The U.S.-brokered normalization of ties between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel marks a shift in Abu Dhabi’s strategic thinking that should not be underestimated. To be more precise, it reflects how the UAE perceives threats and opportunities in a volatile regional landscape that has buoyed its ascent in terms of its power and sphere of influence, and shaped its evolving ambitions. From Libya to Yemen, the UAE has exhibited increasingly assertive, interventionist foreign and security policies. According to Guido Steinberg, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, “Abu Dhabi is no longer Saudi Arabia’s junior partner,” pointing to its “small maritime empire” around the Gulf of Aden.
The normalization of relations with the U.S.’ closest ally in Middle East, therefore, cannot be seen in isolation from the broader dynamics playing out across the region, most notably around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The UAE is actively engaged in the area and has sponsored newly formed proxies, such as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen, which was founded in May 2017 at the peak of its involvement in the Arab coalition. Responses to the UAE-Israel normalization in Yemen have varied little and disapproval is the dominant theme. While it comes as no surprise that the Houthis bashed the normalization agreement while the STC applauded it, the condemnation from seven other southern actors, rejecting a linkage between the “southern cause” and the “Israeli occupation,” offers a reality check. Officially, Yemen’s foreign minister, Mohammed al-Hadhrami, reaffirmed the country’s long-standing position of support for Palestinian rights, without discussing the UAE-Israel normalization.
As unimportant as the move may seem for Yemen, the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel and patronage of the STC, if left unaddressed, may ultimately lead to undesirable outcomes for both Yemen and the broader Arab world: more interference, militarization, and rivalry. All of these would prolong protracted wars, challenge Yemen’s territorial integrity, exploit legitimate grievances, and heighten geopolitical competition.
An amplifier for the Houthis and conflict dynamics
For a long time, the Houthi insurgency has framed the war in Yemen as a “popular resistance” against “foreign aggression,” with its leader, Abdul al-Malek al-Houthi, calling the Arab coalition the “American-Saudi-Emirati-Zionist” coalition. In mid-June 2020, al-Houthi accused the two Gulf countries of siding with “the chief enemy of the Muslim world” — Israel. The normalization deal has four main consequences in this context. First, it made burgeoning UAE-Israel ties — long an open secret — the focus of attention, supporting the Houthis’ long-standing narratives regarding the war and regional politics, including pro-Iranian conspiracy theories. More importantly, it makes the Houthis’ anti-Western, religious ideology — increasingly integral to the Iranian “Axis of Resistance”— more appealing to less educated individuals. The enduring importance of the Palestinian cause among average Yemenis doubtless helps as well.
Second, it gives the Iranian-backed insurgents a compelling reason to expand public mobilization and recruitment of fighters — to fight against both the Yemeni government and the coalition cooperating with Israel. Third, while the Houthis rebuked the UAE for normalization, pointing to “its claim of suspending Israeli annexation” as a “naïve claim to justify the stance,” they cast the Iranian Axis of Resistance as the saviors of the Palestinian cause in an effort to gain greater local support. Fourth, these factors combined amplify public discontent and grievances toward the coalition in Houthi-held areas and beyond, especially given the group’s assertion since 2017 that the UAE and Saudi Arabia seek to divide up Yemen. The UAE’s clear support for the STC and strategy independent from — though at times coordinated with — Saudi Arabia only adds credence to Houthi theories. The perceived plans to split Yemen resonate with the broader Houthi accusation that Israel and the U.S. are attempting to “disintegrate Islamic nations from within through sowing the seeds of discord and division,” a position consistent with Tehran’s.
