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Why the UAE Cut Their Losses and Pulled Out of Yemen

The loss of the Saudis' most capable partner will be a blow. But what if they can convince Washington to pick up the slack?
yemen tank

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) may have finally learned what Washington will not: that armed interventions with ambiguous aims, unreliable allies, and no exit strategy are doomed to disaster.

Such interventions will rapidly deplete a nation of its blood and treasure while yielding an abundance of dangerous second- and third-order consequences. That’s why, after four years of fighting, the UAE announced that it is withdrawing a significant percentage of its forces from Yemen. It will now pursue a “peace first” strategy as opposed to a “military first” strategy.

The narrative around the UAE’s withdrawal from Yemen has been carefully managed in the American media with the help of some sympathetic Washington-based think-tanks. The shift in policy has been cast as a “mission accomplished” moment for the UAE. But the UAE is getting out of Yemen not because it is winning—or has won—but because the country’s leadership understands they cannot win. 

“Little Sparta,” as former secretary of defense James Mattis referred to the UAE, possesses a military that is significantly more competent and capable than that of its main ally in Yemen, Saudi Arabia. However, the UAE and its proxies have failed to defeat Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and while they’ve made some gains against Yemen’s al-Qaeda franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), these will prove fleeting. Such failures come despite the fact that the UAE has spent tens of billions of dollars in Yemen arming and training various militias and security forces.

While the primary reason for this shift is the UAE’s recognition of the futility involved, there were additional reasons for the change. The UAE’s armed forces are small and dependent on mercenaries for everything from ground troops to general officers. The country’s involvement in the war has strained its armed forces and has left it with little spare capacity to deal with a potential conflict with Iran, which provides limited—but important—aid to the Houthis. 

Additionally, the war in Yemen has cost the UAE billions of dollars at a time when its own economy is slowing. The UAE has also become sensitive to international condemnation of the war in Yemen, which is currently home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It has also recognized that Saudi Arabia has become more of a liability than a partner.

For much of the last four years, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have supported a host of militias, factions, and “security forces” that are often more opposed to one another than to to the Houthis they’re supposed to be fighting. Because of the inadequacies of its military, Saudi Arabia has had to rely even more heavily on proxy forces and mercenaries than the UAE. These proxies are unreliable and most are more interested in extracting money and material from their backers than fighting.

Dr. Gabriele vom Bruck, an expert on the Houthis at the University of London’s School for Oriental and African Studies, argues that “many of the proxy forces supported by the UAE and Saudi Arabia are more interested in maintaining their fiefdoms than fighting. Perhaps some of these forces might even have arranged non-aggression pacts with the Houthis as long as both respect the ‘territory’ of the other.”

However, all of these factions will happily continue to accept money and weapons from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Both countries have already supplied billions of dollars’ worth of advanced weaponry to dubious militias and security forces, which then often sell the weapons to the Houthis and to AQAP.

It is to the credit of the UAE’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayad, that he and his government have recognized the ineffectiveness and danger of continued military involvement in Yemen’s interlocking wars. Rather than doubling down, as the U.S. has done so many times in its own failed wars, the UAE has decided to cut its losses and shift its policy to something more pragmatic and achievable. 

Instead of further enabling Saudi Arabia’s aggressive, high-risk, and counterproductive strategy in Yemen, the UAE seems to be recognizing the merits of the subtle, nuanced, and largely de-escalatory policies of its neighbors Oman and Qatar. While Qatar was initially a member of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, when it became a target of Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s aggressive foreign policies, it withdrew its support and has since supported Omani-led efforts to end the war.

Without the military involvement of outside powers, it is probable that Yemen’s warring factions will agree on an uneasy and patchwork peace that will in time become more comprehensive and enduring. Yemen’s factions and political parties have a long history of embracing compromise and de-escalation. What was then North Yemen’s civil war, fought between 1962 and 1970, only ended when Egypt and Saudi Arabia (the latter ironically funded and armed the grandfathers of many of the Houthis) ended their involvement in Yemen.

The UAE’s change of heart may mark the beginning of the end of the wars in Yemen. This is not to say that Yemen will be peaceful or unified in the near future. However, as the most competent and capable member of the Saudi-led coalition, the UAE’s withdrawal, even if only partial, will force Saudi Arabia to re-evaluate its own failed strategy. That is, unless Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, can convince the Trump administration to scale up Washington’s role in the war to make up for the UAE’s absence. Given America’s persistent embrace of a foreign policy predicated on forever war, this remains a dangerous possibility. 

Michael Horton is a foreign policy analyst who has written for numerous publications, including Intelligence ReviewWest Point CTC Sentinel, The EconomistThe National Interest, and the Christian Science Monitor.