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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Yemen conflict casts a shadow, but UAE unity strengthened

National identity has changed in the three years since the conflict began

Emiratis celebrate the first return of soldiers from the campaign in Yemen at the entrance to Zayed Military City on the Sweihan road on November 7, 2015. Antonie Robertson / The National
Emiratis celebrate the first return of soldiers from the campaign in Yemen at the entrance to Zayed Military City on the Sweihan road on November 7, 2015. Antonie Robertson / The National

Monday marks three years since the Saudi-led coalition launched its campaign to restore the legitimate government of Yemen and the start of a decisive mission for the UAE’s Armed Forces.

In those three years, its international role and civil society have been transformed, not only affecting those across the peninsula but also those who have stayed behind.

In the beginning, the campaign was named Operation Decisive Storm. The goal of the coalition was a simple one: restore Yemen’s internationally recognised president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, who had been deposed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Four weeks later, the campaign changed its name to Operation Restoring Hope. The campaign is ongoing.

The war began a year after National Service was introduced but it was only with deployment of troops to Yemen that the military began to play such a central role in national identity.

Traces of the distant war can be found across the country. On national holidays, children have swapped traditional colourful dresses for fatigues. Mosques and motorways have been renamed to honour those who serve their country.

Meanwhile, the UAE has asserted a new role for itself in combat, leading an alliance of nine states with Saudi Arabia.

For the Emirates, it has been unlike any other war and signals a shift from peacekeeping missions the UAE undertook in its early decades.

“This is probably the largest day-to-day military engagement the UAE has ever done,” said Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati political scientist and associate professor at UAE University.

“What’s significant is that military engagement in Yemen has started with a huge reservoir of public trust. Probably no other government in the region enjoys as much trust as the UAE government and the operation in Yemen has just enhanced it.

“People take it for granted that the government knows what it is doing, even in war, and that it will take us to the toughest job and we will come back as winners. I think that has been fundamental.”

The UAE has taken a leadership role in south Yemen, where it has defended the strategic port city of Aden and liberated the eastern port city of Mukalla from Al Qaeda control. Notable too, has been its training of ­Yemeni forces.

“They’ve learnt how to project and have been taking lessons in how to fight an air and ground war that they may be able to use as an example for someplace else as the region continues its direction into the unknown,” said Dr Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics. “The way that the UAE has approached the Yemen war has shifted. They have learnt over time and made adjustments. That’s the sign of a mature military.”

The war has also changed domestic politics in the UAE, strengthening national cohesion by entwining military and national imagery, analysts said.

“External challenges have brought the seven emirates closer than ever,” said Dr Abdulla. “The leaders are going out of their way to reach out to families and the people at large.”

With the introduction of National Service, every Emirati family has been touched by the military. The country has been united in moments of celebration and moments of sadness, like the death of 45 servicemen in 2015, when a Houthi rocket hit a weapon depot in Marib.

Such moments have been adopted into the national narrative.

The national holiday of Commemoration Day was introduced in 2015 on the anniversary of the death of Salem Al Dhamani.

Regarded as the country’s first martyr, the Ras Al Khaimah police officer died recovering a flag when Iranians seized control of the RAK-governed Tunb islands on the eve of the country’s unification in 1971. Ten years ago, his name and story were almost unknown. With the war in Yemen, he is the star of children’s books and cartoons, recast as a national folk hero. The feeling of national unity is unprecedented, Dr Karasik said.

In the same vein, losses from across different Emirates, have strengthened national unity. Since the war began, there have been an unprecedented number of visits from leaders to the Northern Emirates. They console families at funerals for soldiers attended by hundreds, and celebrate with families at state-sponsored mass weddings.

Support for the war remains.

“You would think that people’s enthusiasm would decline with the losses and actually I saw the opposite. The feeling that I get is that people are still rallying behind the flag and still supporting the strategy of the UAE,” said Albadr Alshateri, an adjunct professor at the National Defence College. “No question, people want to see an end to this. I mean, nobody likes war, right? But solidarity is still strong.”

But before the UAE can withdraw, it must help to rebuild.

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“You can pacify a region but then it will collapse,” said Dr Alshateri. “So we send medical teams to rebuild hospitals, we send people to train security forces, to build the infrastructure, to bring electricity and water. All those elements are very important for a stable and viable state.”

In December, the UN said that Yemen was “on the cusp of one of the largest famines in modern times”, with eight million people at risk of death by starvation. The number of suspected cholera victims had exceeded a million, including at least 60,000 children.

“There’s no other country on Earth that wants this war to end today rather than tomorrow more than the UAE and Saudi Arabia because the war turns into a war of attrition,” Dr Abdulla said.

“But as long as the Houthis are occupying Sanaa this means that the war is not concluded. The Houthis, from everything that we know, are not going to leave Sanaa.” Meanwhile, Iranian backing of the Houthis, including delivering weapons and missiles, continues.

The UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths is currently in the region to oversee talks.

“The Emirates has certainly gained respect for its important role in the coalition and for its success militarily,” said Gerald Feierstein, the director for Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute.

“To cement those gains, the UAE should also play a role in supporting a political process that leads to the resolution of the civil war and the return of the legitimate government to Sanaa.”