The United Arab Emirates has reduced its forces in Yemen as part of a “strategic” redeployment, a senior Emirati official said Monday.
The UAE is a major coalition partner in the Saudi-led military campaign to quash Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. It has intervened in the country’s war since March 2015.
Emirati and Saudi forces have sought to prop up the United Nations-recognized government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi after Houthi fighters took over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2014.
Last month, Reuters reported the UAE had ordered the partial withdrawal of troops from the war-torn country because of domestic security concerns. Abu Dhabi preferred to have forces and equipment close by in case of a further escalation in tensions between the United States and Iran, the Reuters report said, citing three unnamed diplomats.
Since May, six oil tankers have been attacked in the Gulf and Tehran has downed an unmanned US drone.
But Emirati officials said they reduced their troops in Yemen due to a winding down of the conflict there. “You can’t be blind to other geostrategic concerns,” the senior official told CNN, referring to the wider security threats in the region. “But fundamentally this is really about Yemen.”
The official said the draw-down would affect two main areas: the coastal Yemeni city of Hodeidah, where a withdrawal of Houthi forces has been negotiated, and the Eritrean port city of Assab, a staging ground for UAE operations against Houthis in Yemen.
“We feel in Hodeidah there is a political agreement that we are backing, and it makes a lot of sense for us to redeploy away from Hodeidah,” the official said. The withdrawal of Houthi fighters from the strategic city was part of an agreement reached between Yemen’s warring parties in Stockholm last December.
The UAE says it plans to shift its focus from fighting Houthi rebels to combating extremist Islamist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
“Our commitment in Yemen remains. We are part of the Coalition,” the official said.
“Our discussion over our current redeployment has been ongoing for over a year. It has been heightened after the signing of the Stockholm agreement in December,” he added. “So this is not really a last-minute decision. But part of a process. It’s a process within the coalition that has been discussed extensively with our partners,” the official said.