For four years, the United Arab Emirates have been the military linchpin of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, providing weapons, money and thousands of ground troops to a campaign to drive out Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Emirati forces led almost every major advance the coalition made.
Now they have decided they can go no further.
The Emiratis are withdrawing their forces at a scale and speed that all but rules out further ground advances, a belated recognition that a grinding war that has killed thousands of civilians and turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster is no longer winnable.
Emirati officials have been saying for several weeks that they have begun a phased and partial withdrawal of forces estimated at 5,000 troops a few years ago.
But Western and Arab diplomats briefed on the drawdown say that a significant reduction has already occurred and that the Emiratis are driven mostly by their desire to exit a war whose cost has become too high, even if it means angering their Saudi allies.
In the past month, the Emiratis have cut their deployment around Hodeida, the Red Sea port that was the war’s main battleground last year, by 80% to fewer than 150 men, according to four people briefed on the drawdown. They have pulled out their attack helicopters and heavy guns, effectively precluding a military advance on the city.
A senior Emirati official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in accordance with his government’s policy, said the drawdown was intended to support a shaky U.N.-brokered cease-fire in Hodeida that came into effect in December.
“Our commitment to Yemen remains,” the official said, adding that Emirati forces have trained 90,000 Yemeni soldiers to fill the vacuum after their departure.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 to roll back an attempted takeover by the Houthis, a faction supported by Iran, and to restore Yemen’s fragile, internationally recognized government. The war, the signature initiative of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and backed by the United States, would be over in a matter of months, they said.
Four years later, the war has failed to oust the Houthis and turned Yemen into what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Mike Hindmarsh, a retired Australian major general who commands the Emirati presidential guard, recently told Western visitors that Yemen had become a quagmire where the Houthis were the “Yemeni Viet Cong.”
The drawdown “is going to expose the Saudis to the reality that this war is a failure,” said Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute, a research group in London. “It tells us the two main protagonists on the coalition side, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, don’t have the same idea of what success looks like.”
Diplomats said the Saudis were deeply disappointed by the Emirati decision. Top officials with the royal court personally intervened with the Emirati leaders to try to dissuade them from the drawdown, said a Western diplomat familiar with the matter.
Several people briefed by the Emiratis said that they have avoided announcing their decision publicly in part to minimize the unhappiness of the Saudis.
But an official in the Saudi Embassy in Washington denied that the kingdom’s leaders were “unhappy.”
The leaders of the two countries “remain strategically aligned on the goals for Yemen,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity according to Saudi rules.
“Tactical or operational changes during campaigns are natural and are done in coordination with the coalition,” the official said, adding that any void left by the Emirati drawdown would be filled by Yemeni forces who had been trained to stand on their own.
Emirati officials stress that they are not leaving Yemen entirely. A counterterrorism mission focused on hunting al-Qaida militants, a core U.S. concern in Yemen, remains untouched.
The Emiratis will maintain a reduced presence in Aden, the main city in the south, and will continue to support a coalition of about 16 Yemeni militias, estimated to number about 20,000 men, who have been doing most of the fighting along the Red Sea coast in the Hodeida area.
But command of the fractious Yemeni forces is passing to Saudi Arabia. A senior Yemeni official said Thursday that Saudi officers had taken charge at the two main Emirati bases on the Red Sea, at Mokha and Khokha.
The Saudis have little experience on that front, and the sudden changes have stoked fears that without the heavily armed Emiratis to keep the peace, the Yemenis could start to feud among themselves.
“The only thing stopping the Houthis from taking over Yemen was the UAE armed forces,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. “Now the glue that was holding Yemen together is being withdrawn.”
The drawdown could prompt the Houthis to take advantage of the vacuum and launch new attempts to capture ground they lost to the Emirati-led battle group last year. Fighting has already surged in several strategic towns on the plains south of Hodeida, threatening supply lines to Saudi-led forces positioned around the city.
Aid officials warn the fighting could deepen an already grave humanitarian situation in those areas, threatening a fresh spike in disease and malnutrition levels in a country that has been threatened with famine for the past year.
The Saudis and Emiratis have endured growing international criticism for the consequences of their air campaign, which has killed about 8,000 civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, and for policies of economic warfare that have constricted the food supply in much of the Houthi-controlled north.
The Houthis have also been accused of contributing to the problem by diverting or manipulating international aid.
As pressure has mounted, Saudi and Emirati interests in Yemen have openly diverged.
The Emiratis have largely achieved their objective of protecting shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere around Yemen. The Saudis, however, have become bogged down in protecting their long border with Yemen.
Since the fighting began in 2015, the Houthis have continually harassed Saudi Arabia with missiles, drones and other incursions into Saudi territory, raising the stakes for Riyadh.
The Houthis have recently fired missiles at Saudi airports in retaliation for the Saudi blockade of airport in Sanaa, the Houthi-controlled capital. In June, a missile hit the arrivals terminal of an airport in Abha, Saudi Arabia, wounding 26 people.
Last year the Emiratis led a sweeping military advance up the Red Sea Coast to the outskirts of Hodeida, the main channel for food imports to Yemen. But the drive was halted by Houthi resistance and an international outcry over fears that Hodeida could be cut off, endangering food supplies to millions of Yemenis threatened by famine.
U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, including intelligence and logistical support as well as the sale of planes and bombs, has grown increasingly controversial in the United States as the war’s civilian toll has mounted. In the United States, opposition to the war mushroomed after Saudi agents killed the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last fall.
Congress passed a bipartisan resolution to end U.S. involvement, but it was vetoed by President Donald Trump, a strong supporter of the Saudi crown prince.
Despite its role in the war, Pentagon leaders have for years warned that military victory is not possible, urging the Saudi-led coalition to negotiate a political settlement.
U.S. officials who encouraged the Emiratis to withdraw from Hodeida included former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
The Emiratis “have simply tired of the stalemate and dim prospects for victory on the battlefield,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal government assessments.
The Saudis, though, may still believe in a military victory. “There are voices in Riyadh who think the Houthis can be caused enough pain to do what Saudi Arabia wants,” said Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group. “But that feels like wishful thinking, which is not a good substitute for strategy.”
There are signs though that recent tensions with Iran are shifting Saudi calculations. The prospect of a conflict with Iran while fighting a rear-guard action against Houthi missiles coming across Saudi Arabia’s southern border may have persuaded the Saudis to reach for peace with the Houthis, according to a Western official who has met with the Saudis.
The Saudi official said that the kingdom’s goals had always been “a political solution to the conflict, one that will provide a sustainable peace and stability.” The military objective, the official said, was “to pressure the Houthi militia to return to the negotiating table.”
But Yemen’s government, currently based in the southern city of Aden, may be less interested in reaching a peaceful settlement. And in a conflict closely tied to Crown Prince Mohammed’s legacy, any political settlement would require finding a means of saving face for both sides.
“The best way to end the war is for both sides to break bread,” Salisbury said. “But the cost of ending the war might be too high for the Saudis, in terms of saving face. And it could be blocked by the government of Yemen.”