WASHINGTON — The United Arab Emirates warned today that it may proceed with a military operation on the key Yemeni port city of Hodeidah if the international community is unable to persuade the Houthi rebels holding the Red Sea port city of 400,000 to withdraw.
“The current and illegal Houthi occupation of Hodeida is prolonging the Yemeni war,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, wrote on Twitter today. “The liberation of the city and port will create a new reality and bring the Houthis to the negotiations.”
“The international community must pressure the Houthis to evacuate Hodeida and leave the port intact,” Gargash continued.
Gargash said the coalition had given UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths a 48-hour ultimatum to persuade the Houthis to withdraw from Hodeidah that expires overnight Tuesday to Wednesday.
Gargash’s Twitter tirade followed a muted statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday that many diplomats and veteran Yemen experts interpreted as giving the UAE a de facto “yellow light” to proceed with the military operation that Washington had long opposed, fearing humanitarian catastrophe. The port of Hodeidah is the gateway for an estimated 80% of the humanitarian, food and commercial supplies for Yemen, including for Sanaa, the Yemeni capital of 2 million people.
“I have spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports,” Pompeo said in the statement on developments at Hodeidah issued by the State Department on Monday.
“We expect all parties to honor their commitments to work with the UN Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen on this issue, support a political process to resolve this conflict, ensure humanitarian access to the Yemeni people, and map a stable political future for Yemen,” Pompeo’s statement continued.
“The statement from Pompeo … is not a red line; it is a yellow light at best,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a former senior official with the US Agency for International Development and Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, told Al-Monitor.
“I think the ambiguity in and of itself will be seen as a green light by the [UAE- and Saudi-led] coalition,” Konyndyk, now with the Center for Global Development, said. “This is an important dynamic."
Konyndyk continued, “Going back to when I was in government, we were constantly giving the red light on Hodeidah and other ill-advised things the Saudis and Emiratis wanted to do." He added, “It is not enough not to give the green. You have to actively give a red light.”
Former US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein told Al-Monitor, “I think we were telling the Emiratis it would be better not to, but we would support them if they went ahead.”
But former US Ambassador to the UAE Barbara Leaf said Pompeo’s statement was not the full-throated endorsement that the UAE may have wanted to hear to proceed.
“The way I would view Pompeo’s statement, he is saying that he talked to the Emiratis, he hears them, he understands their security concerns about Yemen, why they are there,” Leaf, who finished her tour as US ambassador to the UAE late last year, told Al-Monitor. “But he refers them to Griffiths.”
The Trump administration came in wanting to improve relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and is reluctant to publicly criticize them, Leaf said.
“They don’t want to go in for bashing and sharp statements and criticism,” Leaf, now a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. “They are not going to do that. They are going to want to avoid saying anything overtly critical.”
“In the other direction, the Emiratis want to hear a full-throated yes,” Leaf said. “I do not think that is what they are getting.”
While Gargash suggested he saw military pressure on the Houthis as pushing them into peace negotiations, former US officials who worked on Yemen say it may be the Saudi side that is reluctant to return to UN-brokered talks now that their military prospects against the Houthis on the ground are improving.
"My impression is that Griffiths has been unable to get the Saudis to come to the table,” a former senior Obama administration official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor.
"There are several credible reports that the Houthis are prepared to come to the table,” the former senior Obama administration official said. “That said, they have yet to demonstrate that they are reliable interlocutors who will live up to their commitments.”
"It would be quite troubling if there is an opportunity now to test Houthi willingness to reach a political/military resolution and the Saudis and Emiratis choose to leave that opportunity on the table,” the former senior US official said.
Griffiths briefed the UN Security Council behind closed doors Monday on his frantic efforts to try to avert a military escalation in Yemen and revive political talks. The UN’s Lisa Grande told NPR today that the UN has withdrawn international staff from Hodeidah to Sanaa, but said local staff was still working in the port city.
“Fighting is closing in on the port city of Hodeida,” the Norwegian Refugee Council wrote on Twitter today. “NRC staff report that the city is tense, amid media reports of airstrikes inside the city.”
“[The] UK government has warned aid agencies that it has received information from Coalition forces the city will be attacked in the coming days,” NRC Yemen country director Mohamed Abdi said on the NRC’s Twitter account. “Any attack will have catastrophic consequences for civilians — risking hundreds of thousands of lives."
It is probably not a coincidence that the moment the UAE and the Saudis are signaling they may attack Hodeidah is when US President Donald Trump and Pompeo are in Singapore doing North Korea diplomacy, Gulf analyst with Chatham House Peter Salisbury said.
“Saudi Arabia and the UAE have learned, really over the last five years or six years, that a red line from the US is not actually a hard red line, and it can be eroded," Salisbury added.
“The UAE has learned it can ask for forgiveness instead of permission,” Salisbury said.