This is a consolidated version of three posts on the role of the United Arab Emirates in southern Yemen, by our guest blogger in Aden, who writes anonymously for professional reasons and safety concerns. The perspective of the author does not necessarily represent the positions of the YPP. The YPP has been able to independently verify some, but not all, of the claims reported herein. The YPP’s Hannah Porter assisted with editing and translation.
Mid-July marks the first anniversary of the battle to retake control of Aden from Ansarullah (Houthi) and Saleh forces. With military and financial support from the Saudi- and Emirati-led Arab coalition forces, a mix of Salafi militias, the Southern Resistance, mercenaries loyal to President Hadi, and members of Ansar al-Shariah/al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AAS/AQAP) formed a united front against the Houthis.
A year on, the United Arab Emirates continues to play a prominent role in South Yemen, particularly in Aden. The Emirati Red Crescent promotes a polished image of the UAE across the world and within Yemen by providing increased aid to the country.
Yet a different image—that of the UAE’s military role in South Yemen—is still incomplete. Apart from the military training, weapons, and armed vehicles that the Emirates provides to their southern agents, specifically to Aden’s governor Aidrus al-Zubaydi and security director Shalal Ali Shayae, there is another side to the story that journalists and activists don’t dare to touch, possibly because of Emirati support for their media outlets and humanitarian organizations, or because of the security crackdown by al-Zubaydi and Shayae.
The UAE has presented itself in southern Yemen as a global partner in the war on terror. Emirati forces oversaw the security crackdown last March in Aden’s al-Mansurah district and in al-Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramawt province, which was under AQAP control until recently. As a result of the Emirati-led offensive, AQAP chose to withdraw from Mukalla in April following consultations with respected local figures.
The security crackdown overseen by Emirati security forces, including a string of arrests of those with suspected ties to AQAP and the Islamic State group (IS), has been conducted outside the rule of law, according to some local observers. Emirati forces allegedly operate seven secret prisons in southern Yemen, where dozens of Yemenis have been tortured and forced to confess to being members of AQAP or IS.
A former detainee in one of the prisons said, “They allowed us to go to the bathroom once a day and did not allow us to pray. They forced me to write a false confession to being a member of al-Qaeda after subjecting me to agonizing torture.”
Many families do not know the fate of their sons who are being illegally detained in prisons under Hadi’s authority and those seven prisons run by the UAE. Thus far, international organizations and foreign powers have paid little attention to this aspect of Emirati involvement in Yemen. Given the immense scope of human rights violations being committed by all parties to Yemen’s conflict, the plight of these detainees will likely continue to be ignored.
It is fair to say that the United Arab Emirates has control over matters of security in Aden province, especially with the help of Aden’s governor Aidrus al-Zubaydi and head of security Shalal Ali Shayae. It appears, however, that Hadi’s government has recently been experiencing some tension with the forces controlling its temporary capital.
More than 2,000 Yemeni citizens from northern provinces working in Aden have been expelled with the help of UAE forces. Those carrying out the expulsions believe that northern Yemenis working in the South are either spies working for the Houthis and Saleh or saboteurs seeking to thwart future attempts at self-determination in South Yemen.
Despite clear orders from President Hadi and Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr instructing al-Zubaydi and Shayae to end the campaigns of deportation, the author witnessed deportations as recently as June 20.
Northern Yemenis who are arrested for the purpose of deportation are mainly thrown in the central prison in Aden’s district of al-Mansurah.
Yemen’s state judiciary is not functioning at all in this part of the country, so security and law enforcement, such as it is, is in the hands of local authorities and foreign forces. In Aden and other parts of the south, some of these functions are being carried out by local armed forces trained and equipped by the UAE.
In Aden alone there are four extrajudicial prisons run by the UAE, where dozens of Yemenis are tortured and forced to confess to being members of AQAP or IS. One is located behind Sha’ab City, near the residences of the UAE forces. Another is at the presidential palace in the area of Maashiq in Sirah (Crater) District. A third can be found at the coast guard camp in Khormaksar’s al-Arish District. The final prison is located in the Ras Abbas area in the district of Buriqah.
In Lahj province, UAE forces also keep detainees at al-Anad air force base. Some sources claim that another UAE-run detention facility exists on the island of Soqotra.
In Hadhramawt province, UAE forces use the Khalef area of Mukalla as a locale for one of their prisons. As a result of the many extrajudicial campaigns to arrest suspects in and around Mukalla, UAE forces and their local allies may open additional prisons as well.
Many of the Yemenis accused of being members of IS or al-Qaeda were arrested by units trained by UAE forces to conduct raids. These forces are not subject to Yemeni authorities nor are their operations approved by Yemen’s prosecution or courts, which have recently been inoperable.
Aden’s so-called Security Belt Forces are considered the most powerful security unit overseen and trained by the UAE, primarily carrying out orders issued by the commander of UAE forces in Aden to conduct raids and make arrests.
Mohamed Ba Rwis, a famous soccer player for Yemen’s national team and Aden’s al-Wahda club, was unlawfully arrested in July by Security Belt Forces during a raid of his home in al-Mansurah. He was taken to an unknown location, causing his family, friends, and Yemen’s soccer fans to fear for his safety.
Setting a dangerous precedent, the Security Belt Forces also arrested al-Mansurah’s deputy police chief Ayman Alibah and, according to a security source, detained him at one of the UAE-operated prisons in the district of Buriqah. The reason for his arrest is still unknown.
His detention certainly came as a shock to the heads of al-Mansurah’s police force and other security personnel in Aden. The incident also reveals the weak leadership of Aden’s head of security, Shalal Ali Shayae, and the extent of his loyalty to the UAE forces in the area.
These units have carried out dozens of similar arrests of Southern Resistance commanders, including the arrest in early June of Haleem al-Shuaibi, from the Hazm Salman Battalion, and commander Osan al-Kazimi in April.
Aden’s local newspaper, Al-Omanaa, published a statement by Southern Resistance commander Abu Mesh’al al-Dheb who said, “The most painful thing imaginable is to see our national sovereignty violated and to undergo investigation at the hands of foreigners on southern land.”
In the article, al-Dheb delivered an important message to whoever supports these arrests and raids: “Know that you cannot impose your will on a revolutionary people. They may tolerate it for a brief time, but they will absolutely not accept any prolongment or subordination.”