Mohammed bin-Zayed’s Heat level: The chilly development of UAE’s intervention in Yemen

  • + MBZ pulled UAE’s ground forces out of Yemen.
  • + Houthis are gaining the upper hand in the West of Yemen.
  • + UAE’s high civilian death toll is criticized by the international community.
Source: Inside Arabia

(Mohammed bin-Zayed is the crown prince and ruler of the United Arab Emirates, a post he has formally occupied since his brother, president Khalifa, suffered a stroke in 2014. MBZ has effectively been a leading figure within the UAE since 2005, notably in foreign affairs. In the UAE, MBZ holds complete political and military power.)

Why is Mohammed bin-Zayed’s (MBZ) level cold?

Answer: UAE’s military-led intervention in Yemen has fallen short of its objectives.

Since taking leadership of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mohammed bin-Zayed (MBZ) has led an increasingly interventionist foreign policy in the Arab world. The crown prince’s goal is to make the UAE a major power in the Middle East while implementing the Emirati political model throughout the region. This political model has come to be known as “Gulfication”, which sacrifices democracy and popular representation in exchange for economic prosperity and security while excluding religion from governance. Essentially, MBZ wants to put in power throughout the Arab world secular strongmen who will develop the economy, guarantee security and become a strong ally of the UAE. 

MBZ had already successfully tested the Gulfication strategy when he backed General el-Sisi’s coup in Egypt in 2013. This hawkish foreign policy paid off, as MBZ gained a key ally in Egypt while proving the UAE’s capabilities on the international scene. 

When the civil war broke out in Yemen in 2015, MBZ saw a perfect opportunity to consolidate the UAE’s status as a regional power, while further implementing his Gulfication strategies. With these goals in mind, MBZ intervened alongside Saudi Arabia in favour of the internationally recognized Hadi government, which had been overthrown by Houthi rebels. Within weeks, the Saudi-led anti-Houthi alliance turned the tide of the war, pushing the rebels out of the port city Aden and up north towards the capital Sanaa. However, Iran stepped up its support of the Houthis, and it was soon apparent that the Saudi-led intervention would not achieve a swift victory in Yemen. 

As the conflict lingered on, it became clear that the UAE was leading an independent strategy in Yemen. MBZ, who strongly opposes political Islam, distrusts the Wahabi Saudi regime and their financing of extremist Islamic groups opposing the Houthis. Furthermore, MBZ has been committed to fighting fundamentalist Islamic groups in the Middle East, which has made the UAE a strong ally of the United States. Backed by the US in counter-terrorism operations, bin-Zayed chose to implement a ground-based military strategy in Yemen.

Distrustful of the corrupt and splintered Hadi government, the crown prince ordered UAE special forces to train Yemeni militias that would be loyal to him personally. These UAE backed militias combat concurrently Houthis forces, al-Qaeda and ISIS. When victory was achieved, MBZ planned to engage in the Gulfication of Yemen, backed by the militias that were loyal to him. The prospect of the Gulfication was popular amongst the Yemeni population, hopeful for stability, security and economic prosperity. 

However, as the war bore on, the UAE backed coalition in Yemen started to break down. Rival groups fought amongst each other, while abuses on the civilian population increased. MBZ, who once had billboards and graffiti in his honour in Aden, is now rejected by the Yemeni population. This chaos in the anti-Houthi camp allowed the Houthis to take advantage in the Southern section of the country, pushing the government forces out of the north and attacking Saudi border towns.

The international community also criticized Saudi Arabia and UAE for their aerial bombardment’s campaign’s high civilian death toll. Weary of his international image, and realizing that Yemen was turning into an asymmetric conflict with no exit strategy, MBZ chose to withdraw UAE ground forces from the country in February 2020.

Source: European Council on Foreign Relations

UAE’s withdrawal from Yemen without having won against the Houthis would have downgraded MBZ’s heat level to freezing. However, MBZ still holds significant influence in Yemen, supplying and arming allied groups on the ground. Moreover, UAE backed forces still hold ⅔ of the county, and have successfully curtailed Houthi eastward expansion. The US and France strongly support MBZ’s fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and the crown prince has shown that the Emirates is a viable alternative to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.

Although he has not succeeded in the Gulfication of Yemen, bin-Zayed has expanded UAE’s sphere of influence, consolidated the Emirate’s place as a regional power in the Middle East, and enjoyed extensive popularity at home. Therefore, MBZ’s temperature only falls to “chilly”.   

Who is changing MBZ’s temperature?

Answer: Iranian intervention and the failure of bin-Zayed’s military strategy.

In the Middle East, a Cold War has been brewing between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Yemen, which is composed of about 60% Sunnis and 40% Shias, is a strategic nation controlling maritime passages through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and bordering Saudi Arabia, This country’s religious divisions and strategic location make its control crucial to both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran first seized the initiative by financing Shia Houthi rebels throughout 2010-2015, eventually leading to the Houthi capture of the capital Sanaa in 2014.

Saudi Arabia responded by intervening in favour of the Sunni Hadi government in 2015. A Sunni country and strong ally of the US, UAE joined the Saudi coalition against Iran. Caught in the middle of this Cold War and proxy conflict between the two main regional powers, MBZ has tried to forge an independent path for the UAE. 

Mohammed bin-Zayed thought that assisting allies on the ground with overwhelming airpower, training and operations by UAE special forces would be enough to secure a swift victory. He was wrong. Although at first successful, his military strategy has failed under the pressures of drawn-out asymmetric conflicts and determined professional resistance by opposing forces. MBZ underestimated the Houthis, who had received substantive Iranian support since the Saudi intervention of 2015 and became a professional, well-equipped army.

The crown prince’s decision to train separate anti-Houthis forces ultimately backfired, as they started infighting for more influence. Bin-Zayed overlooked that UAE backed militias are uncoordinated, have differing views and objectives. As such, the UAE backed coalition has begun losing ground to the Houthis in 2019/2020. Although MBZ is wary of Iranian aspirations in the Middle East, he knows the UAE is not powerful enough to take the Islamic Republic head-on. Furthermore, bin-Zayed has to balance his regional aspirations with the UAE’s economy, which is heavily intertwined with Iran. 

Thus, Iran’s increasing involvement in Yemen has blunted UAE’s military campaign, while forcing MBZ to engage in regional diplomacy to protect Emirati economic interests and recently acquired influence. Bin-Zayed is now seeking to increase UAE’s influence in the Middle East, but without facing Iran head-on. 

What is driving Mohamed bin Zayed?

Answer: Consolidating UAE’s influence in the Arab world and reinforcing international alliances.

MBZ is strongly driven by his aversion to political Islam. As a young adult, he rejected the Islamic teachings of his mentor from the Mulsim Brotherhood, while observing with a critical eye the revolution in Iran. Following his father’s secular political path, bin-Zayed reformed UAE’s government, cutting down on the number of civil servants, created a mandatory military service to reinforce the country’s social fabric, removed the Islamist teachings from public educations and purged Islah, the equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Emirates.

MBZ’s centralized power has by all accounts been popular in UAE, considering his complete power, continuing involvement in foreign wars, and the economic prosperity of the Emirates. To bin-Zayed, political Islam is synonymous with chaos and uncertainty, and thus he has sought to limit its spread in the Arab world. He tolerates the Wahabi royal family in Saudi Arabia as they provide stability and political continuity (MBZ is more afraid of an ISIS-style Wahabi group taking control of Saudi Arabia), but distrusts his ally’s Islamic political base and willingness to fund extremist Islamic groups that further their interests. 

Driven by his belief that the UAE political model is far superior to democracy or political Islam in the Arab world, MBZ has nonetheless recognized that Gulfication is extremely difficult to implement in war-torn countries. The crown prince realizes that the partial failure of the Yemeni campaign has reduced the UAE’s standing as a power able to lead a war unilaterally. However, the expansion and consolidation of Emirati interests in the Arabic Peninsula, along with MBZ’s ability to supply weapons to his allies, demonstrates that the UAE is still able to play a crucial role in the Arab world’s future.

Furthermore, following the democratic failures of the Arab Spring and the chaos that has followed, France and the US have bought into MBZ’s political project for the Arab world. Even with the recent setback in Yemen, bin-Zayed knows he has consolidated the Emirate’s place as an ascending regional power, and continuing support from the West means the crown prince will continue to expand his influence in the Middle East in the future. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The consolidation of a new regional power in the Arab world. 

Keep an eye out on the Middle East! The Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia is creating vacuums of power in the Arab world. Mohammed bin-Zayed has ambitiously expanded the UAE’s influence in the Arabic peninsula and North Africa strengthened ties with Western powers and led a pragmatic global diplomacy campaign. The Emirati crown prince’s efforts have effectively consolidated the UAE as a regional power in the Middle East, while he has become a power broker in the Arab world and a key ally of the West in counterterrorism. MBZ is now one of the Arab world’s most powerful leaders.

However, MBZ’s failed intervention in Yemen has intensified the Saudi-Iranian conflict. With no political solution in sight, the Yemeni Civil War could lead to redrawing the country’s map, perhaps creating new states and upending the balance of power in the Middle East. 

David Salinger

R&A Editor in Chief