By Shady Abdel Whab, Executive editor-in-chief of Trending Events Periodical, Head of Security Studies Unit
The Arab coalition in Yemen and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular have played a vital role in supporting the Yemeni government in its war against both al-Qaeda and Houthi rebels. These campaigns curtailed the influence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and reduced the Houthi threats to maritime security in the Bab-al-Mandeb strait, making a positive contribution to regional and international security.
This paper reviews the Emirati fight against AQAP as well as the Emirati – Saudi efforts to undermine the Houthis, thus preventing Iran from establishing a foothold in the southern backyard of Saudi Arabia.
Degrading the al-Qaeda Threat
AQAP managed to seize territories in southern Yemen starting in April 2015, exploiting the infighting between the legitimate government of Abdrabu Mansur Hadi and Houthi rebels(1 ). This fighting served the military objectives of AQAP, as US forces were no longer present to carry out attacks against the terrorist organization, while the Yemeni security and military forces were distracted from their fight with AQAP.(2 )
These developments allowed AQAP to expand its influence in southern Yemen by forging tribal alliances and providing services to the local people. They capitalized on local resentment against central authorities and were aided by the collapse of the Yemeni security institutions in the south(3 ).
It should be recalled here that AQAP is not only concentrating on expanding its reach within Yemen. It has been one of the most active branches of al-Qaeda, even exceeding al-Qaeda central in Pakistan as a threat to international security. In particular, AQAP has been a persistent threat to commercial aviation, thanks to its master bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri.
Al-Asiri provided the Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with an underwear bomb in an attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit in 2009. Al-Asiri also managed to build a pair of bombs that made their way onto a cargo plane bound for the United States, but were intercepted in Britain and Dubai(4), thanks to a tip from Saudi intelligence. In both cases, the bombs were not spotted by the airport detection systems(5).
AQAP is also responsible for publishing Inspire magazine, which has urged potential extremists to commit terrorist attacks in the west by providing them with tactics and suggesting potential targets. In this context, fighting the group aids the efforts against international terrorism.
The UAE started fighting AQAP in March 2016, after the capture of southern parts of Yemen from the Houthis, especially Aden and Marib. Saudi and Emirati airstrikes targeted terrorist bases and training camps in Mukalla, Abyan and some of Aden’s districts(6).
The Emiratis trained tribal forces from Hadramawt province, such as the Hadrami Elite Force and its Security Belt Forces, amassing a force of 12,000 fighters which managed to expel AQAP forces from Mukalla by April 2016(7). Since then, Emirati-backed forces have used Mukalla as a central headquarters for directing operations against AQAP. The United States backed this war by using drones to target a number of AQAP’s leaders in Yemen(8).
In addition, US special forces conducted a joint raid with UAE special forces on allies of AQAP in January 2017 and both US and Emirati forces advised about 2,000 Yemeni forces conducting an operation against AQAP sanctuaries in Shabwa Province in August 2017(9).
The UAE counterterrorism efforts in southern Yemen improved the security situation dramatically, as according to the Emirati Army “there were only five terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda in the first half of 2018, compared to 77 in the same period of 2016”(10).
These counterterrorism operations angered the terrorist group, which has tried to target the Emirati army and aligned local forces, while the AQAP media outlet has criticized the Emirati role in fighting AQAP(11). Despite these attacks, UAE commanders have declared their commitment to stay in Yemen until AQAP’s central command has been defeated(12).
The Emirati presence is essential since AQAP still present a potential threat, especially after the group sought and found shelter in the remote mountainous terrain of Hadramawt, where it retained its capability to regroup and activate sleeper cells(13).
Battling the Houthi Rebels
Saudi Arabia led the coalition of Arab countries that responded to the Houthi-led coup against the legitimate and internationally recognized government of President Abdurabbuh Mansur Hadi in March 2015. The coalition included the UAE in the lead alongside Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan.(14)
The main aim is to prevent the Houthis, the Iranian proxies, from gaining a foothold in Yemen, a development that not only threatened Saudi Arabia, but also maritime security in the Red Sea and the Bab-al-Mandeb strait. The strait has high strategic importance – more than four million barrels of oil pass through it daily.
There were several indicators of Iranian collusion with the Houthis. After the latter managed to gain control of Sana’a, Ali Reza Zakani, an Iranian member of parliament who is close to the supreme guide Ali Khamenei, said: “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution” and added that Sana’a has now become the fourth Arab capital that is on its way to joining the Iranian revolution.
