Since last March, violence has increased in Yemen’s war between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition. The latter, in what many consider a proxy war, aims to restore the Yemeni government and resist Iran’s attempt at flexing its political and religious muscle in the region. The war is also witnessing the growing existential threat of Ansar al-Shari’a, a terrorist organization that the US Department of State designated as an alias of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2010.
Amidst the major political and religious Saudi Arabia-Iran tensions and additional alliance-foe complexities in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also playing a surprisingly major role in fighting against the Houthi rebels and AQAP, alongside the Saudi-led coalition. Generally known for its secularism and peacefulness, why is this tiny, young Gulf country heavily involved in a war 1,500 kilometers away from home?
The United Arab Emirates, founded by His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1971, has been a member of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) since its establishment in 1981. One of the integral foundations of the GCC is joint military cooperation, to which the Arab members agree to cooperate and defend their sovereignty, stability, and interests from domestic and external threats. The UAE, along with the rest of the predominantly Sunni GCC members, hence have a distinctive reason to resist a Shiite Iran’s attempt to gain influence in the region. The Houthis, aligned with Iran, practice an offshoot of Shi’a Islam known as Zaydism. With a Sunni population of over 80%, the future of Yemen poses great anxiety for the UAE. An alliance with Iran could severely affect its own and the Gulf’s delicate religious stability, should the Iran-backed Houthis prevail in Yemen. It would be particularly detrimental to the Gulf countries if Yemen, a neighboring country with significant territorial size, transforms into a Shi’a dominated government, potentially increasing Iran’s influence in the region at the expense of the UAE’s military and economic interests. Hence, since the beginning of its involvement in the Saudi-led coalition, the UAE has carried out extensive air raids through warplanes against the Houthi rebels.
In addition to Iran-backed Houthi rebels, radical terrorist groups, especially Ansar al-Sharia, pose a potential, yet severe existential threat to the UAE. In recent years, the UAE has arrested several domestic terror cells that were found to be “support networks” for groups with ties to Al Qaeda. The UAE is still a relatively safe country with few terror-related incidents. However, due to the latest rise in terror-related activities throughout the region, the country has nonetheless increased its counter-terrorism security and vigilance throughout the years. The UAE trains and arms local recruits for the fight against AQAP, as well as captures its strongholds in Yemen. In April, with the military support of the Yemeni military and local tribes, the UAE carried out a major Al-Qaeda defeat by securing the Yemeni port city of Mukallah from AQAP. As this city holds Yemen’s second largest port, AQAP has acquired substantial revenue by imposing taxes on the shipment of goods. With this major defeat, the UAE and its local partners managed to choke off one of AQAP’s major sources of financial support.
The UAE’s heavy involvement in Yemen is also attributed to its growing status as a powerful regional trade partner. Less than fifty years old, the country has experienced rapid development and a flourishing economy. Despite its diversifying sources of income, including an ever-expanding tourism industry and robust foreign trade networks, the UAE still remains one of the world’s leading oil producers. Its yearly oil exports contribute to twenty-five percent of the country’s GDP. The UAE heavily depends on Bab-el-Mandab, a narrow but vital strait situated between Yemen and the Horn of Africa that bridges the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In 2013, approximately 3.8 million bbl/d (barrels per day) of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through the strait to Europe, the United States, and Asia. If Iran circumvents the Saudi-led coalition through the assistance of the Houthi rebels and gains control over the strait, the trade traffic at Bab-el-Mandab will be heavily impeded. In 2012, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, another narrow strait located in the Persian Gulf where one-fifth of the world’s oil and forty percent of the world’s energy passes. A similar Iranian dominance over Bab-el-Mandab through sea mines, interdiction of trading ships, air and land-based attack systems will greatly affect the UAE’s ability to export its oil. Closure of the strait will prevent the UAE, along with the rest of the Gulf exporters, from reaching the Suez Canal and other pipelines efficiently. If the UAE loses access to the strait, they would have to reroute through the southern tip of Africa, leading to increased transit time and heavier costs. Hence, the UAE needs to exert significant efforts against the Houthi rebels, and thus Iran, to ensure that neither of the two cooperating groups affects traffic flow of the strategically situated strait.
Regional alliances and trade routes aside, perhaps the most significant reason for the UAE’s involvement in Yemen is the opportunity to project itself as a credible, powerful military ally, especially to the United States. As American ties between Turkey and Saudi-Arabia deteriorate, and while Egypt faces domestic challenges, the UAE has emerged in recent years as a staunch ally of the United States. Commonly known as “Little Sparta” by US officials, the UAE is the only Arab country to host an American military base (Al-Dhafra) with F-22 raptors, as well as the US’s busiest overseas port of call, Jebel Ali. As the country continues to transform into one of the world’s leading commerce and financial hubs, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has sought to strengthen the Emirati military to also become regionally and internationally influential. Combined with its fierce anti-Islamist rhetoric, renowned women empowerment, and secularism, the UAE’s young yet powerful military has greatly appealed to the West. While neighboring countries, such as Qatar, downplayed its role in raids against regional extremists, the UAE proudly projected images of Major Mariam al-Mansouri, the female fighter pilot, known internationally for her involvement in the strikes against the Islamic State. The war in Yemen thus serves as a strategic opportunity for the UAE to show the world its ability to effectively mobilize forces and assure the United States, one of its main military partners, that it is indeed a credible, reliable regional ally.
As the United Arab Emirates continues to fight in the war in Yemen, there are evidently many costs, including troop losses through its heavy involvement in military operations overseas. Despite this, the UAE serves as a paradigm for other other Gulf countries. Shedding its traditional military efforts of only protecting the country from internal threats, the UAE has evolved into a powerful country in the Middle East that has been able to heavily invest in its military in recent years, alongside other aspects of development. The UAE’s willingness to cooperate with similar agendas to its own has helped itself gain strong alliances with various countries around the world, including the US. Ultimately, other wealthy Gulf states should also take a page out of the Emirati playbook to preserve their own stability and security, while additionally protecting their neighboring countries.
The article has been revised for clarity.