Houthis expand the Yemen war
Jan 21, 2022 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
The war in Yemen, now in its seventh year, has entered a dangerous new phase with a large-scale attack involving cruise missiles, drones and ballistic missiles against an oil facility and the airport in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi on January 17, killing three migrant workers and injuring several others. This was the first acknowledged attack, and the first to cause casualties inflicted by the Houthis against the UAE since the start of the war. This follows the Houthi hijacking of a UAE-flagged ship earlier this month. The UAE has asked the US to redesignate the group as a terrorist organisation.
The attack was allegedly carried out in response to the UAE’s recent escalation to reverse the battlefield gains made by the Houthis in 2021 after several years of reducing their involvement in Yemen. A senior Houthi official, Mohammed Abdulsalam, was in Iran at the time of the attacks.
This Update will focus on the implications of the attack for the UAE and the US and their respective policies towards the war in Yemen, as well as what it reveals about Iranian intentions and capabilities in the region.
We open with Seth Frantzman, who cites a detailed report in Tasnim, an Iranian outlet close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on the attack to explain how Iran uses the Houthis to threaten the Gulf states, Israel, and US forces in the region. The attack was meant to coerce the UAE to return to the de facto ceasefire it had with the Houthis since 2019 and end its recent escalation by undermining the UAE’s attempts to portray itself as a safe, stable country for international companies, foreign investment and tourism, as well as demonstrating that the US cannot protect its Gulf allies. For Frantzman’s full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Next, we go to experts Alex Almeida and Michael Knights, who lay out the current battlefield dynamics in Yemen, including how the UAE and Saudi Arabia are seemingly for the first time coordinating the activity of their proxies in Yemen at the tactical level, which has caused stunning battlefield reversals for the Houthis. The UAE’s proxy Amaleqa (Giants) brigades have helped roll back Houthi gains in several areas even as the Saudis have renewed intensive airstrikes across the country. Almeida and Knights recommend several US policies that will enable these gains against the Houthis to be consolidated and possibly give more substance to peace talks. For the battlefield dynamics and full list of policy proposals, CLICK HERE.
Finally, expert Elana DeLozier explores the tit-for-tat escalation and what it means for the UAE’s image as well as its attempt to have good relations with Iran. This attack, regardless of whether it was actually launched by the Houthis from Yemen, will reignite discussions in the US over whether and how to protect its Gulf allies from the Houthis while maintaining the policy of not supporting offensive operations in Yemen. To read the detailed policy implications for the UAE and the US, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- US President Joe Biden may redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation after delisting them last year.
- A report on how the IRGC has for the first time used its expanding and increasingly sophisticated drone arsenal inside Iran to target insurgents alongside its proliferation of the technology to its regional proxies.
- A Foundation for Defense of Democracies monograph by Varsha Koduvayur on the evolution of US policy towards Yemen from Obama to Biden, including policy recommendations.
- Remarks by UAE ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba on the attack.
Iran reveals key details of Yemen Houthi attack on UAE – analysis
Iranian media claims ‘economic facilities and investments in the UAE are the Achilles heel of the UAE’s war in Yemen.’
Jerusalem Post – Updated: JANUARY 19, 2022 17:54
A recent drone and missile attack on Abu Dhabi has raised concerns across the Middle East about the increasing threat of Iranian drone technology. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen are alleged to be responsible for the attack, but key details remain missing from many accounts about how it was carried out.
A long article at Iran’s Tasnim News, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has laid out a blow-by-blow account of the attack; its background is likely the fullest explanation yet as to what was behind it and Iran’s next steps.
Iran backs the Houthis and reportedly had a high-level IRGC officer in Yemen last year, who was undercover as a diplomat. That ambassador died of Covid, but it illustrates the close alliance between Iran and the Houthis, and the high stakes that Tehran has placed in Yemen.
Iran has used the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia and last year positioned Shahed 136 drones in Yemen. The drones have a range that can reach Israel. The distance from Yemen to the UAE is around 1,300 km. from where the rockets or drones might have been launched; the distance to Israel is around 2,000 km. Iran coordinates closely with the Houthis.
Let’s look at the Tasnim news piece that reveals the details about the attack as if it were a file laying out a case for why and how the attack happened.
It is important to keep in mind that in September 2019, the Iranians used drones and cruise missiles in a similar attack targeting Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq facility, which was initially blamed on the Houthis as well. It is also important to look at how the Iranian account reveals the regime’s decision to use Yemen to threaten Saudi Arabia, Israel and US forces in the region.
The US has a base at Al Dhafra which is less than ten kilometers from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) fuel facilities that were targeted by the drones and missiles. The facilities are next to the Al-Musaffah neighborhood.
According to pro-Iran media, another fire broke out at Abu Dhabi International Airport, “though damage in that attack was not documented by media outlets,” Hezbollah’s Al-Manar has said. Emirati police described the assault as a “suspected drone attack” at the time. Three people were killed in the attacks and six wounded. Hezbollah’s media noted the presence of US and French forces at the nearby air base which is part of Central Command.
