shut down the cable news network al-Jazeera or expelled a Turkish military contingent, as the Saudis and the Emiratis demanded.
The boycott disrupted family life, work patterns, and air travel all around the Gulf, but the Qataris soon adjusted. They substituted goods from Turkey and Iran for products they used to buy from Saudi Arabia, and are carrying on their lucrative natural gas export business as before. The only substantive accomplishment of the boycott has been the all-but-official breakup of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of the six monarchies on the Arab side of the Gulf aimed at fostering trade and economic integration. With the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain united in boycotting Qatar, the two remaining members, Kuwait and Oman, have been left to futile efforts to heal the breach.
Nine months have passed since Secretary Pompeo called for an end to the war in Yemen. The United States, he said, “calls on all parties to support UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen based on the agreed references. The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and UAV strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Subsequently, Coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen.”
Griffith is still at work, looking for some political formula that could bring an end to the war, but he has failed so far because none of the combatants has been damaged enough to feel compelled to settle. Now the pressure on Saudi Arabia to find some face-saving exit can only increase.
After four years of what was supposed to be a quick war against the Houthis, there is little evidence that the Saudi public is getting impatient. That is partly because the Saudi armed forces have suffered few casualties. The Emiratis and several thousand Sudanese troops have done most of the fighting on the ground, and according to military analysts Saudi pilots avoid anti-aircraft fire by flying at altitudes the guns can’t reach—which unfortunately leads to inaccurate targeting and to civilian casualties.
The UAE’s reduced commitment to the war against the Houthis may not presage any larger breach between the two Princes Mohammed. But if it does, it could force the headstrong MbS to rearrange Saudi Arabia’s positions all around the region. If he can’t count on MbZ to stand with him, who else is there?