In Libya, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are testing their ambitions as a middle power, exactly like they did - and are still doing despite extensive military disengagement - in Yemen. In both arenas, the UAE intertwines geopolitical and ideological goals: it needs strong proxies and trusted allies to achieve them.
As a matter of fact, to be influent in a sub-national geographical area (as Cyrenaica in Libya or Southern regions of Yemen) means, at the same time, weakening rivals (the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey), and work to carve out a platform for power projection, especially at the maritime level.
The Emirati strategy relies on two different tactics: the presence of capable proxy actors on the ground (Southern militias, in the Yemeni case), and of strong allies with a traditional footprint in the area of interest (Egypt, in the Libyan case).
In 2019, the Emirati military presence in Yemen was consistently reduced, with few units still deployed in Balhaf, Riyan and Socotra: but the UAE remains the most powerful player in Yemen's Southern regions, given the role of the militias it established. From a chronological perspective, the withdrawal of Emirati military from Yemen was combined with Abu Dhabi’s rising assertiveness on Libya, where this would not have been possible without Egypt’s support in Cyrenaica.
In Libya and Yemen, the Emiratis have displayed so far similar features and differences, revealing Abu Dhabi’s tactical and goal-oriented pragmatism.
In the UAE’s network perspective, maritime dynamics matter a lot. In Yemen, the Emiratis have operated in Southern coastal areas, the Southern Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and Socotra island. As a result, large part of Yemen’s rimland is now controlled or influenced by actors linked to Abu Dhabi. In Libya, the UAE focuses on Cyrenaica, with an eye to Sirte. Eastern Libya provides strategic depth towards the Sahel, opening a geostrategic highway both to West and East Africa (ex. Niger, Mali and Mauritania; Sudan and Eritrea). Cyrenaica has also to deal with the Mediterranean Sea and Southern Yemeni regions are a cornerstone for the Indian Ocean: in between, the Red Sea looks like a strategic bridge for Emirati commercial and military ambitions.
Ground/air forces, train and equip
Ground forces and training activities mark the UAE’s role in Yemen, while airstrikes and supply of equipment characterize its presence in Libya. In Yemen, the UAE mostly deployed ground forces (Special Forces of the Presidential Guard) with task-force commanders from the army also supporting local militias, with limited bombing operations. In Summer 2015, the Emiratis organized from the Assab base (in Eritrea) the operation Golden Arrow to retake Aden, formerly seized by the Houthis. Other Emirati-led ground operations succeeded in securing Mukalla (Hadhramawt governorate, April 2016) and Al Mokha (Taiz governorate, early 2017), occupied respectively by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Houthis. Instead, airstrikes are at centre of the Emirati indirect support for Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya: in April 2019-2020, the UAE conducted more than 850 drone and jet strikes in the country. The Emiratis help the Libyan National Agreement (LNA) forces with modern airplanes, since Libyans have fighter jets that are at least forty years old. The UAE restructured the air-base of al-Khadim (65 miles east from Benghazi), which played a fundamental role during the Libyan third civil war: hundreds of cargos coming from the bases of al-Sweihan (UAE, emirate of Abu Dhabi) and Assab (Eritrea), supplying 6,200 tons of weapons and ammunition, landed in al-Khadim. In the first quarter of the year (January-April 2020), the Emiratis organized more than 100 airlifters carrying weapons: one of the reasons why the EU Operation Irini, implementing Libya’s arms embargo only in the Central Mediterranean Sea, seems just a chimera. In Yemen, the Emirati “equip and training” approach to local forces succeeded in crafting proxy actors on the ground: capacity-building has been a decisive tool of UAE’s military involvement in the country, while the training dimension has not appeared in Libya so far. Since mid-2015 onwards, the UAE has organized, trained, equipped and, in some cases, paid the salaries of Yemeni Southern militias, with the purpose to: fight/prevent the Houthis’ territorial expansion, contain AQAP’s local strengthening, reorganize security governance at a community level. Most of these militias has been institutionalized under the Ministry of Interior (ex. Security Belt Forces), or the army (Hadhrami Elite Forces and Shabwani Elite Forces); other militias continue to be formally out of state legal boundaries although taking part in pro-government operations (ex. West Coast Forces, Abu al-Abbas Brigade in Taiz).
In the UAE’s approach, tribes matter but direct/indirect cooptation follows regional identities (Yemen) and established power connections (Libya). Both the countries have extensive tribal social fabrics. However, the experience of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) waned tribal bonds in the South and many Southern tribal chiefs were hosted in the United Arab Emirates; in Libya, Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya also weakened tribal linkages. The UAE opts for direct (Yemen) and indirect (Libya) support to local actors. In this way, regional belonging prevails on strict tribal belonging, although in some cases these allegiances are overlapped: for instance, the Security Belt Forces (present in Aden, Lahj, al-Dhale and Abyan) rally fighters predominantly from the Yafe’i tribal confederation. But in Yemen, the Emiratis have followed a locally/regionally-based pattern of recruitment (ex. Hadhrami Elite Forces and the attempts to establish elite forces also in Mahra and in Socotra). In Libya, the UAE’s relationship with tribes is indirect and mediated by Egypt, Libyan expatriates and pro-Emirati politicians like Aref al-Nayed (former presidential candidate and former Libya’s ambassador to the UAE). This network of allies is, especially in Cyrenaica, fundamental, since the Emirati lacks direct knowledge of Libyan local dynamics: for instance, Saudi Arabia facilitated the Emirati outreach to Tripoli’s tribes in 2017.
