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UAE Major Withdrawal From Yemen (July 2019)
U.A.E. Pulls Most Forces From Yemen in Blow to Saudi War Effort

For four years, the United Arab Emirates have been the military linchpin of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, providing weapons, money and thousands of ground troops to a campaign to drive out Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Emirati forces led almost every major advance the coalition made. Now they have decided they can go no further.

The Emiratis are withdrawing their forces at a scale and speed that all but rules out further ground advances, a belated recognition that a grinding war that has killed thousands of civilians and turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster is no longer winnable.

In the past month, the Emiratis have cut their deployment around Hudaydah, the Red Sea port that was the war’s main battleground last year, by 80 percent to fewer than 150 men, according to four people briefed on the drawdown. They have pulled out their attack helicopters and heavy guns, effectively precluding a military advance on the city.

Mike Hindmarsh, a retired Australian major general who commands the Emirati presidential guard, recently told Western visitors that Yemen had become a quagmire where the Houthis were the “Yemeni Viet Cong.” 

The drawdown “is going to expose the Saudis to the reality that this war is a failure,” said Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute, a research group in London. “It tells us the two main protagonists on the coalition side, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, don’t have the same idea of what success looks like.”

Diplomats said the Saudis were deeply disappointed by the Emirati decision. Top officials with the royal court personally intervened with the Emirati leaders to try to dissuade them from the drawdown, said a Western diplomat familiar with the matter. Several people briefed by the Emiratis said that they have avoided announcing their decision publicly in part to minimize the unhappiness of the Saudis.

A senior Yemeni official said Thursday that Saudi officers had taken charge at the two main Emirati bases on the Red Sea, at Mokha and Khokha. The Saudis have little experience on that front, and the sudden changes have stoked fears that without the heavily armed Emiratis to keep the peace, the Yemenis could start to feud among themselves. “The only thing stopping the Houthis from taking over Yemen was the U.A.E. armed forces,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. “Now the glue that was holding Yemen together is being withdrawn.”

The drawdown could prompt the Houthis to take advantage of the vacuum and launch new attempts to capture ground they lost to the Emirati-led battle group last year. Fighting has already surged in several strategic towns on the plains south of Hudaydah, threatening supply lines to Saudi-led forces positioned around the city.

The Emiratis “have simply tired of the stalemate and dim prospects for victory on the battlefield,” said one American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal government assessments. The Saudis, though, may still believe in a military victory. “There are voices in Riyadh who think the Houthis can be caused enough pain to do what Saudi Arabia wants,” said Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group. “But that feels like wishful thinking, which is not a good substitute for strategy.”

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