World, Middle East

UAE’s 'Great Game' in Red Sea complicates regional balance

Through militias, UAE is pursuing ambitious strategic agenda in Red Sea, building military installations, controlling sea lanes

Mohammed Alragawi  | 24.12.2020 - Update : 24.12.2020
UAE’s 'Great Game' in Red Sea complicates regional balance


Apart from building strategic ties with Israel, the United Arab Emirates' attempts to control international naval trade in the Gulf and its activities in war-torn Yemen is increasingly becoming a source of concern for regional and global players.

Over the past five years, the UAE has pursued an ambitious strategic agenda in the Red Sea, building military installations and securing control of the southern coasts of Yemen along the Arabian Sea in the Bab al-Mandab and Socotra Island.

Analysts believe that despite reducing its military footprints in Yemen in 2019, UAE has consolidated itself in the southern regions. It has continued to finance and impart training to thousands of Yemeni fighters drafted in various groups like the Security Belt Forces, the Shabwani and Hadrami Elite Forces, Abu al-Abbas Brigade, and West Coast Forces.

These militia groups work independently of the legal government and even challenge it.

In April 2020, the UAE-supported separatist group known as the Southern Transition Council (STC) announced its self-rule administration in south governorates. The Yemeni government challenged it and called it an attempt to “divide the country and threaten its stability”.

Earlier the UAE carried out airstrikes against the government forces in Aden that killed and injured more than 300 soldiers and civilians. The Saudi Arabia-backed Yemeni legitimate government led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has repeatedly accused the UAE of attempting to seize Yemen's Socotra Island and controlling the southern coastal areas in Aden, Bab el-Mandeb, Mukalla, Hadiboh, Perim Island (known as Mayyun), and Balhaf, the only LNG gas terminal in the war-torn country.

The militias controlling these areas are loyal to the UAE and opposed to the legitimate government. In addition to controlling land and sea lines of Yemen, UAE has gained access to the Horn of Africa along with strategic maritime points in the Red Sea. It has managed to secure deals with African countries on the western shores of the Red Sea to increase its influence over the Berbera port in Somaliland, Assab Port in Eretria, Djibouti’s Port, Bosasso and Mogadishu ports in Somalia.

Al-Mokha is a small port city situated directly on the Bab al-Mandab, the narrowest point between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa and the gateway to the Red Sea. It was liberated from Houthi militias in February 2017 by UAE-backed Yemeni forces. Since then, the UAE is the only ruling power in the area between the Hodeidah and Taiz provinces. It has trained militias in the west coast under the names of Giants Brigade and Tihama Brigade, as well as fighters loyal to Tareq Saleh, the nephew of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who commands Guards of the Republic.

Backing Saleh’s militia

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Abdulhafez Alhatami, a Yemeni journalist from Hodeida, said the UAE is now increasingly backing Tariq’s forces at the expense of others. “In 2019, the UAE cut down military supplies including heavy weaponry and financial aid to Giant Brigade and Tihama Brigade to force them to team up with Guards of the Republic,” he said.

He revealed that the UAE had summoned the Commander of the Giants Brigade, Abu Zarah al-Muharrami, and forced him to give up the control of the western coast to Saleh's forces. The UAE was also behind in the formation of joint militias that cadres form all the three forces. Recent reports suggest that the UAE has appointed a new commander to this joint force, controlling Yemen’s western coast.

Sources said this handover process took place in the coastal city of Mokha. The new commander has been tasked to address disputes between militia leaders and build stronger ties with local people who have often protested at the UAE’s presence in the area.

Observers believe that UAE’s actions have further queered the pitch for Yemen’s problems. While the port and military base deals have been agreed formally between UAE and African states on the western shores of the Red Sea, it is unlikely that the UAE will hand over these valuable ports back to Yemen.

According to the Yemen Data Project, the Saudi and UAE-led coalition have conducted more than 22,180 airstrikes on Yemen since the beginning of the war, an average of over 10 attacks per day. Moreover, Human Rights Watch has documented at least 90 unlawful coalition airstrikes, which have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, mosques, and detention centers. Some of the attacks may amount to war crimes.

Speaking exclusively to Anadolu Agency, Tawfik Alhamidi, a Yemeni human rights activist, said the UAE forces on the western coast have practiced illegal actions such as closing the port of Mokha, displacing residents of Dhubab, and building military bases on Perim Island.

“They have established secret prisons, banned fishing, and allowed smuggling activities. All these actions undoubtedly will tear Yemen apart and create an unstable political and security situation,” he said.

US weaponry goes to militias 

In 2019, CNN had traced the US-made weapons sold to the UAE finding ways to militias in Yemen, that included over half a dozen MRAP all-terrain vehicles manufactured in Texas. They had been transferred to the Giants Brigade; a militia allied with the UAE.

The legitimate government’s opposition had hardly deterred the UAE, given its strong influence on many armed groups. “The legitimate government is powerless. It did not protect the sovereignty of Yemen, let alone bombing its army and carving out islands and cities by UAE,” said Alghamdi.

On the larger front, observers believe the UAE’s attempts to control international naval trade lanes by undermining the interests of regional and international forces might set the ground for a trickier situation along the Red Sea. The UAE’s activities in Yemen are just an example of its self-centered strategic plan by pursuing the old saying that "the end justifies the means”, implying the final aim is so important that any way of achieving it is acceptable.

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