The Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen is entering its seventh month and the UAE has been a part of it from day one and in a huge way — second only to Saudi Arabia. The UAE is also reported to have more boots on the ground in Yemen than Saudi Arabia. Its forces have performed exceptionally well. They were the vanguard forces that liberated the city of Aden, where life is slowly but surely returning to normal after months of Al Houthi chaos.
The UAE ground forces and local Yemeni resistance continue to advance northward. The second surprise military victory was in the extremely difficult, mountainous region of Marib.
The recapturing of the oil and gas-rich Marib, famous for its 4,000-year-old dam, had significant symbolic value. It was the founding father of the UAE, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who had ordered the rebuilding of the dam in 1984 at a cost of $100 million (Dh367.8 million). After the liberation of Marib and Aden, coalition forces swiftly secured the highly strategic Bab Al Mandab strait.
Sadly, along the way, there were a few deadly days. The most tragic was September 5 in Marib, when the UAE forces lost 46 martyrs in a single day. A month later, on October 6, the UAE also confirmed the loss of four more soldiers in an attack in Aden.
Despite casualties, the fighting morale among the UAE troops is rock solid. As the Saudi-led operation inches towards the capital Sana’a, the UAE is determined to play a leading role in every stage of the Yemen campaign.
Some are baffled as to why thousands of UAE soldiers are fighting a war some 1,500 kilometres from home. Curiously, they are asking why the UAE is in Yemen in the first place? What is at stake for the UAE? And is it worth the risk?
Pacifists — and there are a few of them in the UAE, just as they exist in any other healthy society — are against war, not just in Yemen but war in principle, anywhere and everywhere. They are not heard publicly, but they make their legitimate concerns in private conversations. They say the business of the UAE is business, not war.
True friends of the UAE are visibly concerned too. They argue against boots on the ground and whisper in private meetings that the longer the Yemen war drags on the greater the risk. They sincerely want the UAE out of the Yemen quagmire immediately. They cautiously point out that it is easy to start a war, but mighty difficult to end one. They accuse the coalition of rushing into Yemen without a clear exit plan.
As the Yemen war continues, sceptics also grow by the day. They warn against an unwinnable war in the poor, unstable and sharply divided tribal Yemen, where a military victory is a mirage. Even if the UAE and the Saudi-led coalition liberate Sana’a and the legitimate government is restored to power, the military victory comes at an unbearable human cost and a bitter political defeat.
There are conspiracy theorists who believe the Yemen war is an Iranian trap aimed at exhausting Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Yemen maze.
The UAE listens carefully to sceptics, mindful of conspiracy analysts, attentive to friendly advice, never dismissive of pacifist sentiments, and most importantly, takes human casualties very seriously. But at the end of the day, it has a logic of its own.
Succinctly, the UAE is in Yemen for a purpose. It is there because inaction would have been strategically and politically more costly in the long run than action. The underlying imperative of the Yemen campaign is to prevent the worst-case scenario of Iran and its Al Houthi puppets using the fragile Arab country as a base to destabilise Saudi Arabia. The security and the stability of Saudi Arabia was at stake. Hence, the UAE had no choice but to stand by Saudi Arabia in its time of need. There was a collective Gulf need to stand up to expansionist Iran. Yemen was the place to draw the line.
On top of all these geopolitical imperatives, the UAE is in Yemen to send a clear message to all that it is a rising regional soft power that bites, and when it is called upon it knows how to fight the fight.
The UAE’s fighting skills have impressed friends and foes alike. It has even far exceeded everyone’s expectations at home — where it matters the most. The feeling of patriotism is running deep and UAE citizens are rallying behind the flag like they have never done since December 2, 1971.
For these good reasons the UAE is in Yemen, not in a symbolic sense but in an important and tangible way. It is determined to finish the job of restoring the legitimate government and help build a stable and prosperous Yemen.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is professor of political science and chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, theacss.org. You can follow him at twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE.