The United Arab Emirates said Monday, July 8 that it was redeploying and reducing troops across war-torn Yemen and moving from a “military-first” strategy to a “peace-first” plan.
The UAE is a key partner in a Saudi-led military coalition which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to back the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
“We do have troop levels that are down for reasons that are strategic in Hodeidah and reasons that are tactical” in other parts of the country, a senior UAE official, who requested anonymity, told reporters.
“It is very much to do with moving from what I would call a military-first strategy to a peace-first strategy, and this is I think what we are doing.”
The official however reiterated the UAE’s commitment to the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition, saying discussions on redeployment have been ongoing for more than a year.
“This is not really a last-minute decision. This is part of the process and naturally a process within the coalition that’s been discussed extensively with our partners, the Saudis,” he said.
Coalition spokesperson Turki al-Maliki said both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are committed to achieve their goals in Yemen.
“The United Arab Emirates and the countries in the coalition continue to achieve their operations and strategic goals,” he told a news conference in Riyadh in response to a question about the redeployment of UAE troops.
According to a Yemeni military government official, UAE troops fighting the Houthis have “totally vacated” the military base in Khokha, about 130 km (80 miles) south of Hodeidah.
The UAE withdrew part of its heavy artillery from Khokha but was – along with the Saudi-led coalition and the government – still overseeing the military situation in Yemen’s western coast, he said on Monday.
Middle East expert James Dorsey has said a redeployment reflects “long-standing subtle differences” in the Saudi and UAE approaches towards Yemen.
The pullback “highlights the UAE’s long-standing concern for its international standing amid mounting criticism of the civilian toll of the war,” he has said.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians, have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015, relief agencies say.
The fighting has triggered what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with millions of people displaced and in need of aid.
In March 2018, rights group Amnesty International accused Western countries of supplying arms to Riyadh and its allies, who could stand guilty of war crimes in Yemen.
And in August last year a U.N. expert mission concluded that all warring parties had potentially committed “war crimes.”
According to Dorsey with the pullback “the UAE may allow differences with Saudi Arabia to become more visible but will not put its alliance with the kingdom at risk.”
Furthermore, Emirati-trained local troops will “continue to do its [UAE] bidding” on the ground, he said.
The Yemeni official told AFP the UAE has trained tens of thousands of Yemenis to fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State in southern provinces – mainly Aden, Mukalla and Shabwa.
The UAE announcement comes amid a standoff between the United States and Iran, which spiked in June when Iran shot down a U.S. drone over strategic Gulf waters following a series of tanker attacks that Washington blamed on Iran, which denied involvement.
The UAE official said the Emirates’ redeployment decision was not linked to the increase of regional tensions but it was not “blind to the overall geostrategic picture.”
The official stressed the redeployment was in line with the agreement reached in Sweden in December between Yemen’s warring parties.
U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of supplying sophisticated weapons to Houthi rebels, a charge Tehran denies.
With reporting from AFP