The United Arab Emirates (UAE) are reshaping their military posture abroad, reflecting their recalibrated foreign policy. This especially regards the Bab el-Mandeb area: as the Emiratis have partially withdrawn from the military bases in the Horn of Africa (Berbera in Somaliland and Assab in Eritrea), they are strengthening the pivot on Yemen’s coasts and islands: Perim, Mokha and Socotra. This reorganization mirrors the UAE’s tactical policy shift from power projection to power protection: the Emirati armed forces seem to have temporarily moved from a power projection-oriented expeditionary force to a reactive and monitoring force focused on power protection. With a special eye on securing maritime waterways for energy and trade.
Less is (now) more? The minimalist face of the (same) Emirati foreign policy
This power protection choice operationalises the recalibrated course of the UAE foreign policy, started in mid-2019, when Iranian-likely attacks against oil tankers around the Arabian Peninsula waters (included off Fujairah’s coasts in the Gulf of Oman) pushed the Emirati federation to adjust its foreign policy priorities given changed threat perceptions. This reassessment, embodied by the appointment in 2021 of a new Minister of state for Foreign Affairs, Shaykh Shakhbout bin Nahyan (who replaced Anwar Gargash, promoted diplomatic advisor to the UAE president), suggests a less assertive and more minimalist foreign policy (exemplified by the military withdrawal from Yemen, the support for the new interim government in Libya, and reduced presence in the Horn of Africa) than before, following years of overstretched engagement in the region.
Post-2011 UAE foreign policy saw the Abu Dhabi-led and military-oriented attitude prevailing over Dubai’s commercial-oriented posture: it was keener on mediation than the former. However, since 2019, the balance has gradually reversed. The Emirati policy shift towards power protection was triggered by a series of factors: the UAE has already achieved its geostrategic goals and now wants to preserve them; it managed to build a network of allies and proxies allowing it an indirect, less risky cross-regional influence; a renewed regional balance is in the making after the Abraham Accords (Israel), the Al Ula Declaration (Qatar), and the beginning of Joe Biden’s US presidency; the willingness to improve its international image in the year of the UAE Golden Jubilee (2021).
In other words, the current power protection course of the UAE would be nothing less than the tactical “phase 2” of power projection. Therefore, this choice has to be framed within the same post-2011 foreign policy.
Scaling down from the Horn of Africa: Berbera and Assab
Between 2019 and 2021, the UAE reduced its military footprint in the Horn of Africa, reconsidering the outpost in Berbera (Somaliland) and then downsizing its presence in Assab (Eritrea). This is firstly related to the end of the Emirati consistent military deployment in Yemen. The Assab base was fundamental for the UAE-led operation to regain Aden in mid-2015: it housed Emirati, Yemeni and Sudanese soldiers engaged in Yemen and here transiting, also for training.
In 2019, the UAE’s project for a military airport in Berbera was turned into a civilian one ; nevertheless, the Emirati DP World keeps the port concession for Berbera. Between December 2020 and March 2021, the Emiratis partly left the military base built in Assab , although the UAE retains a thirty-year leasing for the base granted by Asmara. In 2015, the Emiratis HAD expanded the port and the airstrip, building barracks and a field surgical hospital to heal wounded soldiers.
Stepping up in Yemen: Perim, Mokha and Socotra
As the Emiratis scale down their military role in the Horn of Africa, they are stepping up -directly and indirectly- their military positioning in Yemen’s coasts and islands (Southern Red Sea). Part of the UAE’s fighter jets and Chinese-manufactured UAVs previously stationed in Assab (which were deployed in Yemen and Libya), would have been relocated at Sidi Barrani, the Egyptian airbase close to the Libyan border. In the past, this base was the probable destination of air bridge flights for equipment and supplies from the UAE: today, the Emirati geopolitical alignment with Egypt and Russia in Libya is still strong. In the Northern Red Sea region, the UAE has strengthened military cooperation with Egypt. In 2020, Cairo inaugurated the Berenice interforce base at the presence of the Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan: in the future, the base could serve as the UAE’s strategic door on the Red Sea.
