DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates has drawn down its troop levels in Yemen but remains a key member of the Saudi-led coalition at war with Iran-aligned rebels there, a senior Emirati official said Monday.
The official confirmed that UAE troop levels are down, describing it as a “strategic redeployment.” The official declined to disclose how many soldiers have left Yemen and how many remain.
“Definitely, we do have troop levels that are down for reasons that are strategic in Hodeida and reasons that are tactical,” the official said, referring to the Yemeni port city where a UN-brokered cease-fire is supposed to be in place.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss troop deployments for security reasons.
Talking to journalists in Dubai, the official said it makes sense to redeploy away from Hodeida and by extension from the UAE’s military base at Eritrea’s post of Assab, which was a staging ground for Emirati operations in Hodeida.
Any other redeployment in others parts of Yemen “will ebb and flow based our own assessment of what the situation involves,” the official said.
“Our commitment in Yemen remains. We are part of the coalition,” the official said, adding that the drawdown was discussed extensively with the Saudis.
The Saudi-led coalition has been at war in Yemen since 2015 to support the country’s internationally-backed government. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and the war has generated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, drawing sharp bipartisan criticism in Congress.
When discussing the drawdown, the Emirati official also noted the escalating tensions between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf region, saying the UAE was not blind to “the overall geostrategic picture.”
A number of American academics and analysts who met recently with Emirati military officials say that in addition to withdrawing a significant number of troops from Yemen, the Emiratis have also moved Patriot batteries and other defence systems from Yemen back to the UAE to boost security and readiness at home amid heightened tensions with Iran.
Yemeni military officials and tribal leaders, who also insisted on speaking anonymously to discuss the situation, said the UAE redeployed forces from the eastern province of Marib. Meanwhile, they said Emirati military reinforcements were sent to the southern provinces of Dhale and Shabwa. They said the UAE had also redeployed its forces and weapons to the Red Sea port town of Mocha.
The Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen, known as Houthis, said in May they would begin to redeploy from three key ports in Yemen, including Hodeida, which handles 70 per cent of Yemen’s food imports and humanitarian aid. The long-delayed redeployment of Houthi forces there is seen as a key first step toward ending the civil war, which erupted in 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa.
Meanwhile, security concerns spiked in the UAE after four oil tankers were hit off its coast of Fujairah in May in an attack that the US has blamed on Iran.
“We’re very, very protected when it comes to drones … Patriots, Thaad system. But you know again, I think mostly, we are also protected through what I would say is continuous diplomacy,” the Emirati official said before adding “our whole effort has been at de-escalation.”
The UAE supports US sanctions on Iran, but has also stressed that war with Iran is not in the region’s interest.
Two other tankers were attacked in June in the Gulf of Oman, forcing crews on both ships to be rescued and evacuated. Iran denies any involvement.
Tensions rose further after Iran shot down an unmanned US surveillance drone.
Over the same period, Houthis have upped their attacks on Saudi Arabia, using bomb-laden drones and missiles to target a Saudi airport, killing a civilian and wounding dozens others. The Houthis also claimed an attack on a Saudi oil pipeline.