DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AFP) — The United Arab Emirates said Monday it was redeploying and reducing troops across war-torn Yemen and moving from a “military-first” strategy to a “peace-first” plan.
The UAE is a key partner in a Saudi-led military coalition which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to back the internationally recognized government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
“We do have troop levels that are down for reasons that are strategic in [the Red Sea city of] Hodeida and reasons that are tactical” in other parts of the country, a senior UAE official, who requested anonymity, told reporters.
“It is very much to do with moving from what I would call a military-first strategy to a peace-first strategy, and this is I think what we are doing.”
The official however reiterated the UAE’s commitment to the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition, saying discussions on redeployment have been ongoing for more than a year.
“This is not really a last-minute decision. This is part of the process and naturally a process within the coalition that’s been discussed extensively with our partners, the Saudis,” he said.
Coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said both the UAE and Saudi Arabia were committed to achieve their goals in Yemen.
“The United Arab Emirates and the countries in the coalition continue to achieve their operations and strategic goals,” he told a news conference in Riyadh in response to a question about the redeployment of UAE troops.
According to a Yemeni military government official, UAE troops fighting the Houthis have “totally vacated” the military base in Khokha, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Hodeida.
The UAE withdrew part of its heavy artillery from Khokha but was — along with the Saudi-led coalition and the government — still overseeing the military situation in Yemen’s western coast, he said on Monday.
Middle East expert James Dorsey has said a redeployment reflects “long-standing subtle differences” in the Saudi and UAE approaches towards Yemen.
The pullback “highlights the UAE’s long-standing concern for its international standing amid mounting criticism of the civilian toll of the war,” he has said.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians, have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015, relief agencies say.
The fighting has triggered what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with millions of people displaced and in need of aid.
In March 2018, rights group Amnesty International accused Western countries of supplying arms to Riyadh and its allies, who could stand guilty of war crimes in Yemen.
And in August last year a UN expert mission concluded that all warring parties had potentially committed “war crimes.”
According to Dorsey, with the pullback “the UAE may allow differences with Saudi Arabia to become more visible but will not put its alliance with the kingdom at risk.”
Furthermore, Emirati-trained local troops will “continue to do [UAE] bidding” on the ground, he said.
The Yemeni official said the UAE has trained tens of thousands of Yemenis to fight against jihadists from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State group in southern provinces — mainly Aden, Mukalla and Shabwa.
The UAE announcement comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran that spiked in June when Iran shot down a US drone over strategic Gulf waters following a series of tanker attacks that Washington blamed on Iran, which denied involvement.
It also comes a week after a US Democratic senator warned Washington could cut off arms sales to the Emirates over a report the US ally shipped US missiles to Libyan rebels. The UAE denied the claims.
Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the alleged transfer would be a “serious violation” of US law and “almost certainly” break the UN arms embargo on Libya.
The senior UAE official said the Emirates’ redeployment decision was not linked to regional tensions but the UAE was not “blind to the overall geostrategic picture.”
The official stressed the redeployment was in line with the agreement reached in Sweden in December between Yemen’s warring parties.
US-ally Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of supplying sophisticated weapons to Houthi rebels, a charge Tehran denies.