Furthermore, Iran utilized the Houthis as a tool to disrupt the security of Bab-al-Mandeb in case any crisis erupts with Iran. General Naser Sha’bani, a top official of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was quoted in the Iranian media on August 6, 2018, confirming that Tehran had ordered the Houthi militia in Yemen to attack two Saudi Very Large Crude Carriers, and that it had carried out those orders(15). A few hours later Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani said the Red Sea was no longer safe for US vessels, providing another indication that Iran is involved in this attack(16).
According to a July 2018 report by a UN panel of experts, Iran colluded in arming Yemen’s Houthi rebels with ballistic missiles and drones that “show characteristics similar” to Iranian-made weapons, despite the UN arms embargo imposed on Yemen since 2015 (17).
These indicators reveal how Iran is utilizing Houthis as proxies and explain why the Arab coalition intervened in Yemen to curtail Iranian influence and prevent Iran from establishing a permanent presence near the strategic waterways of the Red Sea.
The UAE has played a vital role in the war. It has now trained 30,000 Yemeni soldiers for fighting the Houthi rebels (18) and is considered the second most active country working to defeat them (19), especially after UAE forces joined the operation to seize the Hodeidah port from the rebels.
Hodeidah lies in a strategic location on the western coast of Yemen, near the Bab Al Mandeb strait, and the Houthis used its port to launch attacks threatening maritime security(20) as well as to receive Iranian arms.
The assault on Hodeidah could be considered one of the main factors that pushed the Houthis to sit at the negotiating table with the legitimate government in Sweden in early December. In addition, the initial success of the Arab coalition’s battle in Hodeidah forced the Houthis to cede control of the port to the United Nations(21).
In the final analysis, the Arab coalition’s role in Yemen supports the legitimate government to retain its control over Yemeni territory, contributing to international as well as regional security. Moreover, the Arab coalition’s role in Yemen is expected to continue even if a final peace deal is reached between the legitimate government and the Houthi rebels, as rebuilding state institutions and the collapsed economy will require international help and support.
1 Adam Baron, The Gulf Country That Will Shape the Future of Yemen, The Atlantic, September 22, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2DjSzR8
2 Katherine Zimmerman, AQAP: A Resurgent Threat, CTC sentinel, September 2015, Vol. 8, Issue 9, p. 19.
3 Eleonora Ardemagni, Uae’s military priorities in Yemen: Counterterrorism and the South, July 28, 2016, ISPI, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2STR9jl
4 Bruce Riedel, Ibrahim al Asiri: al Qaeda’s ‘Genius’ Bomb Maker, Brookings, May 8, 2012, accessible at: https://brook.gs/2MHQoaR
5 Yochi Dreazen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Most Dangerous Man Is Still Alive, Foreign Policy, June 16, 2015, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2Bvfftu
7 Adam Baron, op.cit.
8 Katherine Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 19.
9 Kenneth Katzman, The United Arab Emirates (UAE): Issues for U.S. Policy, Congressional Research Service, no. RS21852, October 25, 2018, p. 13.
10 Anjana Sankar, No compromise in war against Al Qaeda in Yemen, Khaleej Times, August 14, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2NkMkB2
11 Qatar helped Al Qaida target UAE troops in Yemen: diplomat, Gulf News, July 20, 2017, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2EBWsRi
12 Bel Trew, Inside the UAE’s war on al-Qaeda in Yemen, The Independent, August 15, 2018, accessible at: https://ind.pn/2w7Emjw
13 Anjana Sankar, No compromise in war against Al Qaeda in Yemen, Khaleej Times, August 14, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2NkMkB2
14 Jeremy M. Sharp, Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention, Congressional Research Service, August 24, 2018, no. R43960, p. 1.
15 Statements By Top IRGC Official Gen. Sha’bani Published By Fars News Agency: ‘We Told The Yemenis To Attack The Two Saudi Tankers, And They Attacked’, Memri, Special Dispatch No.7612, August 7, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2Mdxg7V
16 Panic in Iran over Attack on Two Saudi Oil Carriers, Asharq Al-Awsat, August 8, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2MFc4Us
17 UN panel finds further evidence of Iran link to Houthi missiles, Khaleej Times, July 31, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2vmdv2N
18 Bel Trew, op.cit.
19 The UAE’s Role in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, ACLED, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2yKhsjh
20 Naser Al Wasmi, Why the battle for Hodeidah is important, The National, May 14, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2Gh8CLM
21 Mina Aldroubi, Yemen war: UN to convene Yemen rivals by video link regarding Hodeidah ceasefire, The National, December 18, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2EtCJ5u