Thu - 12 Jan 2023 - 12:42 AM ،،،

Gulf News

 Military historian Dr Michael Knights latest book ‘The unknown story of the Arabian elite forces at war: 25 days to Aden’ tells the true story of how in just one week in 2015, the Gulf States pulled together a ten-nation coalition and launched the biggest military operation they had ever unilaterally undertaken.

The story of the dramatic campaign by Arab special forces and Yemeni tribesmen to liberate the iconic port-city of Aden from Al Houthis has not been told with such clarity and erudition before.

While researching the highly readable book, Knights has spoken to a cross-section of key players, including UAE military personnel and explored their relationship with Yemenis.

Gulf News reached out to the author to understand why the UAE intervened in Aden and what makes the UAE military different and special. Excerpts from the exclusive interview with Michael Knights.

What was it like to write the first military history of the UAE at war?

Writing the story of the UAE and Yemeni victory at Aden was a real honour for me. When the battle was happening in 2015, I could tell that a very professional force had entered Aden to fight the Houthis but, at that point, it was still a mystery who these Arab elite forces were. To later meet these men and women and to interview them was a great experience.

What do you think was the primary motivating factor for the Arabian forces to go into Yemen?

I know from interviewing some of the most senior officials in the UAE that the primary reason for the intervention in Yemen was to prevent the Iran-backed Houthis from overrunning the whole country and establishing a southern Hezbollah on the Gulf of Oman.

But what I find fascinating is that alongside this war against a tough Iran-backed opponent, the UAE also kept up its counter-terrorism war against Al Qaida in Yemen at the same time. That showed real dedication to the counter-terrorism fight. Even the US had closed down its war on terrorism when the Houthis attacked Aden, but the UAE kept going.

How difficult was it to get interviews with combatants and those who fought and witnessed the war of Aden?

It took some time for people to learn to trust me, an outsider. They saw my writing on the Yemen war and they could tell that I understood the realities on the ground. Most of the media reporting on Yemen was not very accurate, especially about the military effort to stop the Houthis.

My work, and the work of other good counter-terrorism analysts like Alex Almeida and Katie Zimmerman and Greg Johnsen, showed that Western writers could understand what was going on in Yemen.

I had been to Yemen many times and I knew the people, including Houthis, so that built trust that I could understand and tell the story of the warriors at the frontline.

I also visited Yemen many times during the war since 2015, and I shared the experiences with UAE, Yemeni and Saudi forces. That helps to build rapport.

Talk to us a little bit about how the UAE drew a line in the sand?

The UAE leadership supported Yemen’s call at the UN and the Arab League for military support, and while the Saudi Arabian military could help in the north of Yemen, the UAE used its special ties to Southern Yemen to defend Aden.

The UAE is a maritime power with excellent long-range power projection capabilities and with good relations in the Horn of Africa, so it was a natural fit to support the southern Yemenis, who were far away from help.

The leadership in the Emirates recognised that Iran’s partners, the Houthis, must not be allowed to take Aden, and nor must al Qaeda be allowed to exploit the chaos of war in Southern Yemen. So the UAE stood with the Yemenis to draw a line in the sand and prevent either a Houthi or Al Qaida takeover.

Your book has been hailed as a reference for a future of warfare driven by emergent powers. Can you elaborate on it?

Everyone is looking at Ukraine for a glimpse at future warfare. I would argue that huge wars involving the world’s largest powers will not be the typical kind of warfare practised in most future conflicts.

Most future wars will involve mid-sized powers like the UAE, who are often using technologies and tactics that are just as advanced as those used by the US, China or Russia.

In Yemen, we saw the UAE bringing the same skills and equipment as a Nato military but with more cultural and linguistic skills than a Nato military operating in the Middle East.

What do you make of the intra-Yemeni struggle? The internationally recognised government has rival factions, for instance.

The battle of Aden shows that when Yemenis work together, they can defeat the Iran-backed Houthis and liberate parts of their country that want to be free from the Houthis.

Getting Yemenis to work together requires effort by external partners and the UAE is particularly good at helping Yemenis work together, in partnership with Saudi Arabia.

Why do you think the Arab coalition was so effective at arming and training local partner forces?

The UAE led the Gulf Coalition train and equip effort of resistance forces in Southern Yemen. The model used by the UAE was the basis of success and it had two elements.

First, the UAE did not try to build a perfect force that looked exactly like UAE units, which is the mistake America has made in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The UAE worked with small units who were allowed to stay with their traditional commanders, so they had good morale and did as they were told by their familiar leaders.

Second, the UAE embedded a small number of Emiratis with each Yemeni unit, and this kept the Yemenis motivated and gave them courage and discipline. The UAE did not point to the enemy and say “go there”: the UAE trainers said, “we will go together” and this was the right way.

What, in your view, are the prospects for a solution to the Yemen crisis?

Unless something major changes, the Houthis will control northern Yemen in the same manner that Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. They will indoctrinate the new generation, who cannot even remember a time before the Houthis. That will give them huge armies of conscripts who are willing to die and who have Iran’s backing.

The rest of Yemen will need strong support from the outside world to hold back the Houthis and keep the shipping lanes open for the world to use.

Maybe one day all of Yemen can be liberated and made peaceful, including giving northern Yemeni people a better life under fair leaders that come after the Houthis have been removed.

For now, Yemen is a divided country. It is like Korea, with an isolated and backward north, and a liberated south that is still open to the world.