National, local identities and the Salafi variable
In the Emirati eyes, Salafi combatants, whether secessionists (Yemen) or “would-be” nationalists (Libya), are disciplined fighters who can back military-style leaderships opposed to the Muslim Brothers. The UAE mainly supports secessionist or autonomist forces in Yemeni Southern regions. These regionally-based militias often rally Salafis willing to fight against Islah forces (the party including the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative milieu and segments of the Salafis). But the UAE sustains also remnants of the Ali Abdullah Saleh’s old regime, still pursuing nationalist aspirations. In the Al Mokha-Bab el-Mandeb area, the West Coast Forces are quite revealing of the Emirati pragmatic stance on national/local identity issues. In fact, the West Coast Forces are a hybrid coalition commanded by Tareq Saleh (nephew of the former president), which clusters the Tihama Resistance (a militia fighting for the autonomy of the Tihama, the Red Sea coastal area), the Giants Brigades (a Salafi local group) and the National Resistance Forces of Saleh (remnants of the disbanded Republican Guard). In Libya, the Emiratis welcome the idea of a strongmen, a “Sisi-style” leadership able to stabilize the country and open to business deals. For this reason, the UAE continues to bet on Haftar, also because secessionist spirits are still weak in Cyrenaica. Together with Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis support madkhali Salafis fighting for GNA’s forces (madkhalis were integrated also in the LNA’s army): they are quietist Salafis who sided with Muammar Gaddafi in the past and are strongly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Yemen, the UAE carried out specific counterterrorism operations against AQAP, in districts (Aden 2016), cities (Mukalla 2016) and interior safe havens (in Abyan, Shabwa and Hadhramawt) shaping, supported by the US, a “by-with-through” (BWT) operational approach with Yemeni partners. This also occurred to secure areas where the Emiratis had direct geopolitical interests. The UAE has not organized or participated to counterterrorism operations in Libya so far, although Abu Dhabi agrees with the fight against the cartel of militias in Tripoli. However, this kind of engagement has not to be excluded for Libya, especially in a post-conflict scenario, given the Emirati narrative of “stabilization” and other first-hand counter-insurgency experiences in the broader region (ex. the UAE’s enduring counter-insurgency commitment in Afghanistan).
The “Sudanese connection”
In Yemen as in Libya, Sudan’s forces support Emirati goals on the battlefield: this is possible since Khartoum opted for the Saudi-Emirati geopolitical camp in 2016. Since April 2019, the UAE is reportedly financing Sudanese militias in Libya against the United Nations-backed GNA. Between 2015-2019, at least 15.000 Sudanese soldiers (mainly from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces) were deployed in Yemen: most of them fought alongside pro-Emirati militias in Aden, Taiz and Hodeida.
Ports and energy infrastructures
In both countries, the Emiratis can rely on proxies and allies operating in areas hosting maritime and energy infrastructures. Thanks to its proxy actors, the UAE has gained leverage on commercial ports (Al Mokha, Aden, Mukalla, Hadiboh), refineries (Aden) and the only LNG gas terminal of Yemen (Balhaf now contested). Through the LNA-allied militias and tribes, the Emiratis are influent in the oil-rich Sirte area. Recently, production stopped in some of the biggest oilfields: while the average oil production in 2019 was about 1.2 million of barrels per day (bpd), it now reaches no more than 100.000 bpd. This has created a huge loss in income, estimated in more than 4 billion dollars.
Finally, the UAE is master of soft power, also in highly-military contexts such as Yemen and Libya. In the second half of 2019, Abu Dhabi convinced Saudi Arabia about a power-sharing government in Yemen, with the secessionists of the Southern Transitional Council who formally entered unified institutions (the “Riyadh Agreement” whose implementation the Saudis are trying to accelerate through the mechanism brokered on July 28, 2020). Egypt, the main ally of the Emiratis in Cyrenaica, has been now working to deter as much as possible Turkey’s rising assertiveness in Libya. Again, the UAE needs proxies and allies to move forward with its strategy, further expanding its middle power’s ambitions.
 UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, 2020, p. 12; (plus updates by one of the authors of this article). The UAE still provides logistics and training support to the West Coast Forces (Al Mokha).
 We are grateful to Jalel Harchaoui for comments on the Emirati approach to tribes in Libya.
 In February 2018, the HEF deployed from Mukalla to Mesini Valley (west of Mukalla), as part of the UAE-led Operation Faisal to secure Hadhramawt’s border with the governorate of Shabwa, protecting also the critical LNG (Liqueﬁed Natural Gas) Balhaf energy plant. In late February 2018, the UAE supported the Shabwa Elite Forces against AQAP in Operation Decisive Sword, using Mukalla as a base to retake Shabwa’s Al-Saʿid district (Wadi Yeshbum), ﬁefdom of the radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (killed in 2011). In March 2018, the UAE backed the Security Belt Forces in Operation Sweeping Torrent, thus securing Wadi Hamara and al-Mahfad in Abyan governorate.
 Middle East Monitor The presence of Sudanese militias in Libya is destabilising for Sudan July 1, 2020; and Middle East Monitor UAE urged to pull Sudan mercenaries out of Libya, January 30, 2020.