‘Security Belt’: The UAE’s Tribal Counterterrorism Strategy in Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 12

Shabwa Elite Forces (Source: Twitter)

As international attention is focused on the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) led coalition’s campaign to capture the strategic Yemeni port city of al-Hudaydah from the Ansar Allah (Partisans of God-Houthi) movement, the coalition continues to wage a war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) in several regions of southern Yemen. The UAE in particular has been quietly constructing an infrastructure of local Yemeni partner forces in southern Yemen, al-Hizam al-Amni (Security Belt), which is intended to provide a security architecture for stabilizing Emirati-controlled areas of southern Yemen and to provide a platform to stage operations against AQAP and IS (see: Militant Leadership Monitor, June 6; Militant Leadership Monitor, April 4). This Emirati-led effort in southern Yemen is primarily mobilized from a carefully selected group of tribes, each powerful in their particular area of this region. Nevertheless, this project is controversial among south Yemenis and is contested by local forces loyal to the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi (al-Araby al-Jadid, December 31, 2017; al-Sharq [Aden], November 11, 2017).

Co-Opting the Tribes

From the start of the UAE’s participation in the coalition campaign, which began in March 2015, the Emiratis were focused on securing territory in southern Yemen and building a security infrastructure from which Emirati forces could operate. The UAE was aware that the largest and most important component of its local partner force in southern Yemen would be tribal militias, which would include soldiers from the Yemeni national army who had remained loyal to Hadi. [1] Most of these forces would be operating in their particular area or governorate, and would be mobilized from tribes that were generally smaller and less widely distributed than the large tribal confederations of northern Yemen. [2] Over the course of the first phase of the UAE’s operations in southern Yemen, the Emiratis determined that the al-Muqawama al-Janoobiyya (Southern Resistance) organization was the best organized and had the broadest appeal to the tribes. The movement has for years called for independence for South Yemen and a return to the sovereign country of the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen that existed prior to the unification of Yemen that occurred from 1990-1994 (see Militant Leadership Monitor, July 2, 2017; Militant Leadership Monitor, September 30, 2015; Militant Leadership Monitor, August 31, 2015).

The Southern Resistance organization provided the Emiratis with a ready-made network of tribal militias that were seeking foreign support to combat the Houthis and their allies in the security forces—those who had remained loyal to the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh—and in some areas of southern Yemen, against AQAP and IS. With the focus on rolling back the Houthis out of Aden and other areas of southern Yemen, the Southern Resistance network created a good working partnership with the UAE military that would become the building blocks of the Security Belt as the Emiratis entered into the stabilization and entrenchment phase of their operations in southern Yemen. [3]

Although the UAE did not have a defined “tribal strategy” at the onset of its operations in southern Yemen, over the course of the first two years of the war, the UAE actively sought to develop an overarching approach to the region’s tribes that could best exploit the local and provincial reach of the tribes and their militias and adapt to their relative willingness to mobilize. [4] This approach needed to fit into a security structure that could be utilized by the Hadi government and the Emirati and coalition military forces based in Aden, in order to secure and stabilize southern Yemen. [5] The operations that would be tasked to local Yemeni tribal partner forces included defending territory from the Houthis and their allies, seizing territory and holding it, and in some areas conducting operations against AQAP and IS and preventing the re-infiltration of these organizations into captured areas and into Aden. [6]

Relatively early into its campaign in Yemen, the UAE sought to establish a modus vivendi with the tribes, intending to form a partnership with them against common opponents, particularly the Houthis and AQAP and IS, and over time to develop a system of patronage that would bond the tribes under the authority of the Hadi government (Khaleej Times [Dubai], November 25, 2015; Militant Leadership Monitor, September 30, 2015). [7]

Officially, the Emiratis still recognize the Hadi government as the sovereign authority in southern Yemen. Over the course of its military operations in this region, however, the UAE has increasingly relied on its own unilateral efforts to engage with the tribes (Militant Leadership Monitor, April 4). For the UAE, this has been a process of active learning on how to build tribal support while operating in the conditions that are present in southern Yemen. The most important feature of that has been to adopt a province-by-province and area-by-area approach to recruiting and mobilizing tribal militias, allowing these forces to operate where they fight best—in their local areas (Reuters, May 3, 2017). Reports also indicate that the national security policymaking leadership of the UAE is actively involved with the emerging Emirati tribal engagement strategy in southern Yemen. As an example, a senior member of the UAE’s National Security Council recently met with the head of the tribal engagement office for Hadramawt governorate. Governorates such as the Hadramawt continue to be a core area of concern for the Emiratis because of AQAP’s longstanding presence there, and the organization’s close-knit relationship with some of Hadrawmat’s tribes (al-Mandeb [Aden], June 5). 

