Yemenis often puzzle over the role the United Arab Emirates (UAE) plays in Yemen. Today, the main source of confusion stems from Emirati actions in the south, which raise fears among Yemeni unionists and false expectations among Yemeni secessionists that the UAE is working to redivide Yemen into two or three parts. Others speculate that the UAE’s true purpose, by repeatedly attacking the forces of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, is to keep Saudi Arabia bogged down in a perpetual Yemeni quagmire. Finally, the UAE’s mostly feigned attempts at empire-building, which have included building bases along Yemen’s Red Sea and southern coast, and on Yemeni islands including Socotra and Meiyun, give the impression that the UAE covets the country’s ports and seaways.
Many Yemeni elites view the UAE as an existential threat to the Yemeni state. They are mistaken.
Prior to 2015, the UAE showed little interest in Yemen and its territory. DP World, the Emirati multinational specialized in port operations which, in 2008, signed a 25-year development and management agreement for Aden port with the Yemen Ports Authority, readily gave up that concession in August 2012 by defaulting on an $85 million investment to increase Aden port’s container handling capacity to 900,000 containers annually. So what changed after this to persuade the UAE to invest billions of dollars to establish a foothold in Yemen? I believe the Saudi military intervention in Yemen was the trigger for the cascade of events noted above.
The UAE’s behavior in Yemen stems from a response to two perceived existential threats. The first one is the threat of political Islam, most notably the Sunni version espoused by the Muslim Brotherhoood and its Yemeni affiliate the Islah party, which is viewed as anathema to the Emirati business model of permissive capitalism. The second, and more substantive threat, is that of Saudi hegemony over the UAE.
Small Gulf states have always lived under the threat of invasion by their Big Sister (Al-Shaqeeqah al-Koubra), in various contexts referring to either Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia. With the exception of Kuwait, smaller Gulf countries have historically viewed Riyadh, not Tehran, as their main existential threat for the simple reason that Saudi Arabia has actually taken a bite of the territories of each one of them. Added to that, they recognize that if Iran tried to occupy one of these states it probably would not get away with it, while Saudi Arabia, given its immense international influence, could.
During the past 60 years, three models for dealing with the Big Sister threat emerged. After Iraq tried but failed to annex Kuwait the first time in 1960, Kuwait started cultivating friends around the region and the world through a diplomatic push backed by increased international investment and unparalleled international development spending. The Qatar model, beginning after Saudi Arabia’s foiled invasion of the mini-state in 1996 in response to a palace coup in Doha, was to buy some Western protection, make as much noise as possible and make itself useful by interacting with Israel, Hamas, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood, to name a few of its odd relationships, all for the purpose of increasing its diplomatic value to the West and to the US in particular.
The UAE model emerged after the 1974 Saudi Arabia-Abu Dhabi Boundary Demarcation Treaty, which established borders through oil areas, and was signed under duress by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. From an Emirati perspective, the move was probably informed by the famous adage often attributed to General Sun Tzu: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” After the agreement, the UAE carefully aligned its interests with those of Saudi Arabia and maneuvered to become the Saudis’ closest ally.
These approaches were only part of these states’ survival strategies; all three also relied on external security support. Kuwait was first spared an Iraqi invasion in 1961 by the quick deployment of the British army, navy and air force, and was liberated from Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1991 by a coalition led by half a million US troops. Qatar was secured through the deployment of US forces to Al-Udeid Air Base beginning in the early 2000s. The UAE, in addition to hosting a number of US bases, employed a ‘porcupine strategy’ by building a competent domestic military capability.
The key to the security of all three states, however, still rests on security guarantees from the United States. The American military presence in the region is mainly intended to deter Iran and keep US leverage over Saudi Arabia, which currently stops both Riyadh and Tehran from violating the sovereignty of their smaller neighbors. An important component of the US-Saudi multilayered relationship and the resultant Saudi dependence is the US role in securing the free passage of Saudi oil through the Strait of Hormuz amid Iranian threats to close the vital shipping lane as part of any conflict. Riyadh has been trying to reduce this vulnerability and its current reliance on US security guarantees. While Saudi pipelines to oil export terminals on its Red Sea coast offer some relief, these face the potential choke points of the Suez Canal to the north and the Bab al-Mandab Strait to the south, and so Riyadh has long sought to secure direct access to the Indian Ocean through eastern Yemen.
In 1994, Saudi Arabia supported southern secession with a view toward securing sovereignty over a corridor through Eastern Yemen so as to build an oil pipeline that skirts the chokehold of Hormuz strait. However, this plan was foiled primarily by the US, which had a strategic interest in maintaining leverage on the kingdom. The United States stalled a UN Security Council resolution supported by Saudi Arabia that would have condemned the central government and called for an immediate cease-fire. In so doing, Saleh got the time he needed to take Mukalla, along the coast of Hadramawt, and then to secure Aden. Had the resolution passed first, Saudi Arabia and most GCC states were prepared to recognize the southern state.
When the current conflict started in 2015, the UAE, with significant US support, acted decisively to exert control in southern Yemen. A main objective of both parties was to contain the threat of AQAP in the country. As for the wider war against the Houthi movement, Emirati officials openly backed the declared objectives of rolling back Iranian influence in Yemen, reinstating the internationally recognized government to Sana’a, and preserving the unity of the Yemeni state and its territorial integrity. But, should that plan to contain AQAP fail, then plan B was to ensure the restoration of a state in South Yemen and preserve its territorial integrity. In this contingency plan, the UAE and US had a shared strategic interest in denying Saudi Arabia access to the Indian Ocean via Yemen. Ultimately, the UAE was forced to make a significant deployment to eastern Yemen to fight AQAP, giving it an outsized presence on the ground. However, an important point that Yemeni detractors of the UAE miss is that the Emirati threat to Yemeni unity is simply a byproduct of its own broader survival strategy.
While the UAE has effectively implemented its strategies in Yemen, its current problems stem from the formulation of strategies, rather than the efficiency of their implementation. Faced with a choice between stability and instability, and between supporting secular socially progressive forces and supporting militant Salafis who, at best will evolve to become Islah and at worst will become AQAP, the UAE has consistently made the wrong decision.
The current UAE strategy in southern Yemen is similar to walking on quicksand. Having created a highly volatile political and military balance, it must keep watch and be prepared to intervene at a moment’s notice so as to ensure that the winds will not blow in the wrong direction. No matter how vigilant, though, the UAE is bound to fail. It takes just one misstep to drag the entire south into a morass of chaos and bloodshed.
A stable, socially progressive federal Yemen is the only real option for stability in the Arabian Peninsula. It would also represent a positive counterweight, aligning with some or all of the lesser GCC states, against the hegemony of any Big Sister.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.
This commentary is part of a series of publications by the Sana’a Center examining the roles of state and non-state foreign actors in Yemen.