Saudi Arabia’s military in Yemen has moved in to secure two strategic Red Sea ports and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait after its leading ally the United Arab Emirates substantially reduced its presence there, four sources familiar with the matter said.
The UAE has drawn down its numbers in some parts of Yemen, where it had set up large bases amid a four-year-old multi-layered war that is widely seen as a proxy battle between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Two Yemeni military commanders and two Yemeni government officials told Reuters that Saudi officers had taken command of military bases at the ports of al-Mokha and al-Khokha, which Emirati forces had used to back their campaign in nearby Hodeidah and to monitor the coastline.
Riyadh has also sent an unspecified number of troops to the southern port city of Aden and Perim Island, a small volcanic rock in the strategic Bab al-Mandeb shipping lane where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden.
The spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition and the UAE government did not respond to requests for comment.
A senior Emirati official has said the UAE is not leaving a vacuum in Yemen as it trained about 90,000 local fighters and remains committed to the coalition and the Yemeni government. The UAE discussed extensively its troop redeployment with Riyadh, the official said.
The change in command is not expected to significantly affect the course of the war, nor a U.N.-backed ceasefire in Hodeidah which was signed last year in Sweden between the Saudi-backed government and the Iran-aligned Houthis.
Riyadh has remained supportive of U.N. peace efforts despite an uptick in Houthi missile and drone strikes on airports in southern Saudi Arabia over the last two months.
But by expanding the Saudi presence on the ground, the move could intensify international criticism of the kingdom’s role in a war that has unleashed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and killed hundreds of civilians in errant air strikes on hospitals, schools and markets.