Yemen’s Houthis attacked Abu Dhabi twice in a week. For the United Arab Emirates (UAE), risk perception has dramatically increased: things will never be the same. The Emirati leadership, a master of strategy, suddenly came to realise how difficult it is to balance national security and regional ambitions. Despite a correction course in foreign policy, the UAE now stands in the eye of the storm. After a decade of assertive military posture in the Middle East, it could be too late for the UAE to avoid backlashes. On 17 January, Yemen’s Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah) claimed a successful strike against Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the UAE. The attack killed three expatriate workers – an unprecedented event. The missile and drone strike targeted a key oil facility, also causing a fire at the capital’s international airport. For the first time, the US-manufactured and UAE-owned THAAD missile defence system was reportedly used to intercept a missile. The Abu Dhabi attack pushed benchmark Brent crude oil to its highest price in years. On 21 January, the Saudis retaliated by bombing Saada, the Houthis’ fiefdom: the strike killed more than 70 people detained in a local prison. On 24 January, a new Houthi missile attack targeting the al-Dhafra air base in Abu Dhabi was jointly intercepted by the UAE and the United States using Patriot missiles; al-Dhafra hosts American and French soldiers.
Two reasons behind the attacks
The Houthis and the UAE are rival players in the seven-year long Yemen war. In 2019, the UAE withdrew its troops from Yemen, embracing regional diplomacy. But the Emiratis still support their Yemeni armed allies. Iran, the Houthis’ main sponsor, is the real ′elephant in the room`. There are two reasons behind the attacks. The first is directly related to the Yemen battlefield. In fact, the UAE still supports the local armed allies it contributed to organise, train and equip in 2015-2019. The former Shabwani Elite Forces (renamed Shabwa Defence Forces) returned to the Shabwa governorate. Most importantly, in late 2021, the UAE-backed Giants Brigades were deployed against the Houthis in the Marib and Shabwa governorates. This occurred because the Houthis were conquering strategic territories in Yemen’s energy-rich areas. The Giants are mostly pro-secession Salafis from Southern regions, and are part of a larger coalition headed by the nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Marib and Shabwa (as previously in the Bab el-Mandeb coast), these Brigades are effectively preventing a Houthi military victory: they quickly recaptured the three Shabwa’s districts that were lost, plus Harib in Marib. A few weeks after the Giants’ deployment, the Houthis launched the attacks against Abu Dhabi.
The second reason is related to the balance of regional forces and Iran. Tehran supports the Houthis with smuggled weapons and training. Through the attack, the Houthis, and Iran, sent a message to the UAE. They not only can but are ready to strike Emirati soil directly (as occurred against Saudi Arabia with Saudi Aramco in 2019). The Houthis feel encircled at home, while time is running out to relaunch the Iranian nuclear deal. In 2019, the Emiratis realised it was no longer possible to have troops abroad and be safe at home. Repeated attacks against commercial vessels off the UAE coast and Saudi Aramco pushed the Emiratis to withdraw soldiers from Yemen. They opened the door to regional dialogue, also with Iran. This is why the Abu Dhabi attack is a setback for the UAE: it had already recalibrated its foreign policy, shifting from a “power projection” posture to one of “power protection”. For the same reason, Emirati officials are still careful not to blame Iran, even indirectly, trying to keep the Houthis on a separate file from Tehran, stating that “as the Houthis themselves have claimed responsibility, there’s no question as to who must be held to account” for the attacks. But coordination between the Houthis and Iran can’t be ruled out. The UAE had probably miscalculated that supporting Yemeni allies could have a national security price, too. On the other hand, Yemen is too strategically important for the UAE to be lost, or abandoned.
What the Houthis and the UAE want in Yemen
Since 2021, the Houthis have been fighting a make-or-break battle in Yemen. They have launched a ground offensive for Marib, the last stronghold of the internationally recognised government. The Marib governorate is rich in energy fields still controlled by the government. Therefore, if the Houthis win, they can claim to have won the war, and would have the revenues to run half of Yemen. The battle for Marib is also Saudi Arabia’s fight: the Saudis are the main supporter of the government, and the main rivals of the Houthis. As the Houthis advanced across Marib, the UAE feared they could also penetrate the South: they effectively entered Shabwa governorate. But Southern regions are the UAE’s sphere of influence in Yemen: hence, the battle for Marib has also become an Emirati affair. By deploying the Giants Brigades, the UAE is pursuing two goals. The first is to show loyalty to Saudi Arabia, coordinating with the Saudis who provide air cover to the Giants and the army’s advances with airstrikes. The second – and most important goal – is to protect its strategic interest in Yemen: the indirect control of coastlines, islands, ports, energy pipelines and terminals, close to the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Arabian Sea. These areas are now mostly controlled by UAE-backed forces.
The Red Sea front
The air attacks against Abu Dhabi are not the first alert the Houthis have sent to the UAE. At the beginning of January 2022, the Houthis seized the Rwabee, an Emirati-flagged cargo ship in the Southern Red Sea, off the Yemeni coast. According to the UAE, the vessel carried medical equipment, while the Houthis claimed it transported “military assets”. The vessel and its eleven crew are still detained overseas. The Emirati ambassador at the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh, called it an “act of piracy”. Maritime security is a matter of concern also for Israel, who in 2020 normalised diplomatic relations with the UAE (the “Abraham Accords”). The Houthis have repeatedly threatened to hit Israel. At the end of 2021, the UAE, Israel, Bahrain and the US held unprecedented joint naval exercises in the Red Sea. After the first Abu Dhabi attack, the Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett wrote “we stand ready to offer security and intelligence support” to the UAE, in a condolence letter to the Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
What comes next? One scenario and a nightmare scenario
Increased tension, not direct escalation, is the most probable scenario in the short to medium term. The Houthis have warned UAE residents to stay away from vital installations, and the UAE has stated it reserves the right to respond. However, the Emiratis don’t have an interest in escalation right now. Dubai is also hosting Expo. They don’t want to risk damaging further the image of a safe and global hub for trade and tourism. For instance, the Abu Dhabi attack occurred while South Korea’s president was visiting the UAE, agreeing to sell surface-to-air missiles. Moreover, the UAE is aware that the US would not rush to defend it, as demonstrated by the lack of US reaction after the Saudi Aramco attack in 2019. On the other hand, the Houthis and to a lesser extent Iran, too, don’t have an interest in open escalation. They are trying to orient UAE’s political choices – for instance pushing the Emiratis to reduce support for their allies in Yemen – not to provoke a wide-scale reaction. They have leverage for as long as they are able to carry out attacks. However, on both sides, the risk of miscalculation is real. There is a nightmare scenario: the UAE could be targeted by the Houthis on a weekly basis, as has been the case in Saudi Arabia for years. This would consistently damage the UAE’s aura of safety. Moreover, while in the kingdom the Houthis mostly hit the Southern and less wealthy regions bordering the Houthis’ mainland, the Emirati federation is a smaller territory – and a transit hub – made of ′city-states`. For the UAE, this is a big dilemma. National security is imperative. But they also know that Yemeni armed allies are decisive for the regional power they have built over a decade.