An investigation has exposed Abu Dhabi for enlisting charities as a cover for intelligence activities in the war-ravaged country.

A new investigation has exposed how the United Arab Emirates (UAE) uses its humanitarian aid in Yemen to serve its political agenda in the war-torn country.

Exclusive documents and videotapes broadcasted by Al Jazeera have confirmed the UAE’s illegal involvement in Yemen, including the use of commercial aircraft for arms transfers and charities as a façade for military and intelligence operations.

Part of its Al Muhtari program, the Qatari broadcaster’s investigation claimed to have uncovered Emirati expansion on the Yemeni coast focused on Abu Dhabi-backed troops present in the coastal area.

The report touched upon the transformation of Al Mokha port – known for exporting Yemeni coffee around the world – into an alighting and loading hub for weapons, and its use as a military base.

Al Mokha port is around 40 nautical miles from the Bab al Mandeb Strait, and about 100 km from the city of Taiz.

The investigation revealed the UAE established detention facilities on Perim Island, Zuqar Island and Bab al Mandeb, mentioning that a special unit has been supervising those facilities.

In addition to the special unit, it mentions the involvment of Brigadier General Ammar Muhammad Saleh, a former deputy of the National Security Agency, and the brother of Tariq Afash, who is an army commander.

Most notable is the role of the Emirates Red Crescent, which the report highlights as being enlisted to provide cover for Abu Dhabi’s military and security operations along Yemen's west coast.

It also obtained data from a number of merchant ships that transported military cargo – a violation of international law.

These are the first such revelations that highlight the role of UAE humanitarian organisations and how they serve Emirati strategic ends in the context of their five-year-long intervention in Yemen's civil war.

In south Yemen, the Emiratis have supported separatists organised under the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which fight not only with the Yemeni government but also against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

By supporting the STC, the UAE aims to control a U-shaped area from the Red Sea to the Gulf across the Indian Ocean, seeking to secure an alternative shipping route in case Iran blocks the Gulf amid escalating tensions.

Abu Dhabi also wants to limit the reach of the Houthis, and through its paramilitary forces the UAE has been able to control strategic coastal points, which host important ports like Balhaf and Nishtun near the Red Sea in southern Yemen, while wielding considerable influence across the country’s western shores.

‘Humanitarian diplomacy’

When it comes to the war in Yemen, the UAE’s otherwise carefully cultivated reputation has taken a hit internationally, particularly after arming local militias linked to Al Qaeda and numerous human rights abuses carried out by UAE-linked associates.

The Emirates Red Crescent and other UAE charities help pivot attention away from military operations and toward humanitarian assistance and state-building. However, Emirati economic and security interests are impossible to divorce given Abu Dhabi’s influence over Yemen’s strategic maritime routes.

Earlier this year, a Yemeni minister accused the UAE of supporting rebels and abstaining from providing any financial assistance, saying that “when the UAE pays, it’s for undermining the authority of the government”.

Mukhtar al Rahbi, an adviser to the Yemeni information minister, similarly stated: “The UAE only supported Yemen with a rebel armed militia in Aden [referring to the STC forces], tried to control Socotra, and sent armoured vehicles and opened secret prisons”.

Those comments came in June after the UN and Saudi Arabia hosted a virtual donor conference for Yemen, with donors pledging around $1.35 billion in aid. The UAE failed to make any pledges during the conference.

Back in September, the UN humanitarian chief warned of the spectre of famine returning to the country, and singled out the Saudis and Emiratis for not submitting funds to a $3.4 billion appeal for desperately needed aid.

80 percent of Yemeni population, around 29 million people, are dependent on aid for survival.

As Yemen’s largest aid donor after Saudi Arabia, the UAE mainly relies on its government entities and Emirati foundations in providing emergency relief and conducting humanitarian assistance projects on the ground.

Along with other humanitarian donor states in the Gulf, the UAE has been criticised in Western policy circles for keeping a distance from multilateral organisations and for challenging certain international humanitarian norms and practices.

Relative to GDP, the UAE became the world’s third-largest donor of humanitarian aid in 2016 and is among the world’s top five donors since 2018. Humanitarian assistance accounts for around one-fifth of the UAE’s overall foreign aid and has been institutionalised as part of the country’s foreign policy.

In fact, “humanitarian diplomacy” is listed as the first of “six main pillars” that together form the framework for the UAE’s public diplomacy.

Though conceptualised and promoted as part of the UAE’s soft power, humanitarian diplomacy and aid have been subtly embedded into the broader context of increasingly securitised Emirati foreign policy –  something increasingly evident given Abu Dhabi's footprint in Yemen doesn't show signs of waning anytime soon.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies