The small coalition of U.S. allies in the Middle East is showing signs of fracture, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in recent days signaling a significant shift in alliances in Yemen, where it has been fighting alongside Saudi Arabian forces for four years.
The Saudi-UAE coalition has been supporting the Yemeni government against the Houthi rebels, with U.S. support. Their campaigns there have resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths as a result of airstrikes, some of which are being investigated by the United Nations as war crimes.
But in recent days UAE-backed southern separatists in Yemen have taken over the port of Aden, refusing Saudi demands that they evacuate government facilities there.
This is a significant development when taken in concert with a number of other shifts in UAE policy.
First, in June, the UAE broke ranks with Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration on blaming Iran for mines attached to its ships in May. That’s when four ships — two Saudi, one Emirati, and one Norwegian — were sabotaged with mines as they were docked off the coast of the UAE, in the Gulf of Oman. There were no injuries and the damage was minimal.
The Trump administration quickly blamed Iran for that attack — as well as one that followed in June — before any kind of investigation was carried out. Iran has denied any involvement with the incidents.
A UN investigation into the May attack showed that there was no conclusive evidence linking Iran to the sabotaged tankers, but the United States and Saudi Arabia refused to back down from their allegations.
The UAE, however, acknowledged in June that there was a lack of evidence against Iran, not only for the attack in May, but also for the two tankers damaged by mines in June.
“Honestly we can’t point the blame [for the tanker attacks] at any country because we don’t have evidence,” said UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
“If there is a country that has the evidence, then I’m convinced that the international community will listen to it. But we need to make sure the evidence is precise and convincing,” he added.
So far, no new evidence has been shared with the public.
In July, the UAE formally announced a change in its participation in the war in Yemen, although it had already started scaling back its participation in the Saudi-led coalition there in June. While reaffirming the UAE’s commitment to the coalition, an official told reporters that the UAE was pivoting away from a “military-first” strategy to a “peace-first strategy” — in other words, diplomacy.
But in doing so, the UAE will have to deal with the Houthi rebels, which, at least in some measure, are supported by Iran (the extent of that support depends on whose narrative one believes — the Saudi-U.S. one, or the Iranian one).
Iran is the main challenge to Saudi power in the region, with the UAE, and, at times, tiny Bahrain and Kuwait, supporting what is presented as a Sunni Arab challenge to Shia-Iranian hegemony.
The UAE, within spitting distance of Iran across the Persian Gulf, has supported much of the Trump administration’s crackdown on Iran — including pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal and the reimposition of harsh sanctions.
But those decisions have also had major implications for the Emirates, which has carefully cultivated its reputation as a sort of Las Vegas of the Middle East (a safe haven with spotless beaches and glittering, opulent, resorts). Two mine attacks spaced a month apart did little to sow confidence.
With the United States ratcheting up tensions in the Strait of Hormuz — a key passage for the movement of global oil supplies — the UAE sits at an uncomfortably close distance to any kind of potential conflict in the area.
Additionally, U.S. sanctions on Iran are starting to hit the UAE’s economy, with projections that its $19 billion in annual trade with Iran will be cut in half this year. The Financial Times reported that much of the trade and tourism coming from Iran is now finding its way to Turkey.
This too, is a major shift — following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranians found themselves blocked off from much of the world. Many of the country’s middle class saw the UAE as a safe place to park their money.
Iran is adept at taking advantage of such fractures, and it remains to be seen how it might respond to this, and how that might affect U.S. policy in the region.
When Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait started the blockade against Qatar in June 2017 (dubbed the “Gulf Crisis”) over a number of grievances — everything from state-owned Al Jazeera’s reporting to the what Saudi Arabia perceived as Doha’s close ties to Tehran — it was Iran that flew aid into the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar. Iran also allowed Qatari flights to use Iranian airspace, as its neighbors had blocked those routes.
So far, officials from the UAE have met their counterparts in Tehran, where they discussed maritime security in the region in July, the first meeting of its kind in six years.