Yemen has become a major battleground for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE provides the second largest force in the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in the country. While the coalition came about to halt the advances of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, however, the UAE has since focused on its own agenda.
By backing certain warring parties, the UAE hopes to confront both the Shia Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, and tackle the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Further, the UAE’s strategy not only aims to address the perceived threat of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), but it also reflects Abu Dhabi’s aspirations for greater geopolitical influence in the region.
Shia Iran, which has a long-standing territorial dispute with the UAE, remains a rival regional power that represents a threat to the Sunni Arab monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Meanwhile, the UAE is also dedicating more resources to its confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood and its political outfit in Yemen—the al-Islah party.
For the UAE, Yemen is increasingly a space where it is extending its power, working with local partners—notably southern secessionists and remnants of the regime of the late president Ali Abdullah Saleh—at the expense of the internationally recognized government.
The UAE’s strategy to raise its geopolitical standing includes a very significant naval dimension, and Abu Dhabi has moved to seize more control of strategically important shipping routes.
The main justification for the coalition’s intervention was to shore up Yemen’s internationally recognized government in the face of the Houthi rebels. Nevertheless, recent developments indicate that the UAE favors supporting alternative partners, most significantly the southern secessionists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), and the remnants of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC).
The government, albeit weak and dysfunctional, has been an important partner for the Saudi-led coalition. However, on January 28, UAE-backed STC forces launched an operation to capture and control the city of Aden. The port city is the seat of Yemen’s beleaguered government—while President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi lives in Saudi Arabia, the cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid Bin Daghr, still resides there.
Neither Hadi nor Bin Daghr are members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s al-Islah party, but government institutions and the military are dominated by al-Islah’s members and allies. In the eyes of the UAE, that represents a threat at least equal to, and probably now greater than, the Shia Houthis. As a consequence, the STC attacked government positions in the city and demanded Bin Daghar’s removal.
The uprising was brought to an end by Saudi-UAE mediation in February. Though Bin Daghr kept his position, the STC, led by general Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, gained significant areas of control in the city (al-Arabiya January 30; sabq.org, February 1).
The UAE’s Priorities
The UAE has always considered the Muslim Brotherhood to be a national security threat. In the 1990s and early 2000s, tensions existed between the government and the Brotherhood, and crackdowns on Emirati members of the movement resulted in hundreds of arrests. After the wave of Arab Spring protests across the MENA region in 2011, the UAE grew even more concerned about the group.
Despite the UAE’s population enjoying one of the world’s highest living standards and generous government subsidies and welfare payments, members of the Emirati branch of the Muslim Brotherhood called for more reform and more rights. The government’s response was to arrest five Brotherhood members and charge them with offending the ruler (al-Khaleej al-Jadeed, November 25, 2016).
Faced with what appeared to be the growing appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the MENA region—manifested in the group winning elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya—the UAE set in motion an anti-Brotherhood strategy opting to support any viable force that confronted the group.
This intensified after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties and imposed sanctions on Qatar, accusing their Gulf neighbor of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar denies supporting the group, but unlike its accusers does not ban the organization and believes it should be included in political processes around the region. It has supported Brotherhood-led governments elected in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as backing Brotherhood-linked factions in Libya and Syria.
With Qatar under pressure, the UAE aims to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE support the military government of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, which removed the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi from power and cracked down on the Egyptian branch of the group, the oldest and strongest in the MENA region.
The situation in Yemen, however, is more complicated. The UAE could not exclude the Brotherhood’s al-Islah party as it was a powerful component in the opposition, and had been central to the protest movement that in 2012 brought an end to then-President Saleh’s 32-year reign. However, the UAE supported politicians who occupied senior positions in post-Saleh Yemen, the most prominent among them being former prime minister Khalid Bahah who had been minister of oil under Saleh between 2006 and 2008 and had a reputation as a reformer (arabi21.com, April 29, 2017). 
Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is committed to supporting the Hadi government as part of the deal that led to Saleh’s removal and exempts al-Islah from its classification of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. In the wake of the Aden clashes, the difference between the strategies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE has become clearer. While Saudi Arabia leads the coalition and commands the largest force within it, the UAE has moved more quickly to influence internal Yemeni dynamics for its own interests.
The division between Saudi Arabia and the UAE over Yemen can be traced to Hadi’s decision last year, made from his base in Saudi Arabia, to replace the UAE-backed Prime Minister Bahah with rival Bin Dhagar. Hadi also elevated General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, an ally of al-Islah and once Saleh’s lieutenant, and appoint him vice president, another position that Bahah had previously held.
While Saudi Arabia did not necessarily support Hadi’s decisions, neither did it oppose them. The UAE, however, condemned the move and embarked on a strategy that aimed to break the alliance between the Houthis and Saleh, deciding the latter would be the best hope of defeating the Houthis in northern Yemen. Meanwhile, in the south, the UAE also supported the formation of the STC (Sky News Arabia, May 21, 2017).
