Where Riyadh’s imperial ambitions are haphazard, Abu Dhabi’s are smooth and calculated. While Saudi Arabia has spent billions murdering civilians, the UAE has built military bases, forged imperial alliances, and secured its grip on regional hegemony both politically and militarily aligning itself as the next major US ally as a tool of imperialism.
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (Analysis) — Since the beginning of the war against Yemen in March of 2015, Saudi Arabia has received most of the negative press for its war crimes — and rightfully so. Saudi airstrikes have targeted homes, schools, hospitals, markets, and other vital civilian infrastructure, resulting in over 13,000 civilian deaths. Saudi Arabia’s land, sea and air blockade has put nearly 8 million Yemenis on the brink of famine, while triggering devastating cholera and diphtheria outbreaks.
Although this humanitarian disaster is widely known as the “Saudi-led” war, another rising regional power sits in the shadows. What is rarely covered by the media is the United Arab Emirates’ involvement in Yemen, but its influence and military might are an equally evil force to be reckoned with.
There is indeed a proxy war taking place in Yemen, but it isn’t between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the media would like the public to believe. Throughout Yemen’s southern provinces and beyond, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are battling for political control of the country and crucial Yemeni waterways — and the UAE appears to be winning.
While Saudi Arabia has spent billions — $200 million per day — on weapons, murdering civilians and completely failing in its objectives in taking control over Yemen, the UAE has built military bases, forged imperial alliances, and secured its grip on regional hegemony both politically and militarily in the same country. As a result, the UAE has made itself into an ideal tool for long-term U.S. imperialism.
UAE occupation of southern Yemen
While Riyadh wages its air war, Abu Dhabi has flooded southern Yemen with troops. The Emiratis stationed troops on the Yemeni-controlled island of Socotra — a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which they use for training purposes — in November of 2015. With current UAE assistance (and previous decades of assistance from late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh), the United States has secured a naval base on the island as well.
This strategic island sits about 300 miles from Yemen’s southern coastline and provides an ideal location for monitoring the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea. These waterways link Asia to Europe through the Suez canal and their importance cannot be overstated.
When additional U.S. troops entered Yemen for a so-called offensive against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in July, it was Emirati, not Saudi, forces that greeted them at the airport and assisted in the operation — an operation that ended with a U.S. and UAE joint occupation of oil fields in Yemen’s Shabwah province.
Although the additional troops entered Yemen under the guise of fighting AQAP, it is far more likely that Washington was attempting to secure its military dominance in the war-torn nation.
The United States asserts that its activity in Yemen remains restricted to fighting AQAP and assisting Saudi-coalition forces, but it isn’t unheard of for special forces to aid Saudi-backed troops on the front lines against Ansarullah (aka “The Houthis”) or other non-AQAP actors. Ansarullah and their local allies makeup Yemen’s grassroots political and military resistance against Saudi aggression and American imperialism.
In May, Yemeni media reported that about 30 American and Gulf troops were killed or injured by tribal fighters on the ground in Marib province. Western media, on the other hand, stuck to their story that the fighters who attacked the invading US troops were AQAP militants. As The Hill reported: “Multiple U.S. troops were injured in a firefight during a raid on a compound associated with al Qaeda in Yemen, according to a Pentagon spokesman.”
Reuters began its story by stating, “Seven militants were killed during an intelligence-gathering raid by U.S. Special Forces troops against an al-Qaeda compound in Yemen on Tuesday morning.” However the article later states “They [local sources in Marib] said that five members of their al-Moradi clan, a main tribe in Marib, had died in the operation and six others were wounded, adding that they were all civilians.”
U.S. airstrikes have also targeted Ansarullah positions in the past. In October, Yemeni forces in Sana’a shot down a Reaper drone conducting reconnaissance. It’s unclear whether or not U.S. forces were actively engaged in operations along Yemen’s western coast against Ansarullah. However, it remains likely that American troops are far more involved in this war than Washington and the Western press lead the public to believe.
Emirati security forces control the city of Aden, where the coalition has set up its improvised capital. This capital, however, is without a defined leader. The so-called internationally recognized president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, currently lives in Riyadh as a consequence of his failure to garner public support. If that weren’t enough, the Emiratis have now reportedly banned Hadi from even entering Aden.
In fact, Abu Dhabi has done just about everything possible to remove Saudi influence from southern Yemen altogether. Earlier this year, Yemeni politicians with long-term ties to the UAE formed the Southern Transitional Council behind Riyadh’s back to govern the south on their own terms. The UAE also fully supports south Yemen’s separatist movement, which directly conflicts with Saudi interests in Yemen.
War crimes, mercenaries, and unspeakable torture in U.S.-backed prisons
It isn’t common to hear about Emirati war crimes in Yemen, but they are indeed very real.
In June, an investigation by the Associated Press uncovered a system of prisons developed and controlled by the U.S. and UAE during the Obama administration. At these 18 prisons, beatings and unspeakable torture takes place. One device, called “the grill,” included roasting victims over an open fire.
