The Emiratis view the south as an outpost to exert control over the Gulf and Iran, and now they are inviting the Israelis in.
The UAE, where Abu Dhabi and Dubai have been the dominant powers at the expense of the other smaller Emirates, has pursued an aggressive foreign policy across the turbulent Middle East to stop assertive political groups espousing democratic governance.
In south Yemen, the Emirates supports separatists organised under the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which fights not only with the Yemeni government but also against the Houthis backed by Iran.
By supporting the STC, the UAE aims to control a U-shaped area from the Red Sea to the Gulf across the Indian Ocean, seeking to secure an alternative shipping route in case Iran, Abu Dhabi’s enemy, blocks the Gulf from hostile forces amid escalating tensions.
The UAE also wants to limit the reach of the powerful Houthis across Yemen and its shores.
Through its paramilitary forces, during the civil war, the UAE has been able to control strategic coastal points, which host important ports like Balhaf and Nishtun near the Red Sea, in southern Yemen. Abu Dhabi also wields considerable influence across Yemen’s western shores.
With the normalisation deal between the UAE and Israel, Abu Dhabi has appeared to bring its Zionist ally into the region, allowing it to establish spy bases across South Yemen and a strategic island, Socotra, in the Indian Ocean.
Like the UAE, a divided Yemen would benefit Israel. While the United Arab Emirates, through the separatist STC, could project its power across the war-torn country and the region, the Israelis could use another weakened Arab country to flex its foreign policy.
Israel can also easily observe and check Iranian movements across the Indian Ocean and the Gulf from the U-shaped region.
Yemen war and UAE-Israeli normalisation
The Yemen war has some intricate connections with the recent normalisation deal agreed by the two states.
One of the low profile mediators of the pact, was a Puerto Rican-American general, Miguel Correa, currently a special advisor to the White House, who was defence attache at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, back in 2017. Correa was a key personality in saving the son-in-law and the nephew of the UAE’s powerful de facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), from a failed mission in Yemen.
Through a sophisticated transcontinental operation conducted by the US, the Emirati royal, who was injured during an operation in Yemen, was evacuated from the scene of the incident by American special forces.
When the young royal was being transferred to a US military hospital in Germany for his medical treatment through American military aircrafts, thousands of poor Yemenis continued to be on the receiving end of US-made Saudi and UAE bombs, living under conditions described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the UN.
“This would not have happened without him,” said Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, the foreign minister of the UAE, who also happens to be the brother of MBZ and the uncle of the injured royal. The comment was made in reference to Correa’s mediation for the deal during the official ceremony of the normalisation agreement at the White House on September 15.
The statement makes it sound as though the Yemen war was the reason a normalisation deal was reached. The royal foreign minister further embraced Correa, telling the US President Donald Trump, “That general is part of my family.”
UAE’s Brotherhood ‘fears” in Yemen
Both the UAE and Israel have prominent common objectives across Yemen other than just cornering Iran. One of those objectives is their resistance against the rise of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movements across the Middle East.
Both countries have supported anti-Brotherhood politics from Egypt and Libya to the Gulf and Yemen, where the Islah Party has close connections with the religiously-inspired movement.
“The UAE fears, in particular, the Brotherhood’s alternative blueprint for state power derived from political Islam and the challenge it poses to hereditary monarchies,” wrote Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a nonresident fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.
“In Yemen, this has translated into systematic efforts to weaken Islah, roughly the Yemeni branch of the Brotherhood and a key partner of the [President Abdrabbuh Mansur] Hadi government,” Juneau maintained.
UAE’s Brotherhood “fears” also partly explain why the autocratic Gulf country supports the STC, a political alliance of southern secessionists.
“This is not out of sympathy for their aspirations but, instead, is the product of necessity: Southern groups are opposed to Islah, for historical reasons, making them natural partners,” the professor pointed out. “Geography also brings them together, since the UAE seeks a presence on the southern coast.”
The STC is not the only ally of the UAE in Yemen.
“The UAE, in particular, has supported—directly and indirectly—a range of groups and militias, including Salafists with ties to AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula],” Juneau indicated.
But the UAE support to groups with links to Al Qaeda has failed to raise official eyebrows in Washington as of yet. But when it comes to Palestinian groups like Hamas, which was originally part of the Brotherhood, the US is quick to define them as terrorists.
Brotherhood fears also motivated the Gulf monarchy to back Tariq Saleh, a nephew of former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who leads forces previously loyal to his late uncle.
“Tariq and other members of the Saleh clan have a poor relationship with Islah; the UAE thus views its support as another tool to undermine the Brotherhood in the country,” Juneau said.
But beyond its anti-Brotherhood stance, with its support to Saleh, the UAE has also another objective, which is to send a regional message to Arab masses across the Middle East.
“The UAE, moreover, likely views the Saleh clan as possible leaders in post-war Yemen; to the UAE’s benefit, they would be dependent on Emirati support and would symbolize, as relatives of the dictator of 32 years, the failure of the 2011 uprising,” Juneau noted.