Friday, December 21, 2018

The Emirates in Yemen

Last week, UN-sponsored peace talks in Sweden produced a temporary ceasefire between the Houthis and pro-government forces in the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, a crucial gateway for humanitarian aid into the country. If the fragile ceasefire holds – which is not certain – both sides will be required to withdraw their troops from the port. A successful truce in Hodeideh could pave the way for progress at the next round of talks, scheduled for late January. But the war is not yet over.

In fact, it is no longer even a single war. It began as a conflict with two clear antagonists – the Saudi-led coalition allied with the government versus the Houthi militia supported by Iran. But the force and funding of outside intervention – especially from the UAE – has helped to fragment the war into multiple conflicts and local skirmishes that will not necessarily be ended by any peace agreement. Yemen is now a patchwork of heavily armed fiefdoms and chaotic areas, where commanders, war profiteers and a thousand bandit kings thrive.

There is a regional war between the north and the south – which were separate and often warring states before 1990. There is a sectarian conflict between Zaidi Shias, such as the Houthis, and Sunni Salafis. Beyond these major fault lines are many smaller conflicts, inflamed and aggravated by the money and weapons supplied by outside forces to anyone seen to advance their agenda.
The government of Yemen – with scores of ministers and deputy ministers – is dysfunctional and corrupt, and since 2015 has been in exile in a Saudi hotel compound. It has an army of more than 200,000 troops, although many of them haven’t been paid, or exist as ghost soldiers – names on a list, whose salaries are siphoned off by their commanding officers.
The Saudi-led coalition itself is riddled with conflicts and rivalries, with each of its principal members following a separate agenda and plotting against the others. In Taiz, a city in central Yemen that has been besieged and shelled by the Houthis for more than three years, the fighters on the coalition side are split into more than two dozen separate military factions – including local militias backed and sponsored by the UAE, as well as al-Qaida and other jihadis. Some fighters switch sides according to who is offering funds.

The Emiratis appear to be the only alliance members with a clear strategy. They are using private armies that they have created, trained and funded in a bid to crush both jihadi militancy and Islamist political parties such as al-Islah. Across the southern coast – where the UAE is allied with the separatist Southern Movement, which is opposed to both the Houthis and the Hadi government – the Emiratis have built a series of military camps and bases, and established what is essentially a parallel state, with its own security services who are not accountable to the Yemeni government. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have revealed the existence of a network of secret prisons operated by the UAE and its proxy forces, who are accused of disappearing and torturing al-Islah members, anti-Houthi fighters from rival factions, and even activists and critics of the Saudi-UAE coalition. Yemeni ministers have taken to referring to the Emiratis as an “occupation force”.

“We had hoped that the Saudis would intervene to stop the folly of the Emiratis, but they are lost,” a Yemeni commander based in Aden said to me last summer. “The war is not going well for them, and they can’t be bothered with what’s happening in the south, so they have handed that file to the Emiratis.”
What the Emiratis have achieved in Yemen – creating private armies, propping up secessionists in the south and conspiring to destroy the political system, while controlling strategic waterways in the Arabian and Red seas – shows how a small and very ambitious nation projects its power in the region, and the world.
With the Emiratis as their backers, the people of Aden believed their city would become the next Dubai, with electricity, water and jobs. The enthusiastic governor, a former general who had returned from London to help rebuild the city, told me companies would pour into the city; Aden would resume its former glory; its port, which had been stagnating before the war, would reclaim its status; and embassies would reopen. In the months after the Houthis’ departure in 2015, the Emiratis were celebrated as liberators, their flags sold on market stalls, and pictures of the rulers adorned street corners and weapons.
In the streets, the reality was different. “Liberated Aden” resembled other cities devastated by the civil wars that followed the Arab spring, with rusting, burned tanks and armoured vehicles perched on hills, overlooking a city of scarred streets and gutted buildings, toppled on top of one another like crumpled concrete wafers, and impoverished people left homeless and turned into refugee squatters in their own city. The defeated Houthi militia was replaced by dozens of others in a city without water, electricity or a sewage system. The war became the main employer, and the streets filled with fighters riding in the back of pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Commanders from the disparate, disunited resistance groups were demanding their share of the spoils from a broken and impoverished city. The most powerful of those commanders secured control of the ports, factories and any institution that generated an income, imposing their protection racket. The smaller commanders contented themselves with looting public and private property, especially if the latter belonged to northern owners. The dreams of the people of Aden that their poor city would flourish with the help of their rich Emirati brethren had subsided into resentment and frustrations.
The Emiratis formed half a dozen armies, dispersed across Aden and the south of Yemen. Their commanders function as independent warlords, with tanks, prisons and a force loyal to them personally. There is no central command connecting all these forces, and the government of Yemen has no control over them. Instead, they work directly under the command of the reigning Emirati general, who appoints and dismisses them at will, and distributes his largesse according to their cooperation and effectiveness. Unlike the Yemeni government army units, with their inflated numbers and irregularly paid soldiers, the fighters in the Emirati-controlled forces are paid regularly and are better dressed and equipped, with an affinity for black ski-masks and extreme brutality. They detain, torture and kill with impunity An unprecedented campaign of terror followed the formation of these forces in 2016. At night men with balaclavas seized people from their beds. No one claims responsibility for these kidnappings. Although the action was launched ostensibly to fight al-Qaida, the targets expanded to include anyone who dared to oppose the UAE presence in Yemen.
“Pursuing al-Qaida became a pretext – anyone they don’t approve of is detained, and almost everyone detained is tortured, often hung from ceiling, many are sexually abused. The sad thing is that now southerners are torturing southerners with the blessing of the Emiratis – while the government of Yemen stands helpless and watches.”
The UAE has embraced a much more assertive foreign policy, intended to establish the Emirates as a regional power. In Yemen, the UAE has three central missions that are separate from its support for the Saudi coalition. First, to crush political Islam in any form. Second, to control the strategically valuable Red Sea coastline – across a narrow strait from the Horn of Africa, where the UAE has already established military bases in Djibouti and Eritrea. And third, to develop and strengthen its own special forces, who train and oversee local proxies like the Security Belt troops.
 In Aden this summer, criticism of the UAE was spreading, especially among the poor, who had thought the presence of their very rich neighbours would make their lives better. Instead, the electricity supply had got worse, preventable diseases were spreading, and the collapse of the Yemeni riyal was making them even poorer. “Down with Emirati occupation” slogans started to appear.

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