The Battle for Yemen: A Quagmire for Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 10

UAE-backed fighters at Yemen's Aden International Airport (Source: AFP)

The Saudi- and Emirati-led war in Yemen has been ongoing for 26 months. The war, which began on March 26, 2015 and was ambitiously named “Operation Decisive Storm,” has achieved none of its stated intentions (al-Arabiya, March 26, 2015). The primary aim was the reinstallation of Yemen’s deeply unpopular president, Abd Raboo Mansur Hadi. However, Hadi, who many Yemenis view as a traitor, remains in exile in Saudi Arabia along with most of his government.

Its other goal was to defeat Yemen’s Houthis, a Zaidi Shia organization that is now allied with many of the most capable units of what was the Yemeni Army. While the Houthis and their allies were pushed out of the port city of Aden and, most recently, the small Red Sea port of al-Mocha, the Houthis have retained control of the capital of Sanaa and most of northwest Yemen (Gulf News, February 10). For months, the frontlines in what is a complex multi-actor civil war have remained fixed. This is despite the fact that both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have spent billions of dollars on unrelenting and devastating — at least for Yemen’s civilians — airstrikes, and backed a disparate mix of anti-Houthi forces and ground forces made up primarily of mercenaries.

Rather than the short decisive intervention envisioned by Saudi Arabia’s princes and generals, the war is a quagmire with no military solution. Yemen’s physical and political terrains are unkind to outsiders. Even a cursory reading of Yemen’s history shows that both have proven fatal for invaders. Yet rather than reevaluating their intervention in this complex civil war, both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates seem poised not only to continue but also to enhance their involvement with further weapons shipments to dubious forces. It also seems likely that they will launch a possible offensive on the port of Hodeidah, at present controlled by both Houthi forces and their allies.

Neither of these tactics is likely to succeed in defeating the Houthis. Instead, both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia risk being drawn ever deeper into a war they cannot win. What is certain is that their ongoing involvement in Yemen’s civil war will prolong the conflict and drain their treasuries of billions more dollars. Ultimately the two countries’ deepening involvement in Yemen’s civil war may pose more of threat to their own governments and ties within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) than to the Houthis. There are already signs that the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are at loggerheads over how to proceed with the war and over which areas of Yemen the two countries plan to control.

War Within a War

In February 2017, Aden’s international airport was the scene of a short but viscous battle between two rival factions: the Saudi-backed “Presidential Guards,” led by Abd Raboo Mansur al-Hadi’s son, and Emirate-backed factions that already controlled the facility (New Arab, February 13). The Emirati-backed forces refused to relinquish control of the airport and fighting ensued. A Saudi operated Apache helicopter fired missiles at several armored personnel carriers. The fighting temporarily ceased when Hadi purportedly ordered his men to stand down, but broke out again in March when Sudanese forces, paid for by Saudi Arabia, attempted to wrest control of the airport once more (Middle East Monitor, March 7). The Sudanese forces were obliged to back down.

The fight over Aden’s airport is being played out against a much larger and far more complex fight for Aden and southern Yemen. The fighting between rival factions backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE clearly shows that Yemen’s already complicated civil war is being made more so by what is essentially a war within a war: the fight between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their proxies. While the initial decision to intervene in Yemen was largely made by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and son of the current king, Saudi Arabia has largely limited its involvement in Yemen to an aerial campaign. The Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) and the relatively more capable Saudi National Guard have been largely absent from the war. In contrast, the UAE’s much smaller but moderately more capable army has led the efforts on the ground in Yemen. The UAE has deployed its forces, many of which are mercenaries (the UAE presidential guard is commanded by a retired Major General from Australia), to the central Yemeni governorate of Marib and has smaller contingents of soldiers in al-Mukalla and the Hadramawt (Middle East Eye, December 23, 2015).

The UAE has focused on establishing and training proxy forces that will eventually, it is hoped, take on the Houthis and their allies. In Marib, the UAE has tried but largely failed to build up a small army of tribal fighters capable of launching an offensive on Houthi-held Sanaa. However, Marib’s tribes are notorious for being fickle allies and experts at extracting resources.

The governorate of Marib is a natural staging point for an attack on Sanaa as it offers the least difficult and least mountainous route to the capital. The governorate is also home to important oil and gas handling facilities. In theory, the UAE’s plan to use the governorate as a springboard to Sanaa was sound. However, the cultural and political terrain of Marib and the neighboring governorates of al-Jawf — part of which is a stronghold for Houthi allied forces — and al-Bayda — a stronghold for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — are even more treacherous than the surrounding deserts and mountains.