THE TANSIM report says that “the role of the United Arab Emirates as Saudi Arabia’s main ally in the war in Yemen – in the destruction of the country and the killing of innocent civilians – is not hidden from anyone.” This is reason number one, in Iran’s view, that the attack was justified. “It is quite clear that in every Saudi crime against humanity in Yemen, there are traces of the UAE. For the past three years, however, Abu Dhabi has tried to deceitfully distance itself from the consequences of this devastating war.”
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015 to stop the Houthis from taking Aden. Riyadh was leading a coalition of Arab countries. It’s not the first time Saudi fought in the West Asian country. In the 1960s Riyadh and Cairo backed different sides in a conflict in Yemen; now they were on the same side.
While the UAE, which has positioned itself in recent years as an important player in the region, played a role in the Yemen conflict, over the last two years, Abu Dhabi’s policies have diverged from the Saudi’s role. The kingdom has backed forces of the Southern Transitional Council. In recent weeks, forces backed by the UAE made some impressive gains. The Houthis threatened to escalate, seized a UAE ship off the coast and ran cartoons showing Yemen targeting Dubai.
Iran’s media claims that the UAE put in place a “deception in retreat from Yemen.” This means that the Emirates had appeared to be leaving Yemen, diverging from Saudi war efforts. The Biden administration has been critical of Riyadh’s role and had taken away a Trump-era designation of the Houthis as terrorists in February 2020.
US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking was sent to sort out the conflict. Saudi Arabia seemed like it wasn’t getting enough defensive munitions to stop Yemen drone and missile attacks. Lenderking was in Saudi Arabia in November 2021. The Houthis sensed victory last year, laying siege to Marib. If Riyadh-backed forces lost Marib the Saudis would be humiliated.
“THE UAE, which has been claiming a withdrawal from the Yemeni war since mid-2019, has continued its plans to occupy the country, as evidenced by its escalating greed in southern Yemen,” Iran’s Tasnim says. “In addition, the UAE is opening the Zionists to the Yemeni islands and trying to change the demographics of the southern regions of Yemen,”
This is part of an Iranian regime claim going back two years that alleges Israel has a role on the Island of Socotra or other islands. The Associated Press claimed last May that a new air base on Mayun island had been built. Many alleged the UAE was linked to it.
Iran believes the war shifted last year in favor of the Houthis, which it calls the “Yemen army” and “Ansar Al-Islam.” Tehran says that, “since 2019, when the peak of Yemeni drone and missile attacks deep into Saudi Arabia began, the UAE is deeply concerned about repeating this scenario for itself.”
The “scenario” here is the Abqaiq attack and other attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran put the Houthi drone program on steroids since 2017. The Houthis upped their attacks on the kingdom. In fact, in 2019, Iran also operationalized Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq to strike at Saudi Arabia using drones. The drones would then be described as coming from Yemen.
“In addition to Saudi Arabia’s airports, bases and other internal positions, the Aramco oil facility is one of the most critical Saudi positions, which has never been safe from Yemeni missile and drone strikes.” In reality, it was Iran targeting the Aramco facilities, enabling the Houthis and other Iranian-backed groups to carry out attacks.
Now Iran claims the UAE is trying to “stay safe” from Houthi missiles. The Emirates has been concerned since 2018, when the Houthis first targeted them. They had already attacked Shaybah in August 2019 and threatened the UAE in September 2019.
Iran’s calculation here is clear. “The UAE, which earns most of its income through tourism and huge foreign investments and its magnificent towers, is well aware that any wrong move in Yemen will have unbearable consequences. In fact, these economic facilities and investments in the UAE are the Achilles heel of the country in the war in Yemen,” Tasnim said.
IRAN CONCLUDES that the UAE wants to continue its role in Yemen but that it is “deeply concerned about the Sanaa government’s move to target the depths of the UAE.” The report says that the Emirates was concerned to publicly “participate in the Saudi coalition’s aggression against Yemen, and has shifted its focus to the southern ports of the country.
On this basis, it can be said that there has been an unwritten and unofficial ceasefire between Abu Dhabi and Sanaa during these years; provided, of course, that the Emirati side does not take any aggressive action against the Yemenis.”
This is the key point. The Houthis have decided that the success of UAE-backed forces in recent weeks was a violation and they believe that with one blow, they can get the Emirates to withdraw or stop its actions. “The UAE’s suspicious movements in the Yemeni war have increased, and as a result, the [Houthis]…. have re-targeted the UAE.”
The Houthis call these “deterrent” operations and they likely get direct guidance from Iran. They targeted Aramco in 2021 in Saudi Arabia and they purposely targeted “sensitive” areas in the kingdom, Iran says.
Now the Houthis have said they will increase the possibility of striking at the UAE. The Iranian media calls this operation the eighth type of “deterrence” and claim that it is designed to show that “the UAE would not be immune to Ansar al-Islam strategic attacks.” The report warns the Emirates against supporting any further offensives in Yemen.
The report also notes that the Houthis seized a UAE ship off the coast. They accuse the ship of “carrying military equipment in the Red Sea, signaling the beginning of a new phase in the Yemeni war in the New Year.” The Iran-backed terrorists in Yemen place great importance