By theguardian |
Yemen: UAE confirms withdrawal from port city of Hodeidah
The United Arab Emirates has announced a “strategic redeployment” from the port city of Hodeidah in Yemen, as well as a more limited tactical retreat elsewhere in the country – marking a significant moment in Yemen’s four-year civil war.
UAE officials said the move, under discussion for as long as a year, was designed to support a United Nations-led peace process that began in Stockholm last December. It was the first official UAE confirmation of a withdrawal, which has been reported in recent weeks by witnesses and foreign officials.
How long has the war been going on? Yemen has been troubled by civil wars for decades, but the current conflict intensified in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government against Houthi rebels aligned with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The war is widely regarded as having turned a poor country into a humanitarian catastrophe. Riyadh expected its air power, backed by regional coalition including the United Arab Emirates, could defeat the Houthi insurgency in a matter of months. Instead some reports suggest nearly 100,000 people have died. Others put the death toll much lower, but fighting this year alone has displaced 250,000 people. There are more than 30 active front lines. A total of 80% of the population – more than 24 million people – need assistance and protection, including 10 million who rely on food aid to survive.
The Yemen conflict
How long has the war been going on?
Yemen has been troubled by civil wars for decades, but the current conflict intensified in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government against Houthi rebels aligned with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The war is widely regarded as having turned a poor country into a humanitarian catastrophe. Riyadh expected its air power, backed by regional coalition including the United Arab Emirates, could defeat the Houthi insurgency in a matter of months.
Instead some reports suggest nearly 100,000 people have died. Others put the death toll much lower, but fighting this year alone has displaced 250,000 people. There are more than 30 active front lines. A total of 80% of the population – more than 24 million people – need assistance and protection, including 10 million who rely on food aid to survive.
What is the cause of the war?
Its roots lie in the Arab spring. Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in a bid to force the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to end his 33-year rule. He responded with economic concessions but refused to resign.
By March 2011, tensions on the streets of the capital city, Sana’a, resulted in protesters dying at the hands of the military.
Following an internationally brokered deal, there was a transfer of power in November to the vice-president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, paving the way for elections in February 2012 – in which he was the only candidate to lead a transitional government. Hadi’s attempts at constitutional and budget reforms were rejected by Houthi rebels from the north.
The Houthis belong to a small branch of Shia Muslims known as Zaydis. They captured the capital, forcing Hadi to flee eventually to Riyadh.
What has happened to the peace process?
The UN brokered an agreement in Stockholm in December 2018 to demilitarise the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, and after five months of tortuous talks a small part of the agreement has been implemented on the ground. The Houthis had promised a two-phase redeployment out of the city, and agreed that an alternative force – poorly defined in the Stockholm agreement – would take over security in the areas they vacated. But talks between the Houthis and the UAE-backed government forces stalled over the details.
Faced by an impasse, the UN sanctioned a unilateral Houthi withdrawal from the three main ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast – Hodeidah, Ras Issa and Saleef. The Yemeni government described the withdrawal as a sham, saying the Houthis had merely rebadged their fighters as coastguards. They pressed for the resignation of Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen. Not everyone in the Yemen government agreed with this analysis and the foreign minister quit.
No progress has been made on the second phase of redeployment, or the exchange of political prisoners. Griffiths is now trying to secure enough progress in Hodeidah to get off this hook and say the time is ripe for wider political talks on a transitional government to be held in Bonn.
Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic editor
Photograph: Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/X03689
The officials said the UAE would remain in the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in 2015 to try to restore the Yemeni government ousted from power by the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Iran.
Oversight would be passed to Emirati-trained local Yemeni forces and foreign mercenaries, and UAE forces remaining in Yemen would focus on counter-terrorism efforts against al-Qaida and Islamic State rather than the battle against the Houthis. The UAE would also continue to support a secessionist movement in southern Yemen.
Analysts have warned it is not yet clear whether local troops and Saudi coalition partners are up to the task of filling the vacuum, sparking fears that the current stalemate in much of the country could be upended.
The UAE drawdown also weakens Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities in Yemen, adding to pressure for Riyadh to proactively pursue a political rather than military solution to the war.
Yemen on the brink: how the UAE is profiting from the chaos of civil war | Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
The withdrawal had been extensively discussed with Riyadh as well as the UN-recognised Yemen government based in Aden, the officials added.
The UAE may be braced for accusations that the withdrawal is an admission of defeat, but the officials insisted the redeployment was a considered move reflecting the diplomatic progress being made by the UN in the strategically important Hodeidah.
Hodeidah became a major focus of the war last year when the western-backed Saudi-led coalition tried to seize the port, which is the Houthis’ main supply line.
In December the UN brokered a complex ceasefire in the city in which both the Yemeni government and Houthi forces were supposed to withdraw, leaving a new security force to take over the port and the city.
Only parts of that withdrawal agreement have been implemented. The UAE said it was keen to see the peace process expanded towards a wider peace settlement with deadlines covering the whole country.
The officials denied that the move would create a dangerous vacuum around Hodeidah, arguing that there were as many as 19,000 Yemeni troops in the port city area if progress towards a settlement collapsed.
In 2018, by contrast, the UAE had argued that the military capture of Hodeidah would force the Houthis to the negotiating table.
The international community pressed the UAE and the Saudis to wait outside the city, warning that an assault could lead to a bloodbath and disruption at the port could tip the country into full-blown famine.
Emirati officials have also dismissed suggestions that the drawdown reflects a growing rift between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh: their military and political leaders have long differed on preferred strategy in both the bloody impasse in Yemen and dealing with the threat posed to Gulf interests from Tehran.
UAE officials refused to go into details of precise troop movements and said some of the withdrawals were tactical, and so could be reversed. Witnesses have said a large-scale drawdown of troops and heavy weaponry is under way in Marib province and the interim capital of Aden as well as Hodeidah.
Last week, Reuters reported it had been told by three diplomats that Abu Dhabi preferred to have its forces and equipment on hand should tension between the US and Iran escalate further after attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf and Tehran’s suspected downing of a US drone. Those tanker attacks have been ascribed to Iranian surrogates, but no final attribution has been made by the UAE. On Monday the UAE officials said the timing was not linked to those developments.
United Arab Emirates
Yemen Saudi Arabia Middle East and North Africa news
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