For nearly two years, members of the UAE army and its mercenaries have been training and equipping proxy forces in preparation for an assault on Sanaa. As yet, there are few signs that these forces are ready or willing to launch such an attack. Instead, weapons and materiel are siphoned off by members of these proxy forces and informal militias collecting weapons and before returning to their villages. There are now so many small and medium arms available in Yemen that prices have steadily fallen for most of these weapons over the last year.

The lack of progress in the war and the incredible costs incurred by the Emirates has not gone unnoticed by the Emirati ruling elite, nor by Emirati citizens, even though criticism of the war can result in incarceration. Since the beginning of 2017, there has been a less than subtle shift in Emirati policy in Yemen. The UAE is becoming far more pragmatic in its approach to the war and has recognized that the Saudi-backed government in exile, led by Hadi, has no future in Yemen. The Emiratis have also seemingly recognized that while the militias and proxy forces they have armed and trained are willing to defend and fight for southern Yemen, they have little or no interest in taking on the Houthis and their allies ensconced in northwest Yemen.

The Emiratis are now focusing on building relationships with what they consider to be more reliable partners, many of which are members of southern Yemen’s numerous secessionist groups, which are committed to the restoration of an independent south Yemen. By and large, they have no interest in participating in an offensive against the Houthis and their allies who remain in control of what was an independent north Yemen (formerly the Yemen Arab Republic). These secessionist groups also tend to be more moderate and more determined to battle militant Salafist organizations like AQAP.

The UAE has been far more discriminating about which groups it arms and trains than Saudi Arabia. The UAE, at least in part, recognizes that one of the primary beneficiaries of the war in Yemen has been AQAP. Saudi Arabia has at best turned a blind eye to AQAP since the group is the sworn enemy of the Houthis. AQAP has some of the best-trained and hardiest fighters among its ranks and has inserted its operatives, both covertly and overtly, into many of the militias fighting the Houthis in contested areas like Taiz and al-Bayda.

AQAP’s growing capabilities in Yemen have clearly alarmed some members of the Emirati government. As a result, the UAE is keen to back moderate forces that are willing and capable of checking AQAP’s growing influence, even if this means de-prioritizing the fight against the Houthis. This shift in Emirati policy was brought to the fore by the fighting in Aden. The Emirati government has reportedly threatened to withdraw all of its forces from Yemen if Saudi Arabia continues to back Hadi (Middle East Monitor, March 7).

Despite this threatened withdrawal, Saudi Arabia has shown no inclination to change course. In Aden, the war within the war seems to be intensifying as a former governor of Aden, Aidaroos al-Zubaidi, has announced that he has formed a governing council that will administer the south, with him acting as president (Middle East Monitor, May 12). While the Emirates have not openly backed al-Zubaidi, it is likely that he is acting at least with their acquiescence, if not support.

The UAE’s position in Yemen is far stronger than Saudi Arabia’s. While the UAE army and its mercenaries may have failed to launch a successful offensive against the Houthis, these forces have built some meaningful relationships with Yemen’s secessionists and tribes. These relationships will go a long way to secure what could be some influence in southern Yemen for the Emirates. Because Saudi Arabia has relied almost entirely on a brutal aerial campaign and on the widely unpopular Sudanese forces to implement its policy in Yemen, its influence will be limited. Furthermore, the unrelenting and indiscriminate bombing by Saudi aircraft has caused even those Yemenis opposed to the Houthis to question Saudi Arabia’s intentions.

Political and Tactical Quagmire

Despite two years of failure that have wrecked Yemen, cost thousands of civilian lives and empowered al-Qaeda’s most formidable franchise, Saudi Arabia shows no signs of rethinking its adventurism. In fact, the House of Saud, at the behest of Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, is requesting additional assistance from the United States for its long-planned invasion of Houthi controlled Hodeidah (al-Monitor, April 24). The Saudi government likely recognizes that without considerable U.S. assistance — including U.S. troops on the ground — they and their proxies will fail to take the well-defended city of more than three hundred thousand.

Even with U.S. assistance, the invasion will be costly and ineffective. The terrain to the east of Hodeidah is comprised of some of the most forbidding mountainous terrain in the world. The mountains, caves, and deep canyons are ideal for guerrilla warfare that would wear down even the finest and best disciplined military. The most capable units of what was the Yemeni Army and the Houthis themselves will inflict heavy losses on those forces that try to take Hodeidah and then, if necessary, move up into the mountains.