Saleh made his move in December and turned against the Houthis. However, his uprising in Sana’a failed, and his former Houthi allies killed him (al-Jazeera, December 4, 2017). The UAE quickly embraced his nephew, Brigadier General Tariq Saleh, the head of Saleh’s protection force, and offered him a refuge in the south. With the support of the UAE, Tariq Saleh is now building a fighting force with the intention of taking on the Houthis in the north (see Militant Leadership Monitor, February 7; al-Jazeera, February 8).
The STC’s Aden operation occurred a few weeks after the failed Sana’a uprising. The southern secessionists and Saleh’s supporters, enemies for 25 years, are now signaling they are open to cooperation and building a strategic alliance.  This remarkable shift, and the alliance of these two actors, demonstrates just how complex the conflict in Yemen has become.
The southern secessionists of the STC and Saleh’s supporters had both received support from Shia Iran, but have come to also enjoy the support of Sunni Arab countries opposed to Tehran. The leaders of both groups now spout anti-Iranian rhetoric and claim their strategies are part of a pan-Arab effort led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Outside of Yemen, the UAE has also moved to extend its presence and influence around the Bab al-Mandab strait. In addition to its naval bases in Asab, Eritrea, and Barbara, in the de facto state of Somaliland, the UAE also controls the Yemeni island of Socotra. Yemeni critics of the UAE now openly accuse it of being a colonial force pursuing an agenda to dominate the Bab al-Mandab area (noonpost.org, May 3, 2017).
At the same time, the UAE is accused of wanting to prevent Aden from returning to its “golden age”—in the 1950s, it was one of the busiest harbors in the world, second only to New York—and becoming a rival to Dubai.  The UAE denies the claims, but its influence in Yemen, especially in the south, and its naval deployments has put it in a strong strategic position (Yemen Monitor, March 26).
Yemen is a difficult country when it comes to political and military alliances. Its modern history is a litany of civil wars and shifting alliances. From Hadhramaut to Aden, the UAE is supporting local militias and has secured a network of alliances and local partners in various southern Yemeni provinces.
While the tribes have been historically influential in the politics of northern Yemen, the political allegiances in the south are typically formed along provincial lines. Aware of these dynamics, the UAE supported General al-Zubaidi to assume the leadership of the STC. Al-Zubaidi comes from the province of al-Dhala. He and many military officers and local leaders from his home province and neighboring Lahij have deep-rooted feuds with their peers in President Hadi’s home province of Abyan.
Another important STC faction is led by the preacher Hani Bin Buraik, who was fired from his cabinet post by President Hadi in April 2017 in a move aimed at curtailing the UAE’s influence in Yemen. He has attracted Salafists away from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but his Islamist credentials have also been important in the confrontation with al-Islah (Sasa Post, November 2, 2017.)
Divide and Conquer
Abu Dhabi has used its proxies to great effect, succeeding in driving AQAP out of the city of al-Mukalla, the provincial capital of Hadhramaut, in 2016 (ME Online, April 24, 2016). Yet the militias are accused of human rights violations and have significantly weakened the power of President Hadi’s government, on whose side the Saudi-led coalition is supposedly intervening (al-Jazeera, July 5, 2017).
Meanwhile, the STC secessionist movement, which once received support from Iran and was on friendly terms with the Houthis when Saleh, their common enemy, was in power, is now an ally of the UAE and the coalition. However, while it has encouraged the STC to turn its back Iran, the UAE is unlikely to support a full secession and a return of the old South Yemen state. That would be too costly and would bring new geopolitical challenges. Instead, the UAE benefits from keeping Yemen weak and divided.
The UAE’s naval capabilities have led to some successes when attacking the Houthis in coastal towns, most evident in the retaking of the port of al-Mukha (al-Ittihad, February 12, 2017). That strength has not been matched by any significant advances elsewhere, however, and in northern Yemen, the UAE’s strategy is facing difficulties. Three years since the war started, the coalition, with all its military superiority, is clearly struggling to counter the Houthis.
Tariq Saleh, the UAE’s new point man in Yemen, does not seem to be moving fast enough in his attempts to build a force capable of attacking the Houthis and re-capturing Sana’a. The southerners, meanwhile, have proven themselves to be a powerful fighting force against the Houthi-Saleh alliance in their areas, but are unlikely to have the same impact in the north.
Before they make a move on Sana’a, the UAE and its allies may need to address the fronts of Taiz and Marib, where most of the forces loyal to the government and sympathetic to al-Islah are concentrated. Further, any fundamental progress for the UAE’s efforts in Yemen will require Saudi approval.
 Bahah made his reputation when as minister of oil between 2006-2008, introducing anti-corruption measures. He reportedly angered influential figures within the ruling establishment, leading to his removal. He later served ambassador to Canada and then the UN.
 See interview with General Aidarus al-Zubaidi head of the STC (Youtube, January 30).
 See Mawby, Spencer. British Policy in Aden and the Protectorates 1955-1967, Last Outpost of a Middle East Empire. Routledge, London 2005. p.16