Yemen‘s Houthi rebels have called for the full withdrawal of a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after the latter said it had begun reducing its deployment in the war-torn country.
“We call on the aggressors to withdraw from Yemen, as the Republic of Yemen rejects aggression, siege and air embargo,” Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Houthi rebels’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, tweeted on Monday.
“Withdrawing from Yemen is the ideal decision that must be taken at this time,” he added.
Yemen’s latest conflict broke out in late 2014 when the Houthis, allied with forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seized much of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.
The war escalated in March 2015 when the Saudi-UAE-led coalition launched a ferocious air campaign against the rebels in a bid to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Since then, tens of thousands of civilians and combatants have been killed and as many as 85,000 children may have starved to death.
A senior UAE official said on Monday the country would reduce its troop presence in Yemen, moving from a “military-first” to a “peace-first” strategy.
“We do have troop levels that are down for reasons that are strategic in (the Red Sea port city of) Hodeida and reasons that are tactical” in other parts of the country, a senior UAE official, who requested anonymity, was quoted as saying by news agencies.
According to the unnamed UAE official, the Gulf state pulled out some of its forces from areas including the southern port of Aden and the western coast.
The UAE official emphasised his country’s continued support for Saudi Arabia, saying discussions on troops’ movements had been coordinated for more than a year.
“This is not really a last-minute decision. This is part of the process within the coalition that’s been discussed extensively with our partners, the Saudis.”
Gamal Gasim, a political science professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, told Al Jazeera the UAE’s redeployment was contrary to Saudi Arabia’s strategy of crushing the Iran-aligned rebels.
“The UAE more likely intends to split Yemen into two countries of South and North where it will have influence and dominance over the southern part. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is more interested in defeating the Houthis and ending Iranian influence,” Gasim said.
Yemeni journalist and human rights activist Tawakkol Karman told al Jazeera that the UAE was pressured into pulling out of Yemen by Iran, and as a “cosmetic” move to improve its image.
“This [the withdrawal of UAE troops from Yemen] is a cosmetic withdrawal meant to improve the UAE’s image … [after] their failure in Yemen… [and following] a piece of advice from the UK.
“[Another] reason was a serious warning from Iran to the UAE. If they remain in Yemen, then their luxurious, glassy towers will be targeted by any of Iran’s arms in the region,” explained Karman.
Echoing similar sentiments, Saeed Thabit, a Qatar-based Yemeni political analyst, questioned the veracity of the UAE official’s comments.
“The UAE announcement appears to be disingenuous and doesn’t reflect a sincere desire to end the war in Yemen, partly because it was leaked in an anonymous fashion without an official announcement,” Thabit said.
“The UAE troops still have a substantial presence in Yemen, and this development was made more to antagonise the Saudis who are facing more military pressure from the Houthis at their borders with Yemen.”
The Houthis, who have faced persistent coalition bombing that has exacted a heavy civilian death toll – have stepped up missile and drone attacks across the Saudi border in recent weeks.
At least one person has been killed and 56 wounded in Saudi Arabia in three such Houthi attacks since June 12, according to Saudi authorities.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of supplying sophisticated weapons to the Houthis, a charge Tehran denies.
The UAE announcement also comes amid a standoff between the United States and Iran, which spiked in June when Iranian forces shot down a US drone following a series of suspected tanker attacks Washington has blamed on Tehran over Iranian denials.
Diplomats have said the UAE prefers to have military forces and equipment on hand should tensions between the US and Iran further escalate in the Gulf.
The UAE official said: “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.”