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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

Yemen intervention advances UAE goals on two fronts

Military support pushes back against Iran's regional meddling and secures vital trade route

Smoke rises after an air strike on a military site in Sanaa. Reuters
Smoke rises after an air strike on a military site in Sanaa. Reuters

As a momentous year draws to a close, The National is running a series of articles examining the impact of the growing diplomatic strength of the UAE.

Over the next few days, we will examine the country’s growing international influence, be it through the soft power of culture and connectivity, or strengthening ties within the GCC and further around the globe.

This nation has never had a more prominent position in the world – and this series will explain how it was achieved, why it matters and what lies ahead.

The UAE’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war is part of a larger grand strategy and the continuation of a foreign policy aimed at securing trade networks and scaling back Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula.

Yemen provides the clearest manifestation of the two guiding principles of UAE foreign policy: battling extremism, in the form of Al Qaeda, and cutting off Iran’s access to the Arab world.

The UAE has been embroiled in a four-year conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country. Along with Saudi Arabia and other allies, it intervened on behalf of the Yemeni government to fight the Iranian-backed movement known as the Houthis.

Seizing control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2014, the minority Shiite group’s grip over the country represented a threat of regime change at a time when Abu Dhabi was coping with the rise of political Islam as a fallout of the Arab uprisings in 2011.

The Houthi-led coup, coupled with Yemen’s geographically strategic importance for the UAE, has led it to extend the realm of its own security beyond the borders of the seven emirates.

Ensuring the stability of Yemen would protect the UAE’s interests in the Horn of Africa and maintain a strong Saudi Arabia capable of countering Iran’s increasing influence in the region.

Recent talks in Sweden have led to a ceasefire in Yemen, but it remains to be seen if the two sides can reconcile their differences and maintain security in the Arab world's poorest state.

In the meantime, the UAE is sending aid to Yemen to try to help alleviate the suffering of 14 million people on the brink of famine, which the UN calls the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

Through the Emirati Red Crescent, the UAE has spent billions of dirhams on providing assistance to Yemenis, from relief to paying government workers to ensure the continuation of services.

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Al Qaeda in Yemen, or Aqap, also represented one of the last bastions of the terrorist group with aspirations of extending its reach throughout the Arabian Peninsula. That presence threatened the UAE’s interests.

But the cost of the UAE's quest for regional stability has been high and the toll even extends to the royal family.

Sheikh Zayed bin Hamdan suffered injuries during his tour in Yemen that have left him in a wheelchair. He was among the delegation that accompanied Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, on a recent visit to Riyadh.

The war has also brought the UAE closer to Saudi Arabia, which increasingly considers it as its most important Arab ally and an example for its own projected development under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform campaign.

Southern Yemen, where the government has established an interim capital in Aden, loosely falls under the purview of the UAE. It sent troops there earlier in the conflict but now has rolled out a programme of humanitarian assistance and training for the Yemeni military and local fighters.

“The UAE's main focus in Yemen has always been the south of the country, and the UAE has devoted most of its resources to train and strengthen southern forces. The key question for the future would be whether the UAE also wants to endorse the main objective of these southern actors - full autonomy or even independence from the north,” said Cinzia Bianco, a senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics.

Having spent billions of dirhams on aid to help sustain peace, the UAE maintains that a diplomatic solution is the only road to lasting peace and will continue to pursue that in face of the new developments.

Updated: December 27, 2018 12:57 PM

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