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UAE and Yemen's al-Islah: Meeting of enemies doesn't mean peace

The meeting was an attempt to forge an alliance of convenience and consolidate power

On Wednesday, in what appeared to be a radical policy shift, the United Arab Emirate's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed met with the leaders of Yemen's al-Islah party, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The meeting with Islah's supreme council president, Mohammed Abdullah al-Yadomi, and the party's secretary general, Abdulwahab al-Ansi, was viewed as a surprising mark of rapprochement following media reports that the Emiratis had hired a team of American and Israeli mercenaries to assassinate members of al-Islah leadership.

The meeting came shortly after UAE's Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash welcomed UN-backed peace talks in Sweden amid reports of a halt to the battle for Hodeidah, the Yemeni Red Sea port being fought over by rebel Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition supporting Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

A similar move took place in August when the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the UAE, cut deals with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to manipulate territorial dynamics against the Iran-aligned Houthis.

Changing political dynamic

There are two primary reasons for the UAE’s shift on al-Islah. First, the US is pressuring the UAE and the Saudi-led coalition to enter into peace talks with weakened foes to end the war.

Second, the UAE is consolidating its power with al-Islah off the back of an alliance of convenience against the Houthis to reduce risks to its commercial enterprise projects in the south.

But also, al-Islah clearly accepted the invitation out of fatigue with the conflict and being overwhelmed by the superiority of the UAE-backed forces in southern Yemen. The UAE's influence has not only been at odds with al-Islah previously, but more importantly is against President Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia.

Although it's a rare meeting between al-Islah party and UAE, it is not going to be a game changer ... The most likely outcome is an alliance of convenience

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has remained silent over the UAE's support for a secessionist political entity, despite the fact that this support contradicts the coalition's primary objective of supporting Hadi's unification goal.

One must question whether the UAE's diplomatic awakening with al-Islah party will soften its outright political and military hostility against the Muslim Brotherhood group. There's no denying that the al-Islah party have much to be sceptical about the UAE's position.

Not long ago it was revealed that the UAE hired American and Israeli mercenaries to eradicate members of the al-Islah party, triggering serious tension within al-Islah on how to deal with the UAE's presence in Yemen.

A Yemeni protester holds up a sign showing the crossed-out faces of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (R) and his Emirati counterpart Mohamed bin Zayed in the southwestern Yemeni city of Taez on 4 October, 2018 (AFP)
In addition, al-Islah party members were arrested by UAE-backed counter-terrorism raids in Aden, adding to the complexity of the situation. In fact, a member of the al-Islah party, Issa Qadhi, accused the UAE of working to quash the group's political influence in Yemen.

"Although the announced aim of the Emirates in Yemen is to support the legitimate government, it fights legitimacy with all its might," Qadhi, a member of al-Islah in Taiz, told MEE last month. 

No game changer

In 2017, General Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, now president of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), travelled to Abu Dhabi for a similar meeting. This occurred at a time of fragility for the pro-independence Southern Movement. He was given political, financial and military backing by the UAE to officially set up as the STC.

Although it's a rare meeting between al-Islah party and UAE, it is not going to be a game changer - due to a relationship that is highly divergent on ideological and political outlooks. The most likely outcome is an alliance of convenience on the ground, but how long this will last depends on imminent diplomatic negotiation in Sweden and, of course, internal sentiment on both sides.

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One reason which contributed to the Saudi-UAE-led air, land and sea blockade against Qatar is the latter's support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Back in 2014, the UAE and Saudi Arabia designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. How this can be reconciled with the Saudi and UAE position on al-Islah's future outlook in the Yemen conflict is yet to be seen. But certainly it won't foster any structural and political development for al-Islah party.

Whatever the sincerity of this rapprochment, if it advances reconciliation in Yemen and helps end the conflict, it is surely worth a shot. The reality is that time is running out, despite the fact that parties to the conflict are wilfully fighting on with no real end in sight.

-Khalil Dewan is a consultant analyst on the Middle East and North Africa for a global country risk consultancy. His work focuses on the conflict in Yemen and the Qatar-Gulf crisis with a special interest in conflict analysis, political, security and violent risk. He tweets @KhalilDewan.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed met with the President of al-Islah party's Supreme Council, Mohammed Abdullah al-Yadomi, and the party’s Secretary General Abdulwahab al-Ansi (Twitter)

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