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United Arab Emirates Withdraws From Conflict In Yemen


There's been a gradual but important development in the war in Yemen, a war that's dragged on for years. A Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi rebels there has helped create one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. And now one of the Saudi partners in the war, the United Arab Emirates, is getting out. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on what that says about the conflict.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The United Arab Emirates has been a critical part of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels. Now the UAE says it's going to draw down those troops.

PHILIP GORDON: I think they took, you know, a reasonable, strategic decision that it just wasn't worth it.

NORTHAM: Phil Gordon was the White House coordinator for the Middle East during the Obama administration. He says there are a couple likely reasons for the UAE's decision to pull back and redeploy its forces, said to be several thousand strong.

GORDON: Their official explanation is that they've made progress on the ground and therefore are able to strategically pull back. But I think behind that are other factors, including, frankly, just a realization that their goals are not being achieved.

NORTHAM: Gerald Feierstein, a senior vice president at the Middle East Institute, says the pullback was something the UAE has wanted to do for about a year. He says there has been some friction with Saudi Arabia, which has waged an air campaign, killing civilians, while UAE forces were fighting on the ground.

GERALD FEIERSTEIN: The sense on the part of the Emirati is that they've really borne the brunt of this fight over these last four years whereas the Saudis, you know, kind of fly over and drop a few bombs and then fly home and have dinner.

NORTHAM: The Saudi air campaign has caused international outrage. Congress passed legislation this year calling for an end to U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia. Feierstein says the UAE knows the war in Yemen is increasingly unpopular.

FEIERSTEIN: Perhaps they decided it wasn't in their interest to be tagged with support for a Saudi military operation in Yemen that was being so heavily criticized in the West. And they didn't want the PR black eye that they were getting from their association with the Saudis.

NORTHAM: Feierstein says the UAE felt it needed to beef up its military presence back home to deter threats from Iran. Dana Stroul, a Mideast specialist at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the UAE could present the troop redeployment as a sign that it's upholding its commitment to a fragile U.N.-brokered peace deal, which was signed last November.

DANA STROUL: And what the Emirati government will say is they are taking a step that was required of the coalition under the Stockholm agreement. And now they're saying to the Houthi forces, now you take a step, you show your commitment to this U.N. process.

NORTHAM: Phil Gordon, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, says it's unclear whether Saudi Arabia is going to commit to the peace agreement. The Houthi rebels are aligned with the kingdom's regional rival, Iran. Gordon says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman initiated the war to stand up to Iran but vastly underestimated how difficult it would be militarily.

GORDON: You know, as many have noticed, he is a pretty determined character. So far, at least, there's no sign that even the growing pressure in the U.N. and the U.S. Congress and now the departure of his Emirati allies will be enough to persuade him that this war needs to come to an end. I mean, if you think about it, that's a pretty significant lineup of pressure.

NORTHAM: Gordon says the crown prince still has an important ally in his corner. President Trump has made it clear the U.S. will continue to support the Saudi effort in the Yemen conflict. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.