As the United Arab Emirates’ bloody war against the Houthis drags on, it’s also playing a key role in the fight against al-Qaeda.
In the August heat, Yemen’s port city of Mukalla gleams like a gem. Its ancient, whitewashed houses and mosques lie nestled between ragged mountains and the crystal blue waters of the Indian Ocean. On the sidewalks of the city’s rundown roads, a stream of stall owners and fishermen dressed in colorful sarongs ply their wares. The placid hum of the souq belies the city’s recent history. Just two years ago, Mukalla was under the firm grip of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
When AQAP swept into Mukalla on April 2, 2015, Yemen was falling apart. The Houthis, a Zaidi Shia rebel group, had seized control of the country, prompting a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to launch a military operation to push them back and restore President Abdrabbuh Mansur and Yemen’s internationally recognized government. As AQAP entered the city, Yemeni troops in the province largely stood by or fled, leaving it to the militants. Once things settled down, AQAP laid down roots, collecting customs fees, installing sharia courts, carrying out public executions, and even holding screenings of jihadi-themed films in the center of town.
But as AQAP consolidated power in Mukalla, plans were already underway for its abrupt defeat. Emirati military officials who spoke to me on background in August told me that once their forces pushed the Houthis out of Aden and Marib in late 2015, they set their sights on Mukalla. The Emiratis and their allies stood up a 12,000-strong force of tribal fighters from the Yemeni province of Hadramawt and pulled Yemeni military leader Faraj Salmayn al-Bahsani in from exile to help train them. In April 2016, a multi-pronged assault by Yemeni ground forces, backed by Emirati support, expelled AQAP-allied forces from Mukalla in just a matter of days.
What Mukalla revealed is that the UAE is vital to eradicating AQAP, and to rebuilding and stabilizing places like it. But with the extent of the Emiratis’ ambitions in Yemen unclear, anxiety in some quarters over the long-term effects of their presence in the country continues to grow.
In interviews, Emirati officials have described both the ongoing offensive against the Houthis and the operation against AQAP as twin fronts in the UAE’s broader war against regional threats. But while the anti-Houthi campaign has devolved into a bloody stalemate, the battle against AQAP has morphed into something quite different: an often lightning-fast series of operations that have, at least for now, put one of al-Qaeda’s most powerful franchises on its back feet.
In these UAE-led counterterrorism operations, the Emiratis and their Yemeni partners have appeared to prioritize not just military action, but stabilization. Even when previous efforts by Yemeni forces to push al-Qaeda out succeeded, they failed to eradicate the conditions that allowed it to gain control in the first place. In places like Jaar or Zinjibar, a lack of rebuilding and development aid and the uneven provision of government services meant the area remained marginalized. “After al-Qaeda left, nothing changed,” Peter Salisbury, a fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, told me, referring to the fallout of previous counterterrorism offensives. “In some cases security and local governance actually got worse.”
In Mukalla, Emirati officials have prioritized restoring basic services, shoring up state institutions, and reinvigorating the local economy—efforts that, for now, appear to be working. It helps that Mukalla—in contrast with cities like Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq—emerged from the fight against extremist militants relatively intact. This helped ease its shift from terrorist sanctuary into what, in Yemen’s current context, constitutes a relatively stable and economically active city. Emirati officials also pointed to a promising partnership with local businessmen. One result of the partnership: improvements to Mukalla’s port, which, according to port officials, has seen its traffic double since the city’s liberation from AQAP. They also noted that the Emirati Red Crescent has surged aid into Mukalla and other liberated areas of Yemen. While economic rehabilitation has been slow, it’s also been stable; notably, land prices in and around Mukalla are on the rise, people in Mukalla have told me, as many anticipate a coming surge of investment.
But the UAE’s deepening involvement in Yemen has come under criticism. A recent report by the Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen, a UN-mandated body tasked with investigating claims of human-rights abuses in the country, alleged that some detainees in Emirati-run prisons have been held without charge and tortured; these cases have, at times, spawned sit-ins and small protests by relatives of detainees. Still, officials in Hadramawt see the aid from the UAE as a near necessity. “We can’t separate our success from the training and assistance we’ve received from the UAE,” noted Faraj Salmayn al-Bahsani, who serves as both the governor of Hadramawt and the commander of the 2nd Military District.
Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Oxford, said an open-ended UAE presence in the South could spark conflict. “First, it would exacerbate coalition tensions between the UAE and the Saudi-backed government of President Hadi, some members of which have already labeled the UAE presence an occupation. Second, it would play into the hands of AQAP, which has stirred up suspicions of UAE ambitions for power and resources across the South. Third, it could ignite old North-South fault lines as well as sparking anger among significant areas of the South that remain resistant to the notion of southern secession, which they believe the UAE is backing.”
Kendall’s analysis is well supported by facts on the ground. While it’s clear that the UAE has built a productive partnership with key officials in Hadramawt, their relations with other figures in the Yemeni government have at times come under strain. Many Yemenis have criticized the Emiratis for providing financial backing and support for militias that fail to sufficiently support, or even actively undermine, the country’s internationally recognized government. In some cases, they’ve accused the Emiratis of engaging in a de facto occupation of Yemen.
The UAE’s presence in Yemen has also sparked blowback, as traditional players have been weakened and once-marginalized secessionists have been empowered. Those allied with the Sunni Islamist Islah party, for example, have lost out in the new order established after Mukalla’s liberation. Many Yemenis in the north have also looked at the Emiratis with distrust. That’s because the UAE has worked with and trained groups in the formerly independent south that back secession. (Indeed, the flag of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen—not the Yemeni flag—flies over Mukalla.) The UAE’s official support for Yemen’s continued unification has done little to calm some Yemenis’ fears that their actions are paving the way for Yemen's dissolution. Meanwhile, the fall of the rial has also prompted protests across southern Yemen, with demonstrations breaking Mukalla’s previous calm.
All the while, AQAP propaganda has cast the Emiratis as a malevolent force with ambitions to occupy Yemen, and depicts the UAE as little more than a self-interested tool of the United States. For their part, the Emiratis haven’t shied away from their cooperation with American troops, who are on the ground in Mukalla. In a recent op-ed, Yusuf al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the United States, proudly cast the death of AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri as the fruit of U.S.-UAE intelligence cooperation.
The longer the Emiratis maintain a significant power on the ground in Yemen, the greater the chances of error—something Emirati officials know. They insist they will remain in Yemen “until AQAP is broken as a regional and global threat,” an Emirati commander told me.
“We can’t kill our way to victory,” a senior Emirati military official told me, stressing the importance of stabilization. “We’re talking about a battle for hearts and minds.”
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