In a speech at the State Department, President Joe Biden has just announced the United States will end support for all offensive operations in Yemen (excluded counterterrorism missions against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), also stopping arms sales. But he added that the US are “going to continue to help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people”, as Riyadh faces attacks “from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries”.
In fact, two convergent moods are emerging in the Middle Eastern region and among Western allies. First, missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia, occurring against the Saudi soil and partly in the Red Sea waters, are not only Riyadh’s problem. These mostly threaten Saudi national security but, as time goes by, also regional stability, included maritime and energy security.
Second – and in other words – the Houthis’ attacks against Saudi Arabia and its civilian (mostly economic) and military interests are growingly perceived by the Middle Eastern allies of Riyadh, but also by European and American partners, as a regional security issue. Not only a dispute between Yemen’s Houthis (Ansar Allah) and the Saudis.
This emerging shift in political perceptions was not granted, especially given the highly-unpopular – and strategically counterproductive – military intervention that Saudi Arabia has been guiding in Yemen, against the Houthis, since 2015. But in the Middle East, the proliferation of armed drones and missile capabilities, also by non-state actors, has quickly become a top issue on the agenda.
On 23 January, 2021, Saudi Arabia intercepted a “hostile target” on Riyadh. The Saudis attributed the launch to the Houthis, although a new, and still unknown, Iraqi Shia group, Alwiya Alwaad Alhaq, claimed responsibility on a Telegram account, menacing to make Saudi Arabia the “playground for drone and missile attacks" and threatening also the United Arab Emirates (UAE). An episode that reminded the plausible deniability aura that surrounded the sophisticated air operation against Saudi Aramco plants at Abqaiq and Khurais (September 2019), this time with no damages. That attacks were claimed by the Houthis, but the United Nations and the United States believe they were launched from Iran’s soil or Southern Iraq, not from Yemen.
The 2021 Final Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, just released, notes the Houthis “continue to attack civilian targets in the Saudi Arabia, using a combination of missiles and uncrewed aerial vehicles, while waterborne improvised explosive devices are regularly launched into the Red Sea” and “the group’s ability to project power beyond Yemen remains a threat to regional stability”, adding that “there was an escalation of attacks on civilian vessels in the waters around Yemen in 2020”.
More that experts’ analysis, and before Biden’s speech, two official statements had already shed light on this changing mood. In fact, despite few details of the latest episode against Riyadh were made public, the official reaction of some European states and of the US administration was firm and telling.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom (the E3 group) declared in a joint statement that “proliferation and the use of missiles and drones undermine the security and stability of the region, to which we are strongly committed”. The E3 group, who toured Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman at mid-January 2021 for talks on Gulf security, also added that “we reiterate our firm attachment to the security and integrity of Saudi territory”. French President Emmanuel Macron even proposed to include Saudi Arabia and the UAE in talks regarding Iran’s ballistic missile program and, more broadly, on discussions on the role of Iranian-related militias in the Middle Eastern region.
Washington stressed the failed attack was directed “against civilians” without elaborate. The US Department of State affirmed that “as we work to de-escalate tensions in the region through principled diplomacy, including by bringing an end to the war in Yemen, we will also help our partner Saudi Arabia defend against attacks on its territory and hold those who attempt to undermine stability to account”. Quite unexpected – especially the second part – and welcomed words for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, who greeted Biden’s election with caution.
Recurrent attacks, especially by the Houthis, reflect higher militarization by non-state armed groups, and conversely, defensive counter-militarization in the Middle Eastern region: ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) stand at the centre of the picture, again.
For instance, the United States are expected to deploy the Israeli-manufactured system Iron Dome (missile defense system) in the American bases hosted by the Gulf monarchies, with Israel’s approval. On January 2021, the Israeli military deployed the Iron Dome system (to intercept rockets) and Patriot missiles (to intercept ballistic missiles and drones) around the Southern city of Eilat fearing attacks coming from Yemen, as Ansar Allah had previously threatened to hit directly Eilat, thus upgrading its traditional anti-Israel stance. Moreover, Iranian Shahed-136 “suicide drones”, with an effective range of 2000 to 2200 kilometers, would have been deployed in Al-Jawf, a Yemeni northern governorate bordering Saudi Arabia and partially controlled by the Houthis.
Throughout 2020, escalating tensions pushed Saudi Arabia and the UAE to develop new deals or reinforcing defense alliances, involving also European states with an invaluable geographical location close to the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, the Gulf monarchies started or expanded diplomatic and commercial relations with Cyprus and Greece in latest years: now, these are clearly turning into defense and security ties.
On January 2021, the UAE and Cyprus signed their first-ever defense cooperation agreement, implying joint training programs and military drills. On November 2020, the UAE and Greece agreed to broaden defense cooperation activities as Greece strengthened military relations with Saudi Arabia on January 2020, paving the way for future joint military exercises and air defense cooperation (likely pivoting at Souda Bay in Crete). After the attacks against Saudi Aramco in 2019, Riyadh and Athens had already agreed upon the deployment of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles belonging to the Hellenic Air Force in Saudi Arabia, as part of a program involving the US (who relocated some assets out of the Saudi territory), the UK and France.
Given this picture, it’s clear that converging perceptions regarding ballistic missiles and armed drones’ proliferation are on the rise among Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and Western partners (included some European states). The regional security threat coming from non-state actors’ warfare is tangible, and no more (only) to Saudi Arabia, whose civilian infrastructures discovered to be too vulnerable.
But it’s still too early to envisage whether or not shifting security perceptions will be translated into multilateral dialogue, or even policies, aimed to mitigate a risky drones and missiles’ proliferation in the region.
 See Francesco F. Milan and Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, “Armed, unmanned, and in high demand: the drivers behind combat drones proliferation in the Middle East”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 31, 4, 2020; see also Federico Borsari, “The Middle East’s Game of Drones: The Race to Lethal UAVs and its Implications for the Regional Security Landscape”, ISPI Analysis, 15 January 2021.
United Nations Security Council, Final Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen 2021, S/2021/79, p.3.
 Eleonora Ardemagni, “Why the Gulf Monarchies Have Laid Eyes on Cyprus”, ISPI Commentary, 29 September 2019.