UAE redeploying troops in Yemen
The United Arab Emirates said July 8 it was redeploying and reducing troops across war-torn Yemen and moving from a "military-first" strategy to a "peace-first" plan.
The UAE is a key partner in a Saudi-led military coalition which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to back the internationally recognised government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
"We do have troop levels that are down for reasons that are strategic in (the Red Sea city of) Hodeida and reasons that are tactical" in other parts of the country, a senior UAE official, who requested anonymity, told reporters.
"It is very much to do with moving from what I would call a military-first strategy to a peace-first strategy, and this is I think what we are doing."
The official however reiterated the UAE's commitment to the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition, saying discussions on redeployment have been ongoing for more than a year.
"This is not really a last-minute decision. This is part of the process and naturally a process within the coalition that's been discussed extensively with our partners, the Saudis," he said.
A UAE official who declined to be named told reporters in Dubai, "Our discussion over our redeployment has been ongoing for over a year and it has been heightened after the signing of the Stockholm agreement in December."
The official said the port city of Hodeidah was most affected by the decision because of a holding ceasefire under a UN-led pact reached last year in Sweden to pave the way for talks to end the war.
Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, became the focus of the war last year when the coalition tried to seize the port, the Houthis' main supply line. Under the deal, which has yet to be fully implemented, both the Houthis and pro-coalition Yemeni forces would withdraw.
Coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are committed to achieving their goals in Yemen.
"The United Arab Emirates and the countries in the coalition continue to achieve their operations and strategic goals," he told a news conference in Riyadh in response to a question about the redeployment of UAE troops.
According to a Yemeni military government official, UAE troops fighting the Houthis have "totally vacated" the military base in Khokha, about 130 kilometres (80 miles) south of Hodeida.
The UAE withdrew part of its heavy artillery from Khokha but was -- along with the Saudi-led coalition and the government -- still overseeing the military situation in Yemen's western coast, he said on Monday.
A Yemeni official said the UAE has trained tens of thousands of Yemenis to fight against jihadists from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS in southern provinces -- mainly Aden, Mukalla and Shabwa.
The UAE announcement comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran that spiked in June when Iran shot down a US drone over strategic Gulf waters following a series of tanker attacks that Washington blamed on Iran, which denied involvement.
The senior UAE official said the Emirates' redeployment decision was not linked to regional tensions but the UAE was not "blind to the overall geostrategic picture."
US-ally Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of supplying sophisticated weapons to Houthi rebels, a charge Tehran denies.
Asked about the drawdown, the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition said member countries played different roles and contributed whatever capabilities they could.
"The United Arab Emirates... and the coalition countries continue to achieve their operational and strategic goals and reach the final status of restoring the legitimate Yemeni government," Colonel al-Malki told reporters in Riyadh.
Diplomats have said the UAE prefers to have forces and equipment on hand should tensions between the United States and Iran escalate further.
The UAE has been urging de-escalation of regional tensions.
"Many people asked if this is also linked to the current rise of tensions with Iran. I would say fundamentally no... But of course we cannot be blind to the overall strategic picture," the official said. "It is very much to do with moving to from what I would call a military-first strategy to a peace-first strategy."
Washington is in talks with allies about gathering a global coalition to protect vital oil shipping lanes in and near the Strait of Hormuz.
The official said a collective mechanism was needed to protect energy and maritime security.