However, the focal point of the UAE’s tactical adjustment is the Bab el-Mandeb, and particularly Perim (Mayyun in Arabic), a small Yemeni island in the strait. In the first months of 2021, the Emiratis built, according to satellite imagery, an airstrip and an airbase which could host large military transport aircraft. The uphill location could be kept for future electronic warfare and signals intelligence. In mid-2015, Yemen’s internationally-recognized government succeeded in recapture the island from the Houthis; since 2019, Emirati soldiers have been replaced by the Saudis in Perim –where the Emirati-supported Yemen Coast Guard has restarted to operate - as well as in Mokha and Khawkhah, both in the Southern Red Sea.
In Mokha, Yemen’s port city close to the Bab el-Mandeb (Taiz governorate), the UAE supports the West Coast forces led by General Tariq Saleh, former chief of the Presidential Guard and nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. These anti-Houthi forces comprise the Tihama Resistance, the Giants Brigades and the Guards of the Republic headed by Saleh. On March 2021, Tariq Saleh established in Mokha the political bureau of the National Resistance, the political wing of the Guards of the Republic, citing the “national necessity” of “defending the republic”. Interestingly, the founding statement mentions “the importance of protecting regional waters and waterways, and rejecting any threat to global trade though the Bab el-Mandeb”. That emphasis on securing “regional waters”, rather than simply referring to territorial ones, suggests the broad commitment of the National Resistance, which echoes Abu Dhabi’s geopolitical goals in the area.
Socotra is the third “dot” in the Emirati reshaped posture around the Bab el-Mandeb. Following the Abraham Accords, the UAE and Israel would plan intelligence cooperation in the island to control Iranian activities in the Western Indian Ocean-Red Sea complex. The Emirati-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC), who seized Socotra in mid-2020, greeted the UAE-Israel diplomatic normalization, although it didn’t issue an official statement on the matter.
Refocusing on the Bab el-Mandeb and maritime security
As part of its recalibrated foreign policy, the UAE’s military adjustment in the Bab el-Mandeb emphasizes how much the strait stands at the top of the Emirati regional strategy. In fact, carving-out a good placement in the area allows the Emiratis to preserve their post-2011 geopolitical gains, assuring freedom of navigation and containing both Iran’s coastal influence (ex. Hodeida) and Ansar Allah and Iranian-related destabilising activities in waterways (ex. attacks with ballistic missiles, armed drones, sea mines and Water Borne Improvised Explosive Devices-WBIED).
According to the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen 2021, Ansar Allah receives smuggled Iranian weapons through the Bab el-Mandeb route via Bosaso (Puntland, semi-autonomous state of Somalia). This smuggling route would be second only to the entry of pro-Houthi weapons through the Omani-Yemeni border road, occurring by land and through the sea.
In this framework, the UAE is likely to continue to enhance its support to the Yemen Coast Guard, whose insufficient capacity is due to persisting politicization, absence of a unified command structure, corruption and intermittent or even lacking salaries. In 2016, the UAE and Saudi Arabia trained new guard units on the coast of Hadhramawt; the Emiratis remained on Zuqar island (Hanish archipelago) until October 2019 to train members of the coast guard.
In the Bab el-Mandeb area, cooperative security initiatives are on the rise and the UAE is indirectly involved. During a December 2020 panel organized by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Yemen Coast Guard and the UNODC Global Maritime Crime Programme (GMCP) launched the “Yemen Coast Guard Regeneration Strategy and Implementation Plan”, with the participation of EUNAVFOR Atalanta, the European Union-led counter-piracy operation. In that occasion, prospects of a maritime security architecture in the Gulf of Aden were discussed. On January 2021, EUNAVFOR Atalanta -which cooperates with the Combined Maritime Forces headquartered in Bahrain and including the UAE- extended its mandate until December 2022. The new mandate strengthens EUNAVFOR Atalanta’s tasks on maritime security provision: in fact, counter-piracy and the protection of World Food Programme vessels remain primary tasks, but the Operation establishes now secondary tasks such as to monitor fishing activities off Somalia’s coasts and “preparing for the formalisation of the executive tasks regarding illegal drugs and weapons trafficking, which will be enforced in a specific area of the Gulf of Aden”.
The UAE’s tactical shift from power projection to power protection marks another season of the Emirati post-2011 foreign policy. The Bab el-Mandeb was -and is- central to this strategy: in its waters, the Emiratis test their geopolitical weight between cross-regional ambitions and responsibilities. While in the past it might have been with direct military presence on the Horn of Africa’s coasts, today it occurs through local partners and outposts on Yemen’s rimland.