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Inside Arabia: UAE’s maritime empire in danger


UAE’s foreign policy has prioritised marine security since diversifying its economy away from hydrocarbons and becoming a regional commerce centre. The war in Yemen has given the UAE a chance to pursue its maritime goals by gaining indirect control over three critical strategic locations: the Bab al-Mandab strait, Aden Port, and the island of Socotra.

Last decade, the UAE maintained an active foreign policy, frequently using military intervention and backing for local allies in other nations, particularly the Horn of Africa, Libya, and Yemen. Its foreign policy has been recalibrating since 2019.

Nonetheless, the UAE’s new foreign policy does not imply it would give up on its goals to be a marine military regional force. Soft power efforts have been added to Abu Dhabi’s diplomatic portfolio, allowing it to achieve its strategic geopolitical aims. In addition to the $982 million deal for four Falaj-3 offshore patrol vessels for the UAE navy, the UAE has joined several regional initiatives such as Operation Sentinel, which aims to protect navigation and international trade in the Hormuz strait, and European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH), a France-led European mission to patrol and protect the Strait of Hormuz.

Aside from diplomatic and military efforts, the UAE has undertaken considerable geo-economic investments in waterways in the area, with DP World leading the way. A crucial –– and maybe the most important –– pillar in the UAE’s diversification policy, according to Dr. Jens Heibach of GIGA.

Despite its military departure from Yemen in 2019, the UAE continues to exert influence over the Southern Yemeni provinces through its ally, the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The STC is made up of Southern Movement tribes and organisations seeking South Yemen’s independence along the historic North-South Yemeni border (1967-1990).

Because the UAE re-entered the fight after sending the Giant Brigades to Marib (the final government bastion), the Houthis attacked the UAE and its shipping line in January. Abu Dhabi is now in an extremely precarious security scenario, since dealing with the STC puts its own security at danger. The Houthi missile and drone assaults on UAE territory have warned Abu Dhabi that they may follow Saudi Arabia’s long-term fate. However, the total evacuation and abandoning of vital positions in Yemen would be a fatal blow to Emirati naval ambitions.

Dr. Heibach thinks South Yemen is vital for the UAE. He believes this was the main reason the UAE joined the Saudi-led operation in 2015, and that the UAE first targeted South Yemen. Dr. Heibach stated that many Yemenis raise another point. To prevent major Yemeni ports from becoming Emirati competitors, he claims the UAE had – and still has – a vested interest.

Dr. Giuseppe Dentice, of the Centro Studi Internazionali (Ce.S.I) and a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, believes the Houthi attacks will not alter Abu Dhabi’s attitude to the region or its strategy in the Persian Gulf. “I am confident that this crisis would help Abu Dhabi’s Yemen foreign policy, especially in enlisting the US,” he told Inside Arabia. He also expects the UAE to seek Washington for more military help to preserve its own and other Arab Gulf countries’ security.

However, with Saudi Arabia keen to stop the horrific Yemen event, it appears the UAE may have even bigger challenges to preserve its influence in the nation. It is unclear whether the Houthi militia participated in the previous talks in Riyadh, nor if they are represented in the newly formed Presidential Leadership Council (the new eight-member council).

Dr. Heibach adds that while the official Saudi-UAE-led coalition may soon come to an end, allowing for genuine intra-Yemeni dialogue, the disputes within Yemen, both national and sub-national, will remain and be exploited by external powers. Although the UAE-backed Southern Movement is fragmented, independence is still on many South Yemeni players’ agendas. Dr. Heibach believes the battle between the North and South (and the South itself) over the future shape of the Yemeni state remains unresolved, allowing external players like the UAE to exploit internal Yemeni divisions.

Dr. Dentice highlighted that Abu Dhabi “de facto” controls all major commercial ports (mainly Aden, Mukalla, and Ash Shihr in Hadhramawt) and the coastline territory surrounding the Bir Ali (Hadhramawt) oil export facility and the Balhaf LNG terminal (Shabwa). With Shabwa and other nearby districts in South Yemen, the strategy’s success is ensured by maintaining the de facto separation between North and South Yemen.

The UAE could expect additional retaliatory assaults from the Houthis, whose commander, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, has pledged to “liberate our whole country and reclaim all seized areas.” However, reaching a deal with them is not impossible. Dr. Heibach remembers how the Houthis have “proven their capacity to create tactical coalitions with erstwhile foes.” Why shouldn’t they agree with the UAE if it protected their interests? For the Houthis, “such an accord would only be temporary.” But they have been playing for a long time and I believe they have learned that certain goals take time to achieve and that perseverance is required,” he told Inside Arabia.

Finally, the Maritime Silk Road is part of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Yemeni coast will be an important base for the maritime commercial hub, therefore its existence or absence may have far-reaching repercussions, such as increasing or decreasing the influence of regional nations like the UAE. Control over vital places like the Bab al-Mandab strait, Aden Port, and Socotra may offer the UAE even more clout in its dealings with China and the US. But Yemen’s advantageous location has been a burden. Ghassan Salamé, a famous Lebanese professor, politician, and diplomat, once stated that many of Yemen’s issues originated from the country being “(trop) bien situé.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Dentice believes the Emirati marine policy will follow the Chinese BRI as a cooperation that extends beyond energy. Beijing is keen on bolstering its political presence in the MENA, filling the strategic void created by the US withdrawal, which is refocusing its efforts on the Indo-Pacific. The purpose, according to Dr. Dentice, is to dismantle Washington’s worldwide alliance network created since the 1970s. Ultimately, he believes, superpower competition is about controlling the East-West trade route and a gateway to the Indo-Pacific. Yemen is now the competition’s focal point.

According to Dr. Heibach, the future of the geopolitical chess game in Yemen relies on how successfully the UAE controls Yemeni actors, what China can provide them and other Yemeni actors, and how China approaches them. “The UAE obviously outperforms China and the US,” he added. In this game, Yemeni actors aren’t merely pawns, and they recognise their importance to foreign actors. Dr. Heibach stated that players have self-interests and shift alliances when these interests are no longer satisfied.