Even as the war in Yemen continues in the western parts of the country, there is a second war happening in the eastern and southern parts.
In the west, along the Red Sea coast, the Saudi-led Arab coalition continues to fight to restore the legitimate Yemeni government to power and remove the Houthi rebels from Sanaa. That endeavour has been complicated by extensive support from the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and forces loyal to him, and from Iran. In the past week, the Houthis and Mr Saleh’s factions announced they would form a new “government”, called the Supreme Political Council. This group has no democratic mandate, nor is it clear if it has any popular support. It has simply been enforced on those parts of Yemen that remain controlled by the Houthi rebels.
While the battle for the capital continues, there is also a second, parallel, battle taking place, one in which the UAE has played a major role. It is in the wide expanses of Yemen’s east, towards its border with Oman, that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have made their stronghold.
Al Qaeda have been in the region for many years, but since the 2011 uprising they have expanded out of remote areas. As the Houthis began taking territory, they saw their chance and have even reached parts of the southern city of Aden. The UAE has taken a leading role in driving them out, pushing them back to their stronghold of Mukalla and into more remote areas.
The retaking this week of Belhaf, a strategic port near Mukalla, by Yemeni troops with UAE support matters for two important reasons. The first is strategic: by severing the supply lines of Al Qaeda, it makes it much harder for the terrorists to bring in weapons and people, and to resupply their followers farther inland.
But the second, equally importantly, is about nation-building. The Yemen troops who were trained by the UAE come from irregular forces that were formed in 2011. They will, in time, need to be incorporated into the regular national army. It is important that these fighters are absorbed and that there is one national army for the whole of Yemen. The country is already too divided.
That is what the securing of Belhaf means. As the Arab coalition fights to restore a legitimate government in the capital, the UAE is helping build that country’s future army on the southern coast.