The Saudi effort in Yemen hinges on the invasion of Hodeidah. The reasoning behind the invasion is that without Hodeidah and its port — where supplies trickle through — the Houthis and their allies, along with millions of civilians, can be starved into submission.

While there is little doubt that thousands more Yemeni civilians will face starvation, the invasion of Hodeidah will not end the war — far from it. The Houthis and their allies are resourceful and will fight on for months — if not years — to come. They will also intensify their retaliatory cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, which the Saudi army is incapable of stopping. Rather than end the war, the planned invasion will intensify it across all fronts.

Saudi Arabia’s planned invasion of Hodeidah has received only tepid support from the UAE, which likely understands the futility and risks of such a plan. Rather than support the Saudi effort, the UAE is focused on consolidating its spheres of influence. The UAE and its proxies are particularly active in the governorate of the Hadramawt (Daily Star, May 4).

Located in eastern Yemen, the Hadramawt is rich in gas and oil. The governorate has traditionally had close ties with Saudi Arabia as many of its notable families have extensive business interests there. Going back for at least a decade Saudi Arabia has had a keen interest in the possibility of constructing a pipeline across the Hadramawt that would allow it to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. Such a pipeline would be a strategic coup for the Kingdom because it would undermine Iran’s ability to disrupt Saudi oil exports.

Interestingly, it is the UAE and not Saudi Arabia that has been working assiduously to build some kind of governing coalition of Hadrawmi elites in the governorate. The UAE led the effort to retake al-Mukalla, the governorate’s port and capital, which was held by AQAP until April 2016 (The National, May 11).

Notably during AQAP’s year-long occupation of the city, al-Mukalla was not subject to Saudi airstrikes. While AQAP is still very much a presence across the Hadramawt, it has been pushed out of parts of the governorate thanks to well-armed tribal militias that are likely supported by the UAE. Given the importance of the Hadramawt, it is certain that control of the governorate, much like Aden, will be contested by Saudi Arabia and the UAE via their proxies if not their own forces.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE will secure durable spheres of influence in Yemen. In Yemen, politics is a blood sport that outsiders rarely understand and never win. Even if Saudi Arabia and the UAE were able to present a united front in Yemen, it is unlikely that they would be able to defeat the Houthis and establish a government that would serve their interests. Given the fact that the two primary members of the coalition that launched “Operation Decisive Storm” are engaged in what can be described as a war within a war, it is certain that neither country will be able to stabilize Yemen, if that is indeed their goal.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are stuck in a political and tactical quagmire. The conflict has exacerbated the divisions in Yemen’s north and south and has unleashed AQAP and a host of smaller militant Salafist organizations. Tactically there are no good military options for bringing about a conclusion to the war, and political options that existed before the start of the intervention are no longer available.

The Houthis and their allies are formidable and determined. They enjoy the tacit support of millions of Yemenis and are fighting on their home ground. Even if Saudi Arabia were unwise enough to launch an all-out invasion of Yemen — and it is unlikely that its forces could manage the logistics much less the actual fighting — it would face heavy and ongoing losses. Egypt lost an estimated 25,000 soldiers when it intervened in Yemen’s 1962-70 civil war. The Egyptian government wisely turned down a request by Saudi Arabia to send troops to Yemen this time.

The only way to end the war in Yemen and to begin stabilizing and rebuilding the country is through some kind of negotiated settlement. North Yemen’s civil war ended only once all outside participants in the conflict had withdrawn. Then a negotiated settlement was agreed to by the warring parties. A similar process will likely prove the only way forward in the current conflict.


Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia’s leadership seems intent on continuing its intervention despite the lack of progress and the extraordinary suffering and damage caused by the war. In addition to continuing to pursue a failed strategy in Yemen, Saudi Arabia seems intent on battling its key partner in Yemen — the UAE. The fact that relations between the UAE and Saudi Arabia (at least in terms of Yemen) are deteriorating does not bode well for efforts to stabilize the country.

If Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to fight one another via proxies, as has already happened in Aden, Yemen’s civil war will take on another layer of deadly complexity. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE — and certainly not Yemen — will benefit from such a fight. Instead, AQAP and other militant Salafist organizations will profit even more than they already have.

Given the failed strategies employed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, it is all but certain that the war in Yemen will continue for months if not years. The conflict has already devastated Yemen. However, the longer it continues, the more danger it poses not only to twenty-seven million Yemenis but also to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Even if the war were to stop today, the consequences of having devastated an entire country’s infrastructure, further impoverished millions and of having dumped tens of millions of dollars of weapons into an already well-armed country will reverberate throughout the region for years to come.