By Bill Law
From Libya to Yemen, Emirati military adventures have come at a huge cost to civilians.
In 2014, retired Marine General James Mattis, who was to become for a time US President Donald Trump’s defence secretary, gave fulsome praise to the fighting skills of the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich federation of seven Gulf statelets.
Mattis, quoted at the time in a Washington Post article, said that the Emiratis are “not just willing to fight – they’re great warriors”. He added that within the US military, “there’s a mutual respect, an admiration, for what they’ve done – and what they can do”.
Mattis took to calling the UAE, with an indigenous population of a little more than one million out of a total population of nine million (with the rest comprising expats and migrant workers), “Little Sparta”.
Standoff in Yemen
“Little Sparta” had, since the early noughties, shown its mettle flying missions with the Americans against the Taliban. They earned further respect by dispatching 1,200 soldiers to Afghanistan, staying until 2014.
As the chaos of the Arab Spring of 2011 descended into war in Syria and Libya, the UAE’s de facto ruler and crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, enthusiastically threw his air force into action in Libya, while delivering arms to rebels on the ground in Syria. (Much of the high-tech weaponry was purchased from the US.)
Then, together with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, he launched the Yemen campaign in March 2015.
Though the Emiratis had early successes in southern Yemen, driving rebel Houthis forces away from the key port of Aden and liberating another port city, Mukalla, from the grip of al-Qaeda, the war has dragged on for more than four years, with awful consequences for the people of the Arab world’s poorest country.
The Emiratis joined forces with a secessionist movement, the Southern Transitional Council – South Yemen was a separate country until 1990 – and have trained and armed a variety of militias. But neither they nor the Saudis have been able to wrest control of the vital Red Sea port of Hodeidah from the Houthis.
A fragile truce, negotiated in December by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, barely holds, and the situation on the ground is at a standoff, as it is in another key city, Taiz.
According to the International Crisis Group, the Houthis have made gains against Emirati-backed forces to the east of Taiz, taking control of two towns and threatening to cut road links to Aden.
Libya battle stalled
The situation in Yemen can best be described as a stalemate. Neither the Emiratis nor the Saudis appear to have an exit strategy for a war that was launched with little or no thought of the consequences, and under the mistaken assumption that the Houthis would crumble quickly.
More than four years on, civilian deaths are estimated to have topped 50,000, millions are facing food insecurity and starvation, tens of thousands of children are at risk of death from preventable diseases, and much of the country’s infrastructure has been bombed to rubble. The UAE has much to answer for in what is, it is becoming increasingly clear, a failed military adventure.
At the same time, the Emiratis, this time working with Egypt, chose to do business with Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. Since 2014, they have backed him and armed his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) as he seeks to overthrow the internationally recognised government of Fayez al-Sarraj.
Haftar launched an attack on the capital Tripoli on 4 April, just as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres arrived in the city to prepare for what was to have been peace talks between the two sides.
Again, the assumption was that a quick and easy win was on the cards – that Sarraj’s forces would be caught off guard. But more than a month in, that has not been the case. As in Yemen, the battle has stalemated.
Early gains, including neighbourhoods in the suburbs of Tripoli taken by Haftar’s forces, have been rolled back. Haftar has the military backing of the UAE, the financial backing of the Saudis and the political support of Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – but the longer the stalemate continues, the weaker his position becomes.
Asked about Haftar’s qualities as a military leader, Libyan political analyst Tarek Megerisi said: “[Haftar] is incompetent at best, as he has been for most of his career. He took a few neighbourhoods by surprise.”
Megerisi believes that casualties on the Tripoli side, estimated at 400 deaths, are probably double that figure. He described the fighting as “really bloody”, with Haftar using Grad missiles and weaponised drones to terrorise and attack civilians.
He said that Trump’s support for Haftar – who holds US citizenship – was hugely important, in that it effectively blocked any attempts at a diplomatic solution.
Trump was apparently persuaded by Sisi during his recent visit to Washington to throw his weight behind Haftar. The result was a phone call to the warlord from the president, going against the advice of both the State Department and the Pentagon.
Sarraj, who is touring European capitals to shore up international support, met with Macron in Paris on 8 May and urged France “to have a clear political position on the situation in Libya”.
He noted: “We were getting close to an agreement and possibly a solution with international backing” when Haftar launched his attack.
Is Sudan next?
Libya is another arena of war and another stalemate for the Emirates. More innocent civilians are being wounded and killed as MBZ pursues his goal to position the UAE as a major force in the Middle East. Where, one wonders, will he go next?
The likeliest place is Sudan, which has seen the overthrow by peaceful means of the dictator Omar al-Bashir.
The UAE, together with the Saudis, is attempting to shore up the military leaders heading a transitional council. Already, the two have pledged billions to the country, and the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted: “Totally legitimate for Arab states to support an orderly & stable transition in Sudan. One that carefully calibrates popular aspirations with institutional stability.”
But the demonstrators don’t trust the military. So what happens if they threaten what Gargash calls “institutional stability?” Will MBZ be inclined to reach for the guns yet again?
Or is it the case that Little Sparta has learned a lesson from the stalemates in Libya and Yemen? If so, it has come at a huge cost to the people of both countries.
It is to be hoped that such a fate is not about to be inflicted on the people of Sudan.
Bill Law is a Sony award-winning journalist. He joined the BBC in 1995 and since 2002 has reported extensively from the Middle East. He then covered the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. Before leaving the BBC in April 2014, Mr Law was the corporation’s Gulf analyst. He now works as a freelance journalist focusing on the Gulf.