What Mukalla revealed is that the UAE is vital to eradicating AQAP, and to rebuilding and stabilizing places like it. But with the extent of the Emiratis’ ambitions in Yemen unclear, anxiety in some quarters over the long-term effects of their presence in the country continues to grow.
In interviews, Emirati officials have described both the ongoing offensive against the Houthis and the operation against AQAP as twin fronts in the UAE’s broader war against regional threats. But while the anti-Houthi campaign has devolved into a bloody stalemate, the battle against AQAP has morphed into something quite different: an often lightning-fast series of operations that have, at least for now, put one of al-Qaeda’s most powerful franchises on its back feet.
In these UAE-led counterterrorism operations, the Emiratis and their Yemeni partners have appeared to prioritize not just military action, but stabilization. Even when previous efforts by Yemeni forces to push al-Qaeda out succeeded, they failed to eradicate the conditions that allowed it to gain control in the first place. In places like Jaar or Zinjibar, a lack of rebuilding and development aid and the uneven provision of government services meant the area remained marginalized. “After al-Qaeda left, nothing changed,” Peter Salisbury, a fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, told me, referring to the fallout of previous counterterrorism offensives. “In some cases security and local governance actually got worse.”
In Mukalla, Emirati officials have prioritized restoring basic services, shoring up state institutions, and reinvigorating the local economy—efforts that, for now, appear to be working. It helps that Mukalla—in contrast with cities like Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq—emerged from the fight against extremist militants relatively intact. This helped ease its shift from terrorist sanctuary into what, in Yemen’s current context, constitutes a relatively stable and economically active city. Emirati officials also pointed to a promising partnership with local businessmen. One result of the partnership: improvements to Mukalla’s port, which, according to port officials, has seen its traffic double since the city’s liberation from AQAP. They also noted that the Emirati Red Crescent has surged aid into Mukalla and other liberated areas of Yemen. While economic rehabilitation has been slow, it’s also been stable; notably, land prices in and around Mukalla are on the rise, people in Mukalla have told me, as many anticipate a coming surge of investment.
But the UAE’s deepening involvement in Yemen has come under criticism. A recent report by the Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen, a UN-mandated body tasked with investigating claims of human-rights abuses in the country, alleged that some detainees in Emirati-run prisons have been held without charge and tortured; these cases have, at times, spawned sit-ins and small protests by relatives of detainees. Still, officials in Hadramawt see the aid from the UAE as a near necessity. “We can’t separate our success from the training and assistance we’ve received from the UAE,” noted Faraj Salmayn al-Bahsani, who serves as both the governor of Hadramawt and the commander of the 2nd Military District.
Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic & Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, said an open-ended UAE presence in the South could spark conflict. “First, it would exacerbate coalition tensions between the UAE and the Saudi-backed government of President Hadi, some members of which have already labelled the UAE presence an occupation. Second, it would play into the hands of AQAP which has stirred up suspicions of UAE ambitions for power and resources across the South. Third, it could ignite old North-South fault-lines as well as sparking anger among significant areas of the South which remain resistant to the notion of southern secession which they believe the UAE is backing.”