Families and lawyers say at least 2,000 people have disappeared into these prisons after likely being swept up as part of broad al-Qaeda stings. Shipping containers were designed to hold 50 prisoners each, who spent the duration of their imprisonment shackled and blindfolded
Detention centers rife with torture aren’t the UAE’s only war crime. Last month the International Criminal Court filed a lawsuit against the Emiratis for their use of internationally banned cluster bombs in Yemen, as well as indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
When it comes to fighters, the UAE prefers to hire-in rather than employ their own. The Emiratis are one of the world’s largest employers of Blackwater mercenaries. As their military presence grows throughout the Red Sea and Horn of Africa, the UAE has struggled to employ enough fighters to keep up.
As a result, Abu Dhabi hires and trains mercenaries from Sudan, Columbia, and South America to carry out their dirty work in Yemen, Libya, and beyond. NATO countries and other allies, of course, assist with training and dispatch. In fact, the top officer in the Emirati Presidential Guard is an Australian citizen.
UAE domination of the Red Sea and Horn of Africa
Occupation and political control of Yemen is one strategic part of the Emirati plan to secure regional military and economic hegemony throughout the Red Sea and Horn of Africa.
The Red Sea and Bab al Mandeb strait are strategic waterways for both military surveillance and economic control. Four million barrels of oil and other hydrocarbon products pass through Bab al Mandeb each day on their way to the Suez Canal and ultimately to Europe and beyond.
Over the past summer, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh butted heads again over control of crucial Yemeni islands in the Bab al Mandeb strait. Whatever entity controls these waterways controls a significant portion of global trade.
With it now under U.S. and Emirati military occupation, Abu Dhabi’s goal was to create a new Yemeni province called Bab al Mandeb. This province would include the two Red Sea islands as well as Yemeni districts currently part of Hajj, Lahj, and Taiz provinces. Bab al Mandeb province would be under Aden’s control and ultimately the UAE’s. In other words, the Emiratis would control almost all of Yemen’s western coast, including port cities and Red Sea territories.
The UAE pushed Hadi and Riyadh to declare this new province, which they of course declined to do, likely due to the fact that this would increase UAE influence in the region while lessening Hadi’s (and Riyadh’s) already minimal power.
Perhaps most striking, however, is Abu Dhabi’s growing military might throughout the Horn of Africa. The UAE has used the war against Yemen as a springboard to secure its hegemony throughout the entire region.
In the past few years, Abu Dhabi has secured bases in Eritrea, Somaliland, Djibouti, and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. Djibouti has become a cold battle ground in itself recently, as the U.S., China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Italy, Spain, France, and Japan all have troops stationed here.
Coordinating Saleh’s failed coup
According to various sources, the UAE orchestrated the attempted coup carried out by Saleh and some members of the General People’s Congress (GPC) against Ansarullah (the Houthis) in early December.
On December 4, Saleh was killed while attempting to flee Sana’a after launching a failed coup to push out Ansarullah and realign with the Saudi coalition. Details surrounding his death are murky — but, after nearly three years of alliance with Ansarullah, what caused Saleh to suddenly switch sides?
President of Sana’a’s Supreme Political Council, Saleh Ali al-Sammad, said this decision did not come from within the GPC itself but instead was an “invitation” from an outside entity.
Al-Sammad cited the absence of GPC members during the coup and lack of an official statement from the GPC as an entity. He also suggested the attempted coup was actually part of a long-term plan by enemy forces, stating “these problems and events that took place were not born today.”
According to Iranian researcher Dr. Mohamed Sadiq al-Husseini, the planning for details of the coup began in August of this year. The UAE began training and arming close associates of Saleh and grooming Saleh’s son to enter the Yemeni political scene. Husseini concluded:
“It was decided to train 1,200 close associates of Ali Abdullah Saleh in the camps of the UAE forces in the city of Aden to be the leading forces for those to be later recruited and trained in Sana’a and its environs, which will then be responsible for carrying out the coup d’état.”
A total of nine meetings reportedly took place on the island of Socotra involving Emirati and Israeli officers. By the time December rolled around, 8,000 troops within Sana’a were prepared for the coup, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE providing air support by bombing checkpoints.
UAE: A more stable ally than Saudi Arabia
In the long-run, the UAE may prove to be a more stable regional U.S. ally than Saudi Arabia. The first point of concern is Daesh (ISIS) and other terror groups, like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
While these groups certainly align with U.S. interests in most regions, they also threaten U.S. economic interests through their quests for power. Saudi-backed troops in Yemen fight along side AQAP militants against Ansarullah, and the UAE isn’t exactly happy about this. In fact, AQAP and ISIS frequently target Emirati political figures and security forces in Aden with suicide bombers and terror attacks.
Arming and allying with these extremist groups is just another place Riyadh and Abu Dhabi disagree, and this has become a sore spot for the two nations. To secure its own economic and military interests, it wouldn’t be surprising if the U.S. slowly shifts alliance away from Saudi Arabia and towards the UAE.
Where Riyadh’s imperial ambitions are haphazard, Abu Dhabi’s are smooth and calculated. Using this war as a stepping stone, the UAE has secured political control in Yemen, expanded its military presence across the Red Sea, and elevated its status as a key ally of U.S. imperialism.
Randi Nord is a journalist and co-founder of Geopolitics Alert. She covers U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East with a special focus on Yemen.