The ongoing challenge for the Emiratis has been how to network these locally-focused tribal militias into a larger security force that can coordinate the collective defense of the wider, expanding UAE zone of influence in southern Yemen. [8] This requires a common unifying principle for dispersed and disparate tribal militias and has led the UAE away from unequivocally backing the Hadi government, which is not so far removed from the ancien regime under Saleh. The Hadi government still grapples with unpopularity in many areas of southern Yemen, and is unable to stem support for the southern independence movement (Raseef [Aden], January 30, 2018; al-Sharq [Aden], November 11, 2017). As a result, the UAE has built a network of local partner forces throughout southern Yemen, most of which are loyal to the Southern Resistance and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) led by Major General ‘Aidaroos Qasim Abd al-Aziz al-Zubaydi, and which is actively seeking to achieve independence for South Yemen (see Militant Leadership Monitor, July 2, 2017).

It is from this network of tribal, STC-linked militias that the UAE has been building its Security Belt, an organization that has been increasingly tasked with combating the spread of AQAP and IS in southern Yemen (see Militant Leadership Monitor, June 6; Militant Leadership Monitor, April 4). This mission has become more important as both Salafist-jihadist organizations have been infiltrating Aden and conducting attacks targeting the Emirati and coalition forces in the city (Militant Leadership Monitor, April 4). AQAP still represents a significant and active threat to the Emirati-led coalition forces and the stability of several governorates in southern Yemen, including in Aden, Lahij, Abyan, Ibb, Hadramawt and Shabwa. The UAE is responding to this threat by increasing the scope and seriousness of its tribal engagement activities in these governorates, and by developing component “elite forces,” drawn from local tribes in particularly sensitive and problematic areas, such as Shabwa and Hadramawt, and integrating them into the Security Belt architecture (Aden Gad, August 5; Southern Transitional Council, August 1, 2017). These elite forces are being trained directly by the Emiratis and are being deployed in raids to capture high-value AQAP leadership figures, key infrastructure such as oil wells and to seize areas from AQAP (al-Omana, November 2, 2017; al-Ain, August 3, 2017).

Elite Forces

Shabwa governorate has been a particularly important proving ground for the UAE, and (working through the Emiratis) the United States, to test out the elite forces concept. Energy-rich Shabwa, which is the site of significant foreign energy corporation investment and contains Yemen’s only working gas terminal at the port of Belhaf, has also been a key area of recruitment and control for AQAP. Working through the Shabwa Elite Forces, the Hadrami (Hadramawt) Elite Forces and other allied militias, the UAE and the United States conducted an extensive and successful campaign against AQAP in July and August 2017 (Military Times, August 4, 2017; Reuters, August 3, 2017).

Since the late summer 2017 campaign, the Shabwa Elite Forces have been responsible for stability and counterterrorism operations in the governorate (Gulf News [Dubai], April 29; Sky News Arabia [Abu Dhabi], February 26; Sky News Arabia [Abu Dhabi], November 27, 2017). Their recruitment started in the summer of 2016, beginning with a core group of specific tribes—Bel’abeed, Bani Hilal, Balharath and al-Wahadee—that were reportedly closely vetted by the Emiratis and mobilized with the support of the United States (Yemen Shabab [Ataq], August 12, 2017; al-Yemeny al-Gadeed [Aden], June 23, 2016).

This force was designed to be a pan-tribal, local militia that reported directly to the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition (i.e. the UAE) and could protect high value targets, such as energy resources, and conduct operations directly against AQAP and IS (Okaz [Riyadh], January 10; Al-Mowaten [Aden], August 4, 2017). The Shabwa Elite Forces support the STC, and in clashes in Aden between forces loyal to the Hadi government and those loyal to the STC, they have sided with the separatists (Tahdeeth [Aden], January 28).

Storing Up Trouble

The UAE initiative, however, has not been without consequences and resulting challenges, including how to prevent the return and infiltration of AQAP, how to provide security for suspicious tribes, and how to navigate the existential political question of southern Yemen’s future relationship with the Hadi government (Akhbar Yemen [Aden], May 26; al-Bayan [Dubai], February 26; al-Arabiyya [Dubai], January 30). The Shabwa Elite Forces have been linked to arbitrary arrests and campaigns of intimidation targeting the powerful al-Awlaq tribe, believed to be the most numerous in the governorate, as well as conducting aggressive raids that have led to deaths and caused tensions with other tribes in the governorate, such as the Bifatima al-Na’mani (Masa Press [Aden], March 29; Masa Press, August 12, 2017; Militant Leadership Monitor, September 30, 2015). Since the beginning of its operations, the UAE has courted and worked with the al-Awlaq against the Houthis, but it also has a fraught relationship with this powerful tribe regarding the al-Awlaq’s relationship to AQAP (Militant Leadership Monitor, September 30, 2015).

Ongoing tensions with the al-Awlaq, which are viewed with suspicion for being closely tied to AQAP, are an indication of the stress factors that the UAE engenders when it empowers certain tribes in its proxy forces, which then target other tribes in their home areas (Yemen Shabab [Ataq], August 12, 2017; al-Mashreq, August 11, 2017). The adversarial relationship between the Shabwa Elite Forces and the al-Awlaq tribe has led to accusations from opponents of the UAE in southern Yemen that the Emiratis are purposely pitting tribes against each other in order to maintain overall control (al-Jazeera [Doha], January 25; al-Sharq [Aden], November 11, 2017).

