Reports about a military drawdown come at a time when the UAE is deeply involved in the complex conflict and faces global scrutiny over its role.
In the last few days, two international news organisations have reported that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is drawing down troops from Yemen.
First reported by Reuters and then by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the stories based on anonymous western diplomatic sources say UAE soldiers are being called back to strengthen security at home as tensions rise in the region between the United States and Iran.
The UAE, they say, is also under pressure by European and American politicians who are angry over the humanitarian disaster in Yemen’s prolonged war.
But neither the UAE nor its Yemeni proxies have officially acknowledged any military withdrawal.
Representatives of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a separatist group that receives the bulk of material and financial support from the UAE, refused to comment on the story.
“No, the UAE has not pulled out any soldiers from Yemen. They are actually replacing them along with damaged armoured vehicles with new deployments,” Hussain Albukhaiti, a Yemen-based activist, told TRT World.
“I think they are spreading this information because they don’t want to be attacked” by the opposition forces, he says.
The UAE is a vital part of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that is fighting ethnic Houthi rebels who get support from Riyadh’s regional foe, Iran.
“Reports that UAE is withdrawing its forces from Yemen should never be understood as a sign of UAE completely ending their fight in Yemen war and becoming fully interested in finding a political solution to the conflict,” says Afrah Nasser, a Yemeni-Swedish journalist.
Houthis, who are Zaidi Shias, had used drones to carry out at least two attacks in Saudi Arabia in the past two months - the latest occurring on July 2 when nine people were wounded at a Saudi airport.
In 2015, the Houthis captured many cities and towns in Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, and forced President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee first to the southern port city of Aden and then to Saudi Arabia.
Since then the Saudi-led coalition has conducted an intense campaign of air strikes against Houthi targets, which human rights groups say has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.
On the ground, especially in southern Yemen, the UAE has been more active, funding and controlling different militias including Colombian mercenaries with the ostensibly stated aim of ‘fighting Al Qaeda.’
However, multiple reports over the years have come out that say that the UAE often arms and pays militants for its own purposes.
“They didn’t come here to fight extremist groups,” says Albukhaiti, who is a known Houthi supporter.
“Al Qaeda is running freely in areas controlled by the UAE and the coalition. The only place where the group is not active is under the control of Houthis.”
In a report last year, Amnesty International said there were dozens of cases where people were tortured in secret prisons run by UAE-backed forces.
Nasser, who is also the editor of Sanaa Review, says UAE runs a paramilitary force known as the ‘The Security Belt’ that is outside the rule of both the Saudis and the Yemeni government.
“So, even if the UAE decreased its forces, it still has a huge security apparatus across southern Yemen.”
UAE’s support of the Southern Transitional Council, which seeks independence from Yemen, had pitted the Emiratis against Hadi’s internationally recognised government.
Hadi’s alliance with the Islamic Al Islah party is seen as one of the main reasons behind the friction. The UAE, a monarchy, is particularly wary of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which threaten its rule.
However, for the locals, the distrust runs deep.
“Dubai was in control of the Aden port for years, and they destroyed it,” says Albukhaiti.
Yemen signed a contract with DP World to run the Red Sea port in 2008 but cancelled it a few years later saying Dubai’s port operator had not met the investment commitment.
“That is why they focus on the south; they are interested in the Socotra Island, they want to control the cost,” says Albukhaiti.
Whatever the geopolitics of the conflict, it has taken a heavy toll on the Yemeni people.
Homes, farms, shops and schools - all have been attacked since the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula descended into chaos.
Depending on which source you pick, between 7,000 and 68,000 people have been killed in the war, many in relentless Saudi air raids, which have at times hit unsuspecting civilians during funerals and weddings.
The NGO, Save the Children estimates that 37 children have been killed or injured on average every month last year in bombings from air raids.
That’s on top of what it reported earlier about the 80,000 kids who died because of malnourishment between 2015 and 2018.
Saudi Arabia says that Shia Houthis are being financed and armed by Iran, who wants to increase its influence in the region. Tehran denies the allegation.
Over the years, the Saudis have violated international humanitarian law by using excessive air power, according to the UN.
Last month, a court in the UK ruled that that government’s deal to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia was illegal as the weapons were being used against civilians.
It has also created conditions of an economic meltdown in regions controlled by the Houthis in northern parts by blocking trade and holding back salaries of civil servants.