Analysis by Tim Lister, CNN
August 22, 2019
(CNN)The partnership of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is the closest anywhere in the Middle East. It goes back decades, fashioned by antipathy towards Iran and support for Sunni causes across the Muslim world.
So when Mohammed bin Salman, now Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, launched a military campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen four years ago, it was no surprise the UAE joined the offensive. The two states have also spearheaded an embargo against Qatar and have been vociferous supporters of the Trump administration’s sanctions against Iran.
They have both supported, financially and rhetorically, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. And there is a close personal relationship between Mohammed bin Salman and the effective leader of the UAE, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
But cracks have begun to appear in the region’s most important alliance, as the Yemen campaign staggers toward stalemate and tactics differ over confronting Iran’s behavior in the Gulf. And that may become a headache for the Trump administration, already frustrated by the Saudi-UAE spat with Qatar.
The original purpose of the Yemen offensive was to blunt Iranian influence wielded there through the Houthi rebels. But ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ has turned out to be far from decisive. It became a quagmire — and a PR disaster because of the huge civilian suffering.
The UAE seems to have concluded that the war is unwinnable and too costly to pursue and began drawing down its forces in Yemen in July — though it remains committed to counter-terrorism strikes against the Yemeni affiliates of al Qaeda and ISIS.
While its military presence in Yemen was modest, the UAE punched above its weight, exerting great influence with factions in the south while the Saudis mainly worked with the internationally-recognized government, which is in effect based in Riyadh.
Michael Knights at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy spent time embedded with UAE forces in Yemen and says: “Only the UAE had the military potency and local allied forces to credibly threaten defeat for the Houthis.”
The drawdown of the Emirati presence in the port of Aden unleashed a confrontation between the southern separatists, backed and armed by the UAE, and the remnants of the Saudi-backed government in the city. The UAE’s allies attacked government facilities and took control of much of the city, including the port. Yemeni ministers publicly blamed the UAE for the separatists’ success.
Last month, a senior Emirati official described the drawdown as a “strategic redeployment” and said the UAE had trained about 90,000 troops in Yemen.
“Our commitment in Yemen remains. We are part of the coalition. Our discussion over our current redeployment has been ongoing for over a year,” the official told CNN.
Yemen’s civil war within a civil war
But analysts see the UAE’s move as a signal to the Saudi Crown Prince: it’s time to wind down this war. Ayham Kamal at the Eurasia Group says the UAE may be “trying to incentivize the Saudis to give more serious consideration to disengagement” with no military victory on the horizon.
Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute agrees that Saudi Arabia is now more isolated in Yemen and “needs a settlement with the Houthis to secure its border in the north. The UAE drawdown may bring more urgency to this task, but it doesn’t strengthen the Saudi position in the negotiations.”
While the Saudi/UAE coalition reversed some Houthi gains, the rebels still control the capital and much of the north. They are capable of weekly missile and drone attacks against Saudi targets — from airports to pipelines. The latest attack was against the Shaybah gas facility last weekend.
There are substantial Saudi ground forces — about 10,000 according to two sources familiar with Saudi deployments — inside Yemen. But much of the Saudi campaign against the Houthis has been waged from the air, with mixed results and heavy civilian casualties. In turn that has galvanized opposition in the US Congress to supplying weapons and assistance to the coalition. Last month, President Trump vetoed legislation to block $8.1 billion in arms sales to the kingdom.
A ground offensive would inevitably worsen what is already the gravest humanitarian crisis in the world. But investing in the UN-led peace process would involve making concessions to the Houthis, a humiliating climbdown for the Saudi crown prince after four years of conflict.
For now, the Saudis and the UAE are trying to get the various anti-Houthi parties to settle their differences. Last week bin Zayed met Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and the Crown Prince in Jeddah and said both governments called on “rival Yemeni parties to cease fire and favor the language of dialogue and reason.”