Emirati official says move part of transition from military to ‘peace-first’ strategy and Saudi Arabia was consulted.
The Gulf state pulled out some of its forces from areas including the southern port of Aden and the western coast, an unnamed UAE official was quoted by news agencies as saying on Monday.
“We do have troop levels that are down for reasons that are strategic in [the Red Sea city] of Hodeidah and reasons that are tactical,” the official said. “It is very much to do with moving from what I would call a military-first strategy to a peace first strategy.”
An unnamed Yemeni military official confirmed UAE soldiers “totally vacated” the military base in Khokha, about 130km south of the key port of Hodeidah.
Troops’ movements in other areas of Yemen are “tactical and based on our needs”, the UAE official said.
“We are not worried about a vacuum in Yemen, because we have trained a total of 90,000 Yemeni forces,” he said. “This is one of our major successes in Yemen.”
The conflict in Yemen broke out in late 2014 when Houthi rebels seized much of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.
The war escalated in March 2015 when a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a fierce air campaign against the rebels in a bid to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The UAE official emphasised on his country’s continued support for Saudi Arabia, saying discussions on troops’ movements had been coordinated for more than a year.
“This is not really a last-minute decision. This is part of the process within the coalition that’s been discussed extensively with our partners, the Saudis.”
Gamal Gasim, a political science professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, told Al Jazeera the UAE’s redeployment is contrary to Saudi Arabia’s strategy of crushing the Iran-aligned rebels.
“The UAE more likely intends to split Yemen into two countries of South and North where it will have influence and dominance over the southern part. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is more interested in defeating the Houthis and ending Iranian influence,” Gasim said.
Saeed Thabit, a Qatar-based Yemeni political analyst, questioned the veracity of the UAE official’s comments.
“The UAE announcement appears to be disingenuous and does reflect a sincere desire to end the war in Yemen, partly because it was leaked in an anonymous fashion without an official announcement,” said Thabit.
“The UAE troops still have a substantial presence in Yemen, and this development was made more to antagonise the Saudis who are facing more military pressure from the Houthis at their borders with Yemen.”
Soaring Iran tensions
Diplomats have said the UAE prefers to have military forces and equipment on hand should tensions between the US and Iran further escalate in the Gulf.
The UAE official said: “Many people asked if this is also linked to the current rise of tensions with Iran. I would say fundamentally no… But of course, we cannot be blind to the overall strategic picture.”
Ali Younes contributed to this report