As a result of its relationship with the Emiratis and the United States, the Shabwa Elite Forces have generated a significant amount of controversy within their home governorate, as well as in the wider context of the social and political dynamics of southern Yemen (YouTube, August 6, 2017). As a proxy of the UAE in the governorate, they have become a target of, and symbol for, a persistent sentiment of dissatisfaction with the Emiratis, the local forces they have mobilized and the Emirati administration of southern Yemen, among some of the region’s tribes (Golden News [Aden], December 2, 2017; Yemen Shabab [Ataq], August 12, 2017; Emirati Affairs, August 11, 2017).

This emerging narrative is dangerous for the Emirati strategy in southern Yemen, and demonstrates the challenges of operating in a politically divided region that has a celebrated history of fighting against foreign occupation. One aspect of this narrative is that the UAE zone in southern Yemen is being used as a permissive space for U.S. counterterrorism operations against Salafist-jihadist organizations such as al-Qaeda and IS. The increase in both the presence of U.S. forces in southern Yemen and the operational tempo of the American military against AQAP targets in southern Yemen in coordination with the Emirati forces is a delicate subject for many of the tribes in Yemen’s south. Civilian casualties that result from these U.S. and joint U.S.-UAE operations creates problems for the Emiratis with some of the directly affected tribes, such as al-Awlaq, because the UAE is viewed as the actor who invited the United States into southern Yemen and is therefore responsible for its actions (Masa Press, August 27, 2017; Masa Press, August 12, 2017).

The second aspect of this narrative is that some of the tribes in southern Yemen perceive the Emiratis as a foreign power that, while a brother Arab nation, is acting in a manner that resembles how the British Empire historically administered South Yemen from Aden. Like the British before them, the Emiratis are purposely designing a security regime that plays tribes in southern Yemen against each other and creates proxy tribal forces (al-Arabi al-Jadid, November 22, 2017; al-Yemeny al-Gadeed [Aden], June 23, 2016). The perceived motive being to control southern Yemen’s key resources, such as its strategically located ports and energy resources such as in Shabwa governorate (YouTube, August 21, 2017; al-Nahar [Beirut], August 7, 2017). As a result, there has been a slowly simmering protest campaign against the UAE administration in southern Yemen (see Militant Leadership Monitor, June 6). These tensions have reached the point that a sitting member of the Hadi government, Transport Minister Saleh al-Jabwani, publically asserted that the UAE was a bad actor. In public comments made in response to a question about the role of the Shabwa Elite Forces in street battles, al-Jabwani said that the UAE was trying to break up the country by supporting militias that are trying to create an independent South Yemen (al-Arabi al-Jadid, February 26). 


The Emiratis are aware that they are in competition with other state and non-state actors for the cooperation and potential loyalty of southern Yemeni tribes. The Security Belt apparatus, and the various elite forces that are components of it, are designed to create an overarching structure of patronage and support that extends from a definable center, in Aden.

This approach is designed to be strategic, fitting tribes in far-flung governorates in southern Yemen into a larger infrastructure of support that is operated from a central command. The Security Belt apparatus is designed to take local tribal militias on a region by region basis in southern Yemen and subordinate them under a force that is a platform for working with the Emirati military. The idea is to construct a type of order among the tribes of southern Yemen, while also incentivizing their cooperation with Aden and Abu Dhabi.

However, there are challenges to the Emirati strategy, in particular the rising discontent within southern Yemen toward the UAE’s role in the region. Competitors to the UAE and its partner forces could weaponize this discontent, oppose the Emirati presence and frustrate the UAE’s tribal engagement strategies. Likely competitors include a mix of local Yemeni opponents to the UAE and its strategic project in southern Yemen, such as rebellious tribes in the region, as well as forces loyal to the Hadi government, AQAP and IS, and other Arab Gulf states, including allied countries Saudi Arabia and Oman, which both have different perspectives on the future of Yemen.

The success of the UAE’s Security Belt project will determine the viability of a long-term Emirati military presence based in southern Yemen, and the Emirati role as a regional powerbroker, in regard to south Yemen’s stability. That in itself will be determined by the UAE’s effort to mobilize local tribes against AQAP and IS, which are actively targeting the Emirati project in southern Yemen.



[1] Author’s interview with an adviser to the UAE National War College who contributed to the UAE stabilization and counterinsurgency strategy in Yemen. Interview conducted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on February 26, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Author’s interview with an adviser to the UAE National War College who contributed to the UAE stabilization and counterinsurgency strategy in Yemen. Interview conducted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on May 8, 2017.

[4] Author’s interview with an adviser to the UAE National War College who contributed to the UAE stabilization and counterinsurgency strategy in Yemen. Interview conducted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on February 26, 2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Author’s interview with an adviser to the UAE National War College who contributed to the UAE stabilization and counterinsurgency strategy in Yemen. Interview conducted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on May 8, 2017.

[7] Author’s interview with an adviser to the UAE National War College who contributed to the UAE stabilization and counterinsurgency strategy in Yemen. Interview conducted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on February 26, 2016.

[8] Author’s interview with an adviser to the UAE National War College who contributed to the UAE stabilization and counterinsurgency strategy in Yemen. Interview conducted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on May 8, 2017.