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UAE and Yemen’s Al-Islah: An alliance of convenience only

“Comment: Yemen’s Al-Islah party has good reason to treat the rapprochement with longtime enemy the UAE with caution, writes a Yemeni journalist.

Last week’s meeting of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed with the leadership of Yemen’s Al-Islah party was a startling development in Yemen’s political affairs.

The former enemies shook hands, sat together and talked in the first meeting of its kind since Yemen’s war broke out in 2015.

Over the past four years, the UAE and Al-Islah have had one matter in common: fighting the Houthi group in Yemen.

But their relationship has been fraught, laden with mistrust. The two sides have remained at loggerheads due to their differing political and ideological convictions.

While their apparent rapprochement last week looked headed for reconciliation, it would be wise to avoid thinking their differences will vanish for good, for the schism between UAE and Al-Islah party runs deep.

Founded in 1990, Al-Islah gained popular support in Yemen, becoming the country’s second biggest political party in 2014. Its political wing is seen as the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the party was blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia in 2014 because of this.

In the past few years, relations with Saudi Arabia have warmed, due to Al-Islah’s role in fighting the Houthis.

Now, its relationship with the Emirati camp may also be changing, but will it pledge allegiance to the Emirati agenda, and harmony with UAE’s policy in Yemen?

Befriending the enemy to fend off worse

Over the past four years, the UAE has treated the Al-Islah party with a very heavy hand, and has worked to weaken it through killing its leading members and vocal figures.

Since 2014, the Houthis have attacked, kidnapped and detained its members in Yemen’s north, while the UAE has targeted its affiliates in the south. UAE rhetoric concerning the war on Al-Islah claims such attacks are justified because the political branch of the organisation operates under the umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is therefore linked with “terrorist” and “radical” groups.

While contact with armed groups may exist, it is not necessarily evidence of a strategic alliance.

“It would be wise to avoid thinking their differences will vanish for good”

Reports have uncovered that the Emirates led a team of foreign mercenaries to assassinate Al-Islah’s leading members in Aden. It is unlikely, therefore, that in the minds of Al-Islah, Emirati violations in Yemen will fade away any time soon, regardless of an exchange of pleasantries.

UAE seeks gains

Not only does Al-Islah intend to achieve gains from such a rapprochement, but so does the UAE. As a key member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, the UAE is in part responsible for the tragic consequences of the protracted war there.

Now that the UAE looks prepared to partner with Al-Islah, it is likely hoping that their alliance will change the dynamics of the war, and accelerate a victory against the Houthis.

The Saudi-led coalition’s western allies including the US and UK have lately hardened their stance on the intervention in Yemen.

“Al-Islah has been forced to team up with a regional bully”

A Yemeni journalist

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