Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders viewed the Houthi takeover of Yemen's capital last September, and the subsequent collapse of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government in January of this year, as a major step toward the establishment of a Shi'ite proto-state on the GCC's doorstep. The sectarian dynamics of Yemen's internal conflict heightened concerns that a Houthi victory would escalate tension between the Sunni Gulf Arab monarchies and local Shi'ite movements. As an impoverished and fractious nation that has traditionally operated within Saudi Arabia's sphere of influence, Yemen has been further engulfed into the Saudi-Iranian proxy war. Riyadh sees the Houthi insurgency as an extension of Tehran's influence along the kingdom's southern border, long seen as Saudi Arabia's soft underbelly.
When the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Muslim states launched Operation Decisive Storm in March, Riyadh did the heavy lifting, with other Gulf Arab states making primarily symbolic contributions to the military campaign. That changed in early August when the UAE stepped up its role in the coalition, sending a military brigade, along with tanks and other armored vehicles, into Aden. Earlier this month Doha also deployed approximately 1,000 soldiers from Qatar's Armed Forces to Yemen.
By demonstrating their commitment to devoting greater military resources to battling the Houthis and loyalists of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the UAE and Qatar are drawing themselves closer to the conflict's epicenter. The dangers of doing so were underscored on September 4, when the Houthis and their allies in the Yemeni Army fired a Soviet-era missile at an ammunition depot in the central province of Marib, killing 45 Emiratis.
In response to the attack (the UAE's heaviest military loss since national independence in 1971), Abu Dhabi vowed strong retaliation. Shortly after the nation commenced three days of mourning, UAE jets carried out what one Yemeni official described as "the heaviest air strikes that Sana'a has endured", in addition to strikes on Houthi strongholds in Saada, Marib and the central city of Ibb. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, asserted that his country's military is "determined to liberate Yemen and flush out the scum".
The UAE's bold entry into the fray in Yemen comes after years in which the Gulf state has flexed its muscles in foreign conflicts where the Emiratis saw their vital national interests at stake. After Bahrain's Arab Awakening erupted in 2011, the UAE sent security forces into the island kingdom to help Saudi and Bahraini forces quell a revolt that Gulf Arab leaders perceived as an Iranian-orchestrated plot to destabilize the GCC.
During 2011, the UAE contributed aircraft to the international coalition against the Libyan regime of Moammar Qaddafi. In 2014 and 2015, the UAE waged military strikes against jihadist militias in Libya and Syria from bases in Egypt and Jordan. By deploying ground forces to Yemen, the UAE is signaling a deeper interest in being perceived as, and becoming, a more assertive Arab military power. As the world's fourth largest arms importer (after Saudi Arabia, India and China), the UAE has invested heavily in armaments in order to promote its foreign policy agenda of countering democratic and Islamist movements throughout the region.
Yemen plays a pivotal role in the UAE's grander geostrategic calculation. As a close ally of Saudi Arabia, the UAE's commitment to Riyadh's security (which has been compromised by the firing of scud missiles into the kingdom from Yemen and the Houthis' claiming control of a town in southern Saudi Arabia) was a factor in Abu Dhabi's decision to become increasingly involved in Yemen's conflict. However, the UAE's interests in Yemen also pertain to the security of the Bab-el-Mandab, the narrow strait separating Yemen from the Horn of Africa that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
The UAE and other Persian Gulf states depend on the Bab-el-Mandab as one of the world's busiest oil and gas shipping lanes for its trade with Europe and North America. Protecting the flow of oil and gas shipments in the Suez Canal, which depends on open sea lanes in the Red Sea, is a vital UAE interest (as it is for other Gulf nations). It is also of course or particular interest to Egypt -- one of the UAE's most important strategic allies -- which the Emiratis have backed with billions of dollars in aid since the Egyptian military ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
Yet, the UAE's stepped up military presence on the ground in Yemen is being waged as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states continue to assert that the ongoing conflict with the Houthis is an important battle in the struggle against Iranian influence in the Arab world. This is particularly the case following the P5+1 and Iran's nuclear agreement (now approved by all of the negotiating countries), which Sunni Arab leaders nervously anticipate will lead to a gradual rapprochement in U.S.-Iran relations at the expense of the GCC's perceived strategic value to Washington. In the near term, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are unsettled by the concept of Iran's access to more than $100 billion in frozen funds, enhancing Tehran's ability to provide its regional allies and proxies (such as Ansar Allah) with greater support.
However, the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen is about more than simply countering Iran's perceived growing influence in the Arabian Peninsula. The autocratic Sunni Arab regimes that joined Riyadh's coalition did so in part to stoke nationalism in their respective countries. By rallying their citizens around the flag, such rulers seek to distract them from numerous domestic issues, most notably the absence of democracy, corruption and rising income inequality. Additionally, coalition members such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan appear to have participated primarily to ensure the flow of Saudi petro dollar aid. Given that these comparatively oil-poor countries are experiencing grave economic crises that threaten to strengthen political opposition movements within their borders, money from the Gulf plays a pivotal role in these regimes' survival strategies. Within this context, the coalition's campaign is ultimately about protecting the region's status quo in politics, economics, trade, investment, social stratification, social order and leadership. Preventing Iran from gaining permanent influence in Yemen is only one aspect of a grander counter-revolutionary agenda.
The Road Ahead
Going forward, the UAE must cautiously assess the risks of deeper military involvement in the Yemeni conflict. Not only do Houthi insurgents threaten UAE troops, so do hardline Salafist militias. For years, groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh ("Islamic State") have set their sights on the GCC, viewing the Western-backed Gulf Arab monarchies as "corrupt", "heretical", "apostate" states, and outposts for "colonialism."
Although the GCC's enhanced support for anti-Houthi forces in Aden and other portions of Yemen are said to be weakening the Houthi militants, it is questionable whether the coalition will have the means to decisively crush the insurgency in the Houthi strongholds of Northern Yemen. Given the complicated political questions surrounding Hadi's potential return to a leadership role in Yemen, and the situation on the ground where the exiled leader lacks substantial support, some analysts contend that the GCC's objective of restoring Hadi to power is unrealistic. As the war continues to escalate, the UAE may find its troops caught in a bloody quagmire without realistic goals or clear conditions for eventual withdrawal, which could severely harm the Emiratis' efforts to portray their nation as a rising military power in the Middle East.
As the Yemeni crisis continues with no sign of peace on the horizon, the UAE's role in the conflict may become increasingly complicated. The unpredictable nature of the war is shaped by countless variables, such as evolving political alliances, the scope and nature of Iran's future role, the southern secessionist movement, and the nascent local Daesh division.
Amidst the background of a violent conflict that is destroying Yemen, the UAE seeks to prove to the world that the wealthy emirates are capable of more than just spending billions of dollars to create a first-rate military with advanced weaponry. The country is also determined to project a muscular image and assert itself as a powerful military force capable of influencing the outcome of Middle Eastern conflicts on behalf of its national interests. Indeed, the UAE's main motivations for entering the fray in Yemen have as much to do with preserving the region's status quo, as with the preserving its own political stability and economic prosperity.
*Giorgio Cafiero is Co-Founder of Gulf State Analytics. Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the book "Managing Country Risk".