For four years, the United Arab Emirates have been the military linchpin of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, providing weapons, money and thousands of ground troops to a campaign to drive out Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Emirati forces led almost every major advance the coalition made.
Now they have decided they can go no further.
The Emiratis are withdrawing their forces at a scale and speed that all but rules out further ground advances, a belated recognition that a grinding war that has killed thousands of civilians and turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster is no longer winnable.
Emirati officials have been saying for several weeks that they have begun a phased and partial withdrawal of forces estimated at 5,000 troops a few years ago.
But Western and Arab diplomats briefed on the drawdown say that a significant reduction has already occurred and that the Emiratis are driven mostly by their desire to exit a war whose cost has become too high, even if it means angering their Saudi allies.
In the past month, the Emiratis have cut their deployment around Hodeida, the Red Sea port that was the war’s main battleground last year, by 80% to fewer than 150 men, according to four people briefed on the drawdown. They have pulled out their attack helicopters and heavy guns, effectively precluding a military advance on the city.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 to roll back an attempted takeover by the Houthis, a faction supported by Iran, and to restore Yemen’s fragile, internationally recognized government. The war, the signature initiative of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and backed by the United States, would be over in a matter of months, they said.
Four years later, the war has failed to oust the Houthis and turned Yemen into what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The drawdown “is going to expose the Saudis to the reality that this war is a failure,” said Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute , a research group in London . “It tells us the two main protagonists on the coalition side, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, don’t have the same idea of what success looks like.”