Arab coalition primed for onslaught on Hodeidah, the port that keeps Yemeni civilians alive (2024)

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Emirati and Saudi soldiers are closing in on Iranian-backed rebels in a big port city that imports vital aid

Louise Callaghan

in Haita, Yemen

The Sunday Times

Arab coalition primed for onslaught on Hodeidah, the port that keeps Yemeni civilians alive (2)

Louise Callaghan

in Haita, Yemen

The Sunday Times

Dressed in flip-flops and sarongs, their Kalashnikovs dangling from sinewy shoulders, a group of Yemeni fighters gathered under a half-ruined archway that had once marked the entrance to the port of Haita.

The sun was setting over the Red Sea, and their cheeks bulged with their evening wad of green khat leaves. No one strayed far from the old dirt road down to the shore.

“There are so many mines here,” said Fahmi Haydara, 33, a lean fighter with a red-check headscarf. “There’s a rocket buried over there, too. Come and look.”

Arab coalition primed for onslaught on Hodeidah, the port that keeps Yemeni civilians alive (3)

In the drought-cracked savannah of Yemen’s western coast, The Sunday Times embedded last week with the Yemeni fighters’ allies — troops from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) whose role in the conflict gripping this country has long been underplayed. It was a rare insight into a war that has cost more than 10,000 lives and has unleashed a humanitarian disaster of great magnitude.

Flush with oil money and trained in conflicts from Lebanon to Afghanistan, the Emiratis “advise, assist and accompany” the Yemeni government forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

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Although they are just one of Saudi Arabia’s partners in a coalition backed by Britain and America, analysts say they are powerfully manipulating the direction of the war.

International attention has centred on the Saudi air campaign in the north of Yemen. It was a Saudi plane that bombed a school bus this summer, killing 40 children. However, much of the work around the key battleground further south is done by the UAE, which is widely seen by diplomats in the region as the more efficient partner in the coalition against the Houthis.

“They really know what they’re doing,” said a western official. “The Saudis are a bit like a bull in a china shop. The Emiratis are much more practised and professional militarily.”

Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who spent years living in Yemen, said: “It’s clear that the Emiratis are setting the tenor and tone of the conflict. Though Yemeni domestic concerns are certainly playing a role as well.”

From sprawling bases on the Red Sea coast, the Emiratis move in large convoys headed by armoured American fighting vehicles the size of an articulated lorry.

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They take Haydara and his fellow fighters to a front line 50 miles north of Haita on the outskirts of another port, Hodeidah, the beleaguered 15th-century city that is the key prize in this war.

Hodeidah is the gateway for 80% of the relief supplies that keep about two-thirds of Yemen’s population alive. But it is also, Saudi Arabia and the UAE claim, the main entry point for Iranian weapons shipments to the Houthis.

“If you look at the history of Yemen, in wars the people who take Hodeidah are always the ones who win,” said Al Hassan Taher, the city’s governor-in-exile, in the strip-lit office of a UAE military base. “Hodeidah is Yemen’s lungs.”

Conquering it, some in the coalition believe, would end the war — tipping the balance of an intractable conflict from which Saudi Arabia and the UAE are increasingly seeking to withdraw.

For Haydara and his band of Yemenis, the fight cannot come soon enough.

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“The only way to take Hodeidah is to erase the Houthis,” said Fares al-Gham, a portly fighter.

Any advance would be significantly hampered, however, by the thousands of mines sown by Houthi forces. In coalition-held territories, sappers work their way across the sand, digging out anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.

“They’re still planting them,” said Second Lieutenant Abdallah al-Shara, 25, who commands a team of 15 Emiratis in de-mining operations with Yemeni and Sudanese soldiers.

“Sometimes we clear an area and then come back to find it’s been mined again.”

In the past few months, he said, his men had been finding sophisticated improvised explosive devices in military and civilian areas. Some are disguised as rocks and left on either side of a road.

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“Between them there’s a laser beam,” Shara said. “The second anyone crosses it, the whole thing goes boom.”

Emirati commanders say that the Houthis, who are relatively well-equipped despite an air and sea blockade, regularly launch attacks on the coalition’s long eastern flank.

“We have more than enough men to take Hodeidah,” said a senior Emirati commander. “We hold 125-mile long resupply lines. We’ve committed a lot of our assets to securing these lines. But we still get attacked.”

Officially, the war is frozen in place to allow political negotiations with the Houthis. Should negotiations fail, as they always have done in the past four years of fighting, the coalition could launch a full-scale offensive for Hodeida. The resulting battle would be fought street by street in a tightly populated city that remains home to about 600,000 civilians — many more have fled.

The UN has claimed not only that up to 250,000 could be killed but that Yemen will face its worst famine for 100 years if aid supplies are blocked.

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Already, the UN and international aid agencies say, the coalition’s blockade of Hodeida has left millions of Yemenis without food and other vital goods.

The coalition says that Houthi corruption is to blame for the starvation. Diplomats in the region say both are true.

The war began as an internal affair when the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in 2014. It has morphed into a regional and sectarian conflict between Shi’ite Iran — the Houthis belong to the Zaidi offshoot of Shi’ite Islam — and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Britain and America have been heavily criticised for providing intelligence, weapons and logistical support to their Saudi and Emirati allies.

It is clear the coalition partners are tired of the war and want it to end. They are, however, unwilling to do so if it means ceding ground to Iran, which is why, for now, the Emiratis are waiting for the fighting to resume in earnest.

At an artillery post on the Red Sea, Emirati Major Abdallah Saeed proudly showed a row of artillery pieces lined up in the sand.

“The fighting peaks about once a week,” he said, as the air brought faint sounds of combat from the eastern front. “It is continuing. The rest of the time we wait.”

@louiselisabet

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Arab coalition primed for onslaught on Hodeidah, the port that keeps Yemeni civilians alive (2024)
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