The UAE's drawdown from its Assab military base in Eritrea comes as the new Biden administration is re-evaluating America's commitment to the War in Yemen.
However, as much as the UAE's retreat from Yemen in 2019 was nominal in character, the dismantling of the Assab base in Eritrea should be considered a tactical withdrawal from a strategic engagement of the Emirates in the Horn of Africa. That is to say, for the most part Abu Dhabi's withdrawal is an exercise of signalling to Washington rather than a true retreat from the area.
In conducting expeditionary operations in Libya, the Horn of Africa and Yemen, the UAE has found ways to operate below the threshold of war, delegating warfighting and disruptive operations to a broad network of surrogates.
As a master of deception, the UAE maintains its strong foothold and influence in Yemen via the Southern Transitional Council (STC), mercenaries and other militia groups who provide Abu Dhabi with discrete means of achieving strategic objectives with plausible deniability.
Thereby, Abu Dhabi has masterfully used Saudi Arabia as a shield to hide behind amid global criticism over grave human rights violations and war crimes committed by the infamously framed 'Saudi-led coalition'.
Looking at the coverage of the conflict over the past six years, the Emirates have widely been described as a junior partner supporting its senior partner Saudi Arabia in their war against the Houthis. In reality, however, the alleged junior partner was able to deflect criticism over torture camps, disappearances and war crimes as global public opinion was predominately preoccupied with the role of Saudi Arabia in this conflict. Meanwhile, the UAE was able to secure its objectives in Yemen often at the expense of Riyadh. Abu Dhabi's strategy in the region has effectively been a zero-sum game with Saudi Arabia: any objective secured by the UAE is an objective lost by Saudi Arabia.
In 2019, there was an outcry over an apparent UAE abandonment of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Almost two years on, however, it has become clear that the UAE's shift from direct to indirect surrogate warfare has come at great cost to Saudi.
The reputational and human costs for the Emirati military were no longer in proportion to the benefits the campaign yielded to the UAE. In reality, Abu Dhabi had long achieved its primary objectives in the country: securing access to maritime chokepoints around the Bab al Mandeb Strait. The Houthis who by the time had been confined to the north of Yemen along the Saudi border did not feature in the UAE's neo-mercantilist grand strategy nor did they touch upon any serious Emirati national security considerations.
Just like the British until 1967, the UAE are not interested in the inaccessible hinterland of Yemen's strategically important coastline. Securing a foothold in Aden and maintaining control of Yemen's coastal waters in the south was something Abu Dhabi was able and willing to delegate to a network of surrogates of which the STC became the most important one.
Training, equipping, and bankrolling a vast network of over 90,000 fighters in Yemen's South, Abu Dhabi has learned from its lessons in Libya, that warfare by delegation might provide strategic depth overseas with limited or no reputational, human or political costs. As Saudi Arabia still continues to receive the brunt of international criticism over the humanitarian catastrophe it helped bring about, Abu Dhabi has effectively outsourced the reputational costs of this war to Riyadh.
Working through its surrogate network in Yemen, however, Abu Dhabi has all but withdrawn from the conflict. Removing its military from Yemen's mainland was a tactical withdrawal at best, signaling to the international community that it did not want to be associated any more with the atrocities it had committed, and its surrogate network continues to commit. The STC in particular has been instrumental in the UAE's counterterrorism' operations, relying on 27 detention sites where political rivals and Islamists of all colours have been subjected to extrajudicial torture and execution. At the same time, Abu Dhabi could tap into its Israeli and American mercenaries to hunt and kill political rivals in Yemen. The UAE effectively outsourced war crimes and human rights abuses to its surrogates in Yemen.
In so doing, Abu Dhabi has managed to purge the strategically important parts of southern Yemen from any opposition to its neo-mercantilist project. The STC and other UAE surrogates have been installed as viceroys who although bankrolled by Abu Dhabi are allowed to rule with considerable autonomy. So much so, that the STC becomes an increasingly unhinged network of uncontrollable surrogates, actively undermining Saudi objectives in the country. Several Riyadh Agreements between the STC and the Saudi-backed Hadi government have been spoiled by the UAE's surrogates undermining the central government in the face of ongoing aggression from the Houthis. Thus, rather than just abandoning Saudi Arabia, the UAE has created a Frankenstein monster that now actively challenges the Kingdom's objectives in Yemen.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has invested great efforts in providing the STC with the legitimacy of a quasi-state actor in its own right. STC President Aidarous al Zubaidi has been chauffeured around the diplomatic community by Abu Dhabi as if he was the President of Yemen himself. In an effort to raise the STC's international standing, the UAE has used its diplomatic relations to introduce al Zubaidi to interlocutors of the UN, Russia, the US, Britain, and even Israel. On Socotra Island, which is used as a kind of aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, the STC allegedly even endorsed the setup of an Israeli intelligence component following the Abraham Accords.
As a consequence, the UAE's significant leverage over the conflict in Yemen will not just remain but grow – albeit indirectly. Its surrogate warfare capabilities allow Abu Dhabi to retain control over important matters of interests in the maritime domain. Providing its surrogates with significant autonomy on all other matters means that the UAE has effectively unleashed a potent political and military force onto the already polarized conflict. Following a policy of divide and rule, the UAE's surrogate operations in Yemen's south exploited southern secessionist narratives to undermine the very integrity of Yemen. As the Hadi government increasingly succumbs to the pressure from the Houthis in the North and UAE surrogates in the South, Saudi Arabia is losing badly in the conflict – all that while absorbing most of the negative PR on the Yemen War.
Dr. Andreas Krieg is an assistant professor of Security Studies at King's College London and a fellow at King's Institute of Middle Eastern Studies. In his academic and professional career Andreas has worked in and on the MENA region for 15 years from the Levant to the Gulf. He has published a range of monographs and articles on the intersection of Security and Middle Eastern Studies and frequently appears in the media as a commentator.
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attends the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia May 30, 2019. Picture taken May 30, 2019. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS THIRD PARTY.|President of the UAE Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. December 14, 2014 in Fujairah, UAE (Philip Lange / Shutterstock.com).
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.