UAE dismantles Eritrea base as it continues pull back from Yemen war

The UAE announced in the summer of 2019 it had begun withdrawing its troops from the war, which still rages today.
Thursday 18/02/2021
A February 5, 2021, satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows an empty port at an Emirati military base in Assab, Eritrea. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
A February 5, 2021, satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows an empty port at an Emirati military base in Assab, Eritrea. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

 DUBAI--The United Arab Emirates is dismantling parts of a military base it runs in the East African nation of Eritrea after it pulled back from the grinding war in nearby Yemen, satellite photos show.

The UAE built a port and expanded an airstrip in Assab beginning in September 2015, using the facility as a base to ferry heavy weaponry and Sudanese troops into Yemen as it fought alongside a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi militias there.

But the country appears now to side with an international push for a peaceful solution in Yemen. After it withdrew troops from the conflict, the satellite photos show it began shipping off equipment and tearing down even newly built structures.

The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, poured millions of dollars into improving the facility at Assab, only some 70 kilometres (40 miles) from Yemen. It dredged a port and improved the dusty airstrip’s roughly 3,500-meter (11,500-foot) runway to allow for heavy support aircraft.

The Emiratis also built barracks, aircraft canopies and fencing across the 9-square-kilometre (3.5-square-mile) facility initially built in the 1930s by colonial power Italy.

Over time, the UAE stationed Leclerc battle tanks, G6 self-propelled howitzers and BMP-3 amphibious fighting vehicles at the airport, according to United Nations experts. Those types of heavy weapons have been seen on Yemeni battlefields. Attack helicopters, drones and other aircraft have been seen on its runways.

Barracks on the base housed Emirati and Yemeni troops, as well as Sudanese forces filmed disembarking in Yemen’s port city of Aden. Records show the ship carrying them, the SWIFT-1, travelled back and forth to Assab. The vessel later came under attack by Houthi forces in 2016 and the Emirati government asserted it carried humanitarian aid.

The base also aided wounded soldiers by housing “one of the best field surgical hospitals anywhere in the Middle East,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy who has studied the Assab base.

The UAE announced in the summer of 2019 it had begun withdrawing its troops from the war, which still rages today.

Satellite pictures from Planet Labs Inc show that decision appears to extend to Assab as well.

In June 2019, around the time the Emiratis made their withdrawal announcement, workers apparently razed structures believed to be barracks alongside the port, the satellite images show. Workers gathered neat rows of materiel just north of the port, apparently waiting to be shipped off.

In early January of this year, another photo showed what appeared to be vehicles and other equipment being loaded onto a waiting cargo ship. By February 5, the ship and that equipment were gone.

The deconstruction included newly built canopies along a new tarmac near the facilities’ runway as well. In the February 5 images, another set of canopies that analysts earlier linked to the drones being flown out of the base had been dismantled as well.

Despite the dismantling work, Emirati attack helicopters still have been seen at the base. It remains a strategically important point as well, sitting just off the crucial Bab el-Mandeb strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

But the UAE may face more-pressing concerns. Since 2019, tensions between the US and Iran have seen a series of escalating incidents, including attacks on ships off the Emirates. Those threats closer to home may take precedence over an expanded military footprint abroad.

“I think what ‘Little Sparta’ is doing is to keep its powder dry for whatever it needs to do next,” Knights said.