The UAE, Israel, and the STC: Yemen’s chaos that binds
On June 21, Aviel Schneider, Israel Today’s editor-in-chief, described the UAE-backed STC as Israel’s “new secret friend,” pointing to covert meetings being held between the two sides without providing details. Schneider also said that a decision to form “a new autonomous state in Yemen” was taken “behind closed doors” in reference to South Yemen. That such a meeting might be held isn’t especially surprising, given the UAE’s facilitation of back-door ties between its Libyan proxy, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, and Israel, which resulted in the coordinated supply of arms and military training to counter the Turkish-backed, U.N.-endorsed Government of National Accord. There is also Israel’s cordial stance toward the Kurds and its support for the secession of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the source of 77 percent of Israeli oil imports in 2015. From an Israeli perspective, a redrawing of the map of Yemen — whose location is of geostrategic importance, and whose population is conservative with a vigorous pan-Arab sentiment — is welcome news, taking into account that division promises a weak Arab friend in need of significant assistance.
In this context, the STC’s deputy chief, Hani bin Braik, hailed the UAE-Israel normalization, having expressed his wish in June to cooperate with entities supportive of secession, including Israel, a move opposed by other southern leaders, like Hassan Ba’oum, the chief of the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary and Peaceful Southern Movement. In Aden and Hadramawt, mass demonstrations took place to rebuff any claim that the STC is the sole representative of the southern cause and express discontent toward normalization, which may further reduce the STC’s popularity. Socotra also saw demonstrations on Aug. 11 as well, largely driven by local concerns, but also highlighting disapproval of the archipelago’s exploitation for geopolitical purposes.
A little over two years ago, Yemen’s Permanent Mission to the U.N. protested the UAE’s “unjustified military action” in Socotra to the Security Council, citing the deployment of Emirati tanks, troops, and armored vehicles. In a May 22, 2018 counterstatement, Abu Dhabi said it was “a misunderstanding caused by inaccurate reporting about certain minor operational measures,” while it “unconditionally recognize[d] Yemen’s sovereignty over Socotra.” The UAE also reaffirmed it has “no intention or ambition to maintain a long-term presence in Socotra.” In late June 2020, however, the Somali foreign minister refuted this, revealing an Emirati request to legally contest Yemen’s ownership of Socotra by claiming it as a Somali territory.
Coinciding with the Somali statement, the STC — which does not fully control the mainland in the South and was engaged in a firefight in Abyan against the Yemeni Armed Forces — had deployed hundreds of fighters from outside Socotra to its capital, Hadibo, forced out the local governor, and displaced government forces a month later. All of this happened under the watch of Saudi 808 duty forces, which temporarily contained but never resolved the 2018 standoff. This marks an attempt to separate Socotra from the rest of the Yemeni state and if continued could pose an existential threat to its territorial integrity. “In this confrontation, Emirates ruler … prefers to use the militias,” Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari wrote, adding, “Israel is certainly pleased with this effort to prevent Iranian hegemony on the shipping route to Eilat.”
Seemingly, the STC’s receptiveness to Israel — coupled with the UAE’s regional strategy, its patronage of the STC, and its growing cooperation with Israel — adds a complex new dynamic to Yemen’s volatile landscape and might open the door to cooperation that has little local support. The suspension of DP World’s contracts at Somalia’s Berbera Port in Somaliland, on the grounds of sovereignty and legitimacy, and at Djibouti’s Doraleh Container Terminal, due to “deliberate slowing” of development progress “in favor of their main asset at Jebel Ali,” may have prompted the UAE to try to exploit Yemen’s chaos to offset losses in the Horn of Africa.
Eyes on Yemen’s natural gem
Both Israel and the UAE eye strategic positioning in the Arabian Sea, and establishing bases on the other end of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait would provide an opportunity to complement their existing presence on the Red Sea. Israel reportedly has an intelligence and military presence in Eritrea’s Dahlak Archipelago and Emba Soira region, while the UAE has a military base in Assab, Eritrea, just across the sea from Yemen’s Mocha region, which is held by the UAE-backed Joint Forces. The UAE’s presence in Socotra — an archipelago well-positioned between the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Oman — could be a particular asset in this regard, enabling it to expand the breadth and depth of its security, economic, political, and intelligence activities.
