Fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and jihadi groups in southern Yemen regions has been a matter of national security for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, increasingly, its counterterrorism operations deal not only with the security of its forces in Yemen—where the Special Forces of the UAE Presidential Guard have been deployed since May 2015—but also with its strategy to increase its geopolitical influence in the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean, including protecting energy hubs and maritime infrastructures. Significantly, since the beginning of 2018, protecting such infrastructure and assets has become a major Emirati national interest, given the UAE’s rising military, political, and reconstruction involvement in southern Yemeni regions.
The UAE has had a string of successes against jihadi groups in Yemen over the past few years. Initially, Emirati-led counterterrorism operations focused on coastal cities. In 2016, airstrikes and ground interventions by UAE-supported Yemeni forces recaptured the Aden districts of Tawahi, Crater, Khormaksar, Mansoura, and Burayqah from AQAP and Islamic State affiliates, although pockets of jihadi resistance and activity reportedly remain. In April 2016, Emirati-backed Yemeni militias entered the port city of Mukalla, the most trafficked port in eastern Yemen, with the backing of UAE Special Forces and U.S. intelligence, naval, and aerial support (possibly also including some U.S. Special Forces). This effort drove AQAP—which had ruled the city for one year as the “Sons of Hadramawt,” after having co-opted some local tribes to apply a new community-oriented pattern of governance—out of Mukalla without direct confrontation. At that time, the UAE also began to implement small-scale operations in eastern Aden and western Mukalla to secure urban centers and prevent the future resurgence of AQAP in those cities by cutting their infrastructural links to the interior.
The UAE continued its fight against Yemen’s jihadi groups, particularly AQAP—which has used its strong understanding of local and tribal dynamics to capitalize on peripheries’ resentment against central institutions, thereby hindering the Islamic State’s expansion in the country. In August 2017, the UAE notably helped retake AQAP’s Shabwa fiefdoms of Azzan and Ataq.
However, 2018 marks a tactical shift for the UAE’s counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. Early in the year, Emirati forces planned and executed three parallel ground interventions against AQAP, focusing on inner rural fiefdoms in the porous interior regions of Hadramawt, Shabwa, and Abyan, which jihadis use to train recruits and organize attacks. This change reveals the new strategic dimension of Abu Dhabi’s engagement: securing swathes of territory around urban, infrastructural, and energy assets shows that the Emirati military is committed to fighting AQAP in the long term to protect the UAE’s emerging national interests in southern Yemen.
Beginning on February 16, 2018, the Hadrami Elite Forces deployed from Mukalla to Mesini Valley, west of Mukalla, as part of the UAE-led Operation Faisal. This operation aimed to secure Hadramawt’s border with the governorate of Shabwa, where Balhaf—Yemen’s only liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, which is operated by the French company Total—is located. Balhaf had stopped exports in 2015 due to security reasons: after the Houthis’ coup in January 2015, local tribes, some of them allied with AQAP, seized the area to challenge the central government. UAE soldiers trained and equipped the Hadrami Elite Forces primarily to protect Balhaf’s critical energy infrastructure, now under de facto Emirati control.
Furthermore, in late February 2018, the UAE backed the Shabwani Elite Forces against AQAP in Operation Decisive Sword, using Mukalla as a base to retake Shabwa’s al-Said district (Wadi Yeshbum). AQAP had used this site—the former fiefdom of influential AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki before he was killed in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike—to hide and train jihadis. And from March 7 to 11, the UAE backed the Security Belt Forces (also known as the Hizam Brigades) in Operation Sweeping Torrent, which used Aden as a base to secure Wadi Hamara and al-Mahfad in Abyan governorate. Not only is northern Abyan the crossroads linking the Emirati-influenced regions of Aden and Hadramawt, it also provides access to Bayda, the central governorate most infiltrated by jihadis.
These parallel operations aimed not only to hamper jihadis from fleeing to different regions, but also to establish a new security and governance order directly or indirectly led by the UAE. This system links the major Emirati-controlled port cities of Aden, Mukalla, Mokha, and Bi’r Ali, as well as the gas hub of Balhaf, the oil fields of Masila, and the export terminal at Shihr, all now de facto controlled by the Emiratis.
Over the past couple of years of the Saudi-led military intervention, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi opted for a tactical division of tasks in Yemen: the Saudis engaged primarily in the North, fighting the Houthis with airstrikes, while the Emiratis focused on leading ground operations in the South. This gave the UAE enhanced leverage in southern Yemeni regions through direct military presence and proxy militias—such as the Security Belt Forces, which fall under the Ministry of Interior, and the Shabwani and Hadrami Elite Forces, which have been officially integrated into the Yemeni army. Control of energy infrastructure in Balhaf, oil fields in Masila, as well as commercial ports such as Shihr, Aden, and Mukalla, also enhances UAE leverage in southern Yemen. In addition, the UAE maintains selective patronage networks of local Salafis (such as the Amalqa Brigades and the Abu Al-Abbas Brigades in Taiz), sympathizers of the former Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), and Southern secessionist groups.
Securing southern Yemen from jihadis is also pivotal for the UAE’s maritime strategy. Abu Dhabi’s current foreign policy, which frequently combines overlapping military and commercial goals, is geographically centered in southern Yemen, from which the UAE can project power in the Gulf, Africa, and Asia. First, the UAE has been encouraging alternative and complementary shipping routes to its main ones out of Dubai’s Jebel Ali port, in case shipping through the Hormuz Strait is disrupted or blocked. This also offsets the looming “ports bulge” in the northern Gulf where there is risk of overcapacity from the current major ports (which include Dammam, Shuwaikh, Shuaiba, Mubarak al-Kabir, Khalifa bin Salman, Port Hamad, Khalifa Port, Imam Khomeini Port, Bushehr, Asalouyeh, and Shahid Rajaee) and the planned expansion of Oman’s Duqm and Salalah facilities. Controlling ports in southern Yemen—particularly if DP World, Dubai’s ports authority, begins to operate there—could support UAE’s effort to design new shipping lanes and acquire new market shares in maritime trade.
Second, the UAE has recently built military bases in the Horn of Africa—opening the Assab military base in Eritrea in 2016 and starting work on Somaliland’s Berbera base in February 2017—and it is successfully pursuing a “string of ports” strategy, together with Saudi Arabia, to contain Iran’s influence in Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean. DP World gained concessions to operate and modernize commercial ports in the region, and the Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Foundation rebuilt the port of Hawlaf in Socotra. Some of these commercial ports, such as Berbera, have since been turned into UAE naval outposts. As a result of its combined commercial and military interests in the Horn of Africa, the UAE needs to prevent jihadi networks from flourishing in such an interdependent sub-region, especially with piracy attacks along the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden on the rise. Influencing southern Yemen therefore gives the UAE the upper hand over Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in their competition for leverage in the Western Indian Ocean.
Third, southern Yemeni regions are the best platform for the UAE to boost its “pivot to the East” policy, as seen by the comprehensive partnership it signed with India in January 2017 to increase financial and energy cooperation. For instance, before 2015, the Balhaf LNG terminal exported most of its gas to Asia, and China is one of the top importers of Yemeni oil.
To maintain these entrenched interests, the UAE is continuing to use its special forces in counterterrorism operations despite having already won significant victories over AQAP. Yet this approach could also backfire: attacks against Emirati-backed forces rose from 25 percent of AQAP’s total attacks in the first half of 2017 to 51 percent in the second half of 2017 as its online and printed propaganda increasingly targeted the UAE for fighting “against Islam and Muslims.” Empowering Salafi groups—particularly those opposing Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, Islah—has enabled the UAE to project power in the Yemeni interior. But in the long term, this could be counterproductive for containing Yemen’s various interconnected jihadi groups, as many Salafis are also supporters of the Southern independence and could be dissatisfied with future regional boundaries.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), and an analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation and Aspen Institute Italia.