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The Houthi Attacks on UAE

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • February 03, 2022

    On 17 January 2022, the Houthis of Yemen carried out attacks on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) using ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones, hitting the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) oil tankers in Abu Dhabi and a construction site at the Abu Dhabi International Airport. Three people, including two Indian nationals, were killed and some others were injured in the attacks. The attacks provoked a strong response from the Saudi-led military coalition on the Houthis in the Yemeni capital Saana. Another ballistic missile attack on the UAE by the Houthis happened on 24 January, which was intercepted and destroyed by the Emirati air defence around Abu Dhabi. In response, the coalition forces launched a counter-attack and destroyed a Houthi missile launcher Al Jawf in Yemen. The UAE also claimed that it intercepted and destroyed another Houthi missile on 31 January, when the Israeli President Issac Herzog was on the first-ever visit to the country, taking place in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords signed in September 2020. 

    There are several reasons why Houthis are targeting the UAE. First, the UAE supports the internationally recognised government of President Abd Raboo Mansour Hadi in Yemen and wants the Houthis to leave capital Saana in order to restore peace and stability in the country. The UAE urges a political resolution of the Yemeni crisis on the basis of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative and its implementation mechanism, as well as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2216 of 2015.1 The UAE has been a major partner in the Saudi-led military coalition that is undertaking military operations against the Houthis.

    Second, in southern Yemen, the UAE has supported the secessionist movement known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which demands autonomy in the south and resists the Houthi advances to the region. Besides, the UAE has been supporting the Giants Brigade—a powerful armed group in the south—which has been a crucial force fighting against the Houthis and has recently taken over several territories in strategically important Shabwa and Marib governorates from the Houthis.2 The UAE’s backing of the forces in the south makes the country a natural target of the Houthis.

    Third, the UAE has strategic and maritime interests in the Gulf of Aden, Strait of Bab el Mandab and the Horn of Africa. The area around the island of Socotra in the Gulf of Aden is of particular importance to the UAE, as it wants maritime security and freedom of navigation in the crucial waterways. Operating from Yemen, the Houthis have attacked ships and oil tankers of different countries, which has made the UAE wary about the maritime security in the area. On 2 January 2022, a UAE-flagged ship named ‘Rwabee’ was seized by the Houthis.  The UAE, therefore, wants the Saudi-led coalition to ensure the security of strategic waterways in the region.

    The 17 January attack has further exposed the security vulnerabilities of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The drones and missiles launched from Yemen not only successfully hit the targets deep inside the UAE, violating the airspace of Saudi Arabia and the UAE but also went undetected for hundreds of kilometres.

    Till now, Saudi Arabia has been the principal target of the Houthis as the latter have launched cross-border attacks using drones and missiles targeting several key infrastructures including oil facilities and airports in Saudi Arabia. Targeting the UAE at the same time further intensifies and widens the conflict. Though the UAE has been participating in the military campaign against the Houthis, it did not face any direct military attack from them as it probably has the advantage of physical distance from Yemen, which has now been breached.

    The Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi come at a time when there is considerable progress in dialogue between Iran and the UAE. The UAE had withdrawn its envoy from Tehran in 2016 expressing solidarity with Saudi Arabia after the latter’s embassy and consulate were attacked in Iran by the protesters. Recently, the UAE and Iran have started official-level talks in order to revive their relationship. In December 2021, the Emirati National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Iran and held talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.3 Earlier, in November, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani visited the UAE and met high-level officials before the start of the fresh round of talks on the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, and agreed to “open a new chapter” in their bilateral relations.4 These two recent visits were expected to revive the strained relationship between the two countries, but the recent attacks on Abu Dhabi has further complicated the situation. Several rounds of talks have also taken place between Saudi Arabia and Iran in order to ease the tension; and it is believed that the situation in Yemen is a key issue of discussion between the two countries. The Abu Dhabi attacks may hamper the Saudi­­­­–Iran and UAE–Iran talks which are still at a nascent stage.

    The UN Security Council, in which the UAE is a non-permanent member for the 2022–23 term, has called it a terrorist attack and has unanimously condemned the attack. The UAE has also appealed to the US—of which the UAE is a key regional ally—to re-designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation. Former President Donald Trump’s January 2021 order designating the Houthis as a terrorist organisation was revoked by President Joe Biden in February 2021. After the attacks, the US reiterated its commitment towards the security of the UAE. There are also reports suggesting that it is considering re-designating the Houthis as a terrorist group.5 To support the UAE against the Houthi attacks, the US also announced to send the guided missile destroyer USS Cole to help the UAE Navy, to deploy 5th Generation Fighter aircrafts to the region and collaborating on the air defence with the UAE.

    The Houthi attacks on the UAE have widened the ambit of the ongoing war in Yemen. Such violent escalation, even after seven years of the war, has the potential to further intensify the involvement of the regional players. This will prolong the instability in and around Yemen and hinder the regional and international efforts towards establishing peace in the country.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the MP-IDSA or of the Government of India.