The United Arab Emirates is taking an increasingly active role alongside Saudi forces in Yemen in their efforts to defeat Shia Houthi rebels and restore Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi as president.
Advances in and around the southern city of Aden that have helped to shift the momentum of the war against the Houthis and forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, were largely planned and executed by the UAE, say local fighters and western officials.
They confirmed that the presence of about 3,000 UAE and Saudi Arabian troops had brought decisive change in the five-month conflict.
“The UAE and Saudis have been absolutely key to preventing the Houthi-Saleh alliance from taking Aden,” James Spencer, a Yemen specialist, said of the battle for the strategic port. It is rare for the UAE to deploy ground forces in conflict zones, although troops from the Gulf state were active in the war in Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia, which says the Zaydi Shia Houthis are a proxy for Iran, its regional rival, commands the 10-country coalition formed in March to oust the Houthis and restore the exiled Mr Hadi to power. The Saudis co-ordinate air strikes from an operations centre in Riyadh which is supported by military advisers from the UK and US. Riyadh also leads coalition efforts to prevent arms and other shipments reaching the Houthis by sea.
However, the UAE has executed air drops of ammunition, trained Yemeni opposition fighters and deployed armoured personnel carriers and an armoured brigade to secure Aden.
UAE special forces have also been embedded with anti-Houthi fighters since at least May, locals say. The UAE forces co-ordinated efforts to create secure zones in the western Bureiqah district and an area near Aden airport before the campaign to retake the port was launched in mid-June.
“The Emiratis are in charge,” said one southern resistance fighter. “They planned it and are commanding all the troops.”
UAE personnel, including long-term Yemeni residents of the Gulf state who work in the armed forces and local police, make up about half of the total number of foreign ground forces, according to a local anti-Houthi fighter and western diplomats.
During the campaign, Yemeni fighters trained by Saudi Arabia were brought to Aden with armoured personnel carriers by UAE naval vessels and accompanied by a number of Emirati officers who helped co-ordinate ground operations and air strikes.
That deployment galvanised the campaign but has also led to rare UAE military casualties. The UAE official news agency has reported that five UAE soldiers have been killed in Yemen, including three on Saturday to mines planted by retreating Houthis.
Earlier this month, more coalition tanks and other military vehicles were shipped to Aden to help complete the Houthi rout at the nearby al-Anad military base, Yemen’s biggest military facility.
Emirati special forces have been operating alongside disparate anti-Houthi groups elsewhere in the country, including southern Shabwa province, where local fighters have reclaimed the provincial capital and Abyan, an entry point for Houthi fighters moving into Aden.
Coalition-trained Yemeni fighters affiliated with al-Islah, the Yemeni Islamist party, are expected to be sent into battle with the Houthis in oil-rich Mareb province, the site of fierce fighting between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and local tribes.
The UAE has invested heavily over the past decade to develop a credible military capacity, say observers, and its special forces gained valuable experience in Afghanistan.
The Yemen operation demonstrates the Gulf state’s increasing willingness to flex its military muscle to pursue regional political objectives that include curbing the rise of Islamist extremism in Libya and Syria and checking perceived Iranian encroachment in its backyard.
The coalition calculates that Mr Hadi’s government can be restored only by taking the fight to the Houthi-Saleh alliance rather than waiting in exile in Riyadh for the rebels to capitulate.
However, it is unclear how far the UAE and other coalition members are prepared to go to end the war. The UAE-led forces in Aden are likely to support attempts to recapture Taiz, an industrial city in central Yemen that has been a Houthi-Saleh staging point for their Aden campaign.
But experts say they would struggle in the northern highlands, where support for the Houthis and Mr Saleh is strong.
“The anti-Houthi forces [and the UAE and Saudi] can try to advance into the southern uplands, but northern Yemen is mountainous, and not very suitable ground for tanks, which will significantly reduce the anti-Houthi forces’ advantage,” said Mr Spencer.