Throughout Yemen's civil war, the United Arab Emirates has contributed ground forces to the Saudi-led coalition backing the government against the Houthi insurgent movement and fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now, the UAE armed forces are shifting their military role in Yemen. The commander of the UAE armed forces announced June 16 on Twitter that the war in Yemen "is practically over" for his country's ground forces.
The announcement was light on details, sparking speculation before more information surfaced. Other UAE officials clarified that the country will continue to be a capable and honest Saudi ally in Yemen, suggesting that it is not planning to withdraw.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have different preferred local partners in Yemen. For instance, Saudi Arabia has collaborated with the Islah party, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in Yemen. The United Arab Emirates, which has been active mostly in south Yemen, has balked at this partnership, allying instead with the separatist Hirak and Southern Resistance movements. The June 16 statements referred to a UAE transition to security and assistance, which could mean that the country's local partners will assume the lead role in direct combat, with UAE forces backing them up.
Like Emirati participation, most Yemeni military ground activity has occurred in southern Yemen. Forces there have tried to secure the port city of Aden while supporting the Southern Resistance in its effort to expel al Qaeda from population centers under the militant group's control. Riyadh, meanwhile, is more concerned with northern Yemen, interpreting the Houthi movement as a direct threat to Saudi interests and partnering with Islah to quash it.
Most of the fighting in southern Yemen has died down. Reconstruction and mopping up the remnants of al Qaeda are now the main order of business. But clashes rage on in the north, where Houthi forces are mounting a fierce resistance in Taiz, Sanaa and al-Hudaydah. The UAE commander's initial announcement, therefore, was an admission by the United Arab Emirates that the conflict it cares about is winding down. Follow-up statements explained that the United Arab Emirates will likely continue security operations in southern Yemen to avoid a resurgence of al Qaeda forces. Even so, with less at stake in northern Yemen, UAE forces will probably avoid direct involvement in the ground operations moving on Sanaa.