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.
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.
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.