While Israel is largely driven by security interests and could deepen cooperation with the UAE to counter mutual threats — including the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran’s Axis of Resistance, and other Arab and African countries — the UAE seeks to amplify its power projection across the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean, enhancing its posture vis-à-vis Iran and Turkey, and bolstering the connectivity of its maritime assets for economic gains. Socotra’s perceived touristic and investment potential is also a factor, with moves in this direction most evident in the establishment of two weekly flights between the UAE and Socotra in 2016 and attempts by the UAE to purchase land from residents.
In July 2020, Yaari also pointed out that “Israeli intelligence officials are following with great curiosity the battle for control of this natural gem” — referring to Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its biodiversity and distinct flora and fauna. A month later, several media outlets reported that a joint Israeli-Emirati team visited Socotra to explore suitable locations for intelligence facilities and military bases. These reports remain unverified but they have not been ruled out. In early September, the paramount sheikh of Socotra, Eissa bin Yakout, released a letter expressing his fears that the archipelago is at great risk, accusing Abu Dhabi of pushing demographic change and sidelining the tribes to achieve its objectives with foreign actors.
Israeli and Emirati goals are not fully aligned of course, but a secret joint effort could be mutually beneficial. It would enable Israel to establish intelligence and/or military facilities in the Arabian Sea, thus surveilling both sides of Bab el-Mandeb and beyond, while the UAE might hope the U.S. would turn a blind eye to the move because Israel is involved, having seen the State Department reiterate the U.S. commitment to Yemen’s sovereignty over Socotra in 2018. For Yemen, several other countries in the region, and the broader Arab security paradigm, this would all be bad news, however.
Risks for Yemen and beyond
Against this backdrop, such a possibility would create tremendous risks for Yemen. First, it increases the physical challenges to its territorial integrity and sovereignty at a time when the army and government lack the military capabilities and logistical infrastructure to re-establish an immediate presence in Socotra. This increases the responsibility and pressure on Saudi Arabia, given its leadership role in the coalition, the mandate of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, and its regular mediation and facilitation. Second, it further entangles the southern cause in bigger regional and international games, making the prospects for secession more unclear but doubtless a vehicle for further foreign interference.
Third, it risks adding further complexity to the prospects for conflict resolution, prolonging hostile dynamics, and increasing the likelihood of arms transfers to and training of proxies vis-à-vis the government, given that Yemeni ports from Mocha to Ash Shihr are under control of the UAE and/or UAE-sponsored proxies. Dyad Global, for instance, predicted “an uptick of cross-Gulf of Aden traffic, especially via Aden carrying arms, supplies, food and other resources to the STC units” should there be a long-term presence of proxies or foreign actors.
Fourth, such a step would shake the foundations of the Arab security order, increasing the vulnerability of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, and countries in the Horn of Africa, while also whetting major powers’ appetite for extending their influence and counter-influence — and in all of this Yemenis’ own preferences would be the last consideration.
Looking ahead, the success of foreign ambitions in Socotra and elsewhere in Yemen is contingent upon the continuation of conflict in the country. While this is an undesirable outcome for Yemen’s immediate neighbors, given their proximity and the resulting ripple effects, it aligns with the objectives of certain outside actors. Whether Israel will seek to take advantage of the chaos in Yemen, exploit the southern cause, and use the STC as a means to an end as part of its cooperation with the UAE remains to be seen, but the signs that have surfaced so far are neither trivial nor coincidental. Given its natural, historical, and cultural importance, Socotra must be protected. The situation requires urgent and transparent diplomatic and legal action, building on recent questions posed by parliamentarians to the government about foreign ambitions and its role in recent developments in Socotra. In view of the fluid dynamics at play in Socotra and beyond, the UAE-Israel normalization deal seems likely to increase and further complicate the threats Yemen faces on many levels and this looks set to continue as long as the conflict remains unresolved, militarily or politically.
A non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, Ibrahim Jalal is an independent Yemen and Gulf analyst and a co-founder of the Security Distillery Think Tank. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images