A United Arab Emirates’ military drawdown in Yemen is building momentum for a nationwide truce this year, bolstering efforts by the Saudi-led coalition to end a war that tarnished the image of US-allied Gulf states.
Diplomatic sources said talks could start by autumn on expanding a UN-led truce already in place in Hodeidah to a broad ceasefire.
This could pave the way for negotiations on a political framework to end the war between the Iran-aligned Houthis and Yemeni forces backed by the coalition, they said.
The UAE concluded the four-year-old war cannot be won militarily while under close scrutiny by the West, a conviction shared by Riyadh. Tensions over Iran increase fears of war in the Gulf diplomats and a regional source familiar with the situation said.
There is now “real momentum” for cessation of hostilities by December, a source in the region familiar with the matter said, though “a million things could still go wrong”.
“The UAE don’t want to keep getting beaten over a war they can’t win,” said the source, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The war has been in military stalemate for years. The coalition has air supremacy but has been criticised for attacks that have killed thousands of civilians. The Houthis are strong guerrilla fighters and cross-border attacks on Saudi cities make it more difficult for Riyadh to pull out of the war.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead the Western-backed Sunni Muslim coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government ousted from power in Sanaa by Houthis in late 2014.
The conflict, which killed thousands and pushed millions to the brink of famine, is seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis deny being puppets of Tehran and say their revolution is against corruption.
Securing an end to hostilities is difficult because of mistrust and competing agendas among Yemen’s fractious groups.
“The Saudis are on the same page as the UAE. They want an end to the war, but are concerned about every attack on them,” a Gulf official said.
Abu Dhabi said its decision to remove troops and hardware deployed for an offensive last year on Hodeidah was taken more than a year ago in co-ordination with Riyadh.
The UAE remains part of the coalition command structure and will continue to back some 90,000 Yemeni troops it armed and trained. It will also maintain counter-terror operations in Yemen, a diplomat and a Gulf source said.
The coalition’s limited military gains have been achieved by UAE-backed Yemeni forces that seized the southern port of Aden, now government headquarters and some coastal towns. The Houthis control Sanaa, Hodeidah and most urban centres.
Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, says the coalition is ready for the next stage after “blocking attempts to change the strategic balance” in the region – a reference to efforts to contain foe Shi’ite Iran.
“What lies ahead is a project for sustainable political stability,” Gargash tweeted.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh will not tolerate a movement in Yemen similar to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a heavily armed group backed and funded by Iran and entrenched in Lebanon’s political system.
Regional analysts said fresh talks would require Saudi Arabia and the Houthis to reduce mutual tension after recent attacks on Saudi oil installations and airports followed by coalition air strikes on Houthi targets.
Progress will also depend on implementation of the Hodeidah pact agreed at talks sponsored by the United Nations in Sweden in December.
Under the deal, both the Houthi and coalition-backed forces are supposed to withdraw from the city, the main entry point for Yemen’s imports and a lifeline for millions. There has been little progress on the pact beyond a unilateral Houthi withdrawal from ports in Hodeidah, their main supply line.
The United Nations says the parties agreed to a mechanism for a full redeployment. Envoy Martin Griffiths said sufficient progress in Hodeidah would allow the political track to start, possibly before the end of summer.
“The UAE drawdown offers all sides an opening to think differently about the conflict. With the UAE gone, the major kinetic options in Yemen are gone,” said Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group think tank.
Though the UAE decision was taken before the oil tanker explosions in the Gulf in May, three sources familiar with the decision said mounting tensions with Iran over a longer period were also a factor.
Western criticism of the Yemen war has intensified, impacting strategic ties and arms deals, several diplomats said.
US lawmakers are pushing legislation to curb arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, although President Donald Trump said he will veto the moves.
Countries including Germany and Sweden restricted arms sales to coalition members over the war, which spawned an urgent humanitarian crisis in the impoverished country where more than three-quarters of the population need aid.
Discomfort in the UAE also played a part, two diplomats said. More than 100 Emirati soldiers, largely from poorer emirates such as Ras al-Khaimah, died in the war.
“This is the beginning of the end of the Saudi-led coalition phase in Yemen,” a diplomat said.