By JON GAMBRELL
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Yemen’s exiled president was due to visit the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday to patch up relations ahead of an anticipated assault on the rebel-held port of Hodeida. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s trip to Abu Dhabi comes amid months of tensions between his forces and fighters backed by the UAE, which have clashed on a number of occasions. Both are part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been at war with Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015.
The two sides were also at odds over the recent deployment of UAE forces to the Yemen’s Arabian Sea island of Socotra, a dispute mediated by Saudi officials. Over 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s civil war. The Saudi-led coalition has been criticized for its airstrikes killing civilians. Meanwhile, the U.N. and Western nations say Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons from assault rifles up to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital, Riyadh. Yemen’s government-controlled SABA news agency announced Hadi’s trip, saying it came after Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited him at his home in Riyadh, where he lives in self-imposed exile.
Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash also wrote several tweets Tuesday night suggesting an attack on Hodeida was imminent. “The liberation of the city & port will create a new reality & bring the Houthis to the negotiations,” he wrote. Earlier Tuesday, Yemeni officials said the U.N. had pulled its international staff out of Hodeida, a crucial Red Sea port city now controlled by the Houthis. The officials said the U.N.’s operations center there was still being manned by local staff. The port is some 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Sanaa, the rebel-held capital. The officials spoke on condition in anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief reporters.
The aid group Oxfam said humanitarian organizations received warnings over the weekend for staff to evacuate Hodeida by Tuesday ahead of an offensive. The Norwegian Refugee Council urged the United States, Britain and France to release “an immediate warning” against any attack on the city or the port of Hodeida. It said troops, backed by the Saudi-led coalition are now about eight kilometers (five miles) from the rebel-held Hodeida. On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had pulled 71 staff members out of Yemen after a series of security incidents and threats. Before the war, over 70 percent of Yemen’s food and fuel imports came through Hodeida, accounting for over 40 percent of the nation’s customs income.
The port remains crucial for incoming aid, food and medicine for a nation driven to the brink of famine by the conflict and a Saudi-led blockade. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths is in “intense negotiations” in an attempt to avoid a military confrontation. However, Griffiths’ recent appointment as envoy and his push for new negotiations may have encouraged the coalition to strengthen its hand ahead of any talks.
David Miliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee aid group, said “an attack on the port would be an assault on the chances of a political settlement in addition to a danger to civilian life. All (U.N.) member states, led by the US, must demand that vital humanitarian and commercial imports through Hodeidah are maintained.”
The U.S. has provided the coalition with logistical support, but it’s unclear what position the Americans will take if the coalition launches a full-scale attack on Hodeida. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday he spoke with Emirati officials and “made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports.” Analysts warn that while the Houthis may not need the customs money, they likely want to bleed the coalition with mines and guerrilla fighting. The U.N. says some 600,000 people live in and around Hodeida, and “as many as 250,000 people may lose everything— even their lives.” “As has been the case since the beginning of the war, the cost of the battle for Hodeida will largely accrue to the already impoverished civilian population,” the International Crisis Group warned in a report Monday.