The UAE Pull-out and the Breakdown of the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen

14 August 2019 Xian Hong Say, Research Assistant, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

In what has been called the “Vietnam of the Gulf”, the economic strains and political instability in the Arabian Gulf caused by the Civil War in Yemen, has finally proved too great for Abu Dhabi. On 11 July, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) officially declared its military withdrawal from the Saudi-led Coalition. After several strategic blunders by Riyadh during a war with no end in sight, the once-confident and united coalition has disintegrated. This has caused more fractures and rifts in an already-fractured Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). Riyadh’s failure to uphold its grand strategy of maintaining a pro-Saudi Yemeni Government is a geostrategic victory for Iran.

Comment

The official withdrawal of Emirati forces from Yemen on 11 July 2019 has proven to be a significant blow to the Saudi-led Coalition’s intervention in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have traditionally been close strategic allies, but the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the public relations disaster resulting from Coalition-led airstrikes, have sown doubts in the minds of UAE strategists about Mohammad bin Salman’s (MBS) competency, as well as his military and political experience, to prosecute the war. As one of the most influential and powerful members of the GCC, Abu Dhabi’s withdrawal is a symbolic and political blow to Riyadh’s regional leadership aspirations. As the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies observes, ‘The war was never winnable in the first place, with the second-most-important partner gone, even this illusion is no longer there.’

Saudi Arabia’s predicament is further intensified by increasing international scrutiny, condemnation and pressure over the Coalition’s mismanagement of the situation in Yemen. For Abu Dhabi itself, the pull-out from the Coalition has more to do with the fact that the war is increasingly seen as a strain on its resources, despite the diplomatic friction it will cause with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Abu Dhabi’s retreat from its commitments to Riyadh has put the testy relationship between the two prominent Gulf States on edge. For the UAE, the so-called ‘united front’ has been a failure, as contradictory conflicts of interest threatened regional stability. Riyadh’s desperation to prevent Yemen close alignment with Iran is understandable, but MBS’s hard-line approach towards the Houthis has only led to increasing alienation and political isolation from the international community.

The reasons for the erosion of Saudi-UAE trust over Yemen fundamentally stem from Riyadh’s strategic miscalculations. The first was intervening in Yemen in Operation Decisive Storm without proper planning and preparation. Despite boasting the third-largest military spending in the world and having open US support, the mountainous topography of Yemen has forced the Saudi Coalition into a military quagmire. The lack of preparation was further compounded by Saudi underestimation of the Houthi and – by proxy – Iranian resolve. This culminated in the firing of Houthi missiles into Riyadh’s airspace, undercutting Saudi Arabia’s military prowess and demoralising Coalition forces.

There was, additionally, a clear lack of strategic goals. Riyadh predominantly supports the Hadi government and Islah (which the UAE strongly opposes), while Abu Dhabi supports the separatist Southern Movement and Southern Transitional Council (STC) instead. The split undermines the chance of a united Yemen eventuating under exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. This clear conflict of interests eventually led to violent infighting between the two allied forces behind the scenes, culminating in the STC’s capture of the strategic port city of Aden. The diplomatic fallout and public embarrassment caused by Riyadh’s mishandling of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, only added to the infighting.

It is difficult to fault the UAE’s decision to withdraw, as Abu Dhabi sees no strategic net positive in prosecuting a war that not only drains the state’s resources, but is unpopular in the region. Abu Dhabi is wary of its close geopolitical proximity to Iran, furthermore, and, as the recent oil tanker fiasco in the Persian Gulf shows, the UAE would rather protect its trade interests than risk provoking a drone attack from the Houthis.

Consequently, it is not surprising that the Coalition has lost a third of its members after four years of continuous war. For Iran, the news of the UAE’s retreat is a much needed positive, given the economic constraints it faces. The nationalistic Iranian regime seems prepared to pay the price of economic sanctions, if it means surrounding Saudi Arabia with Iranian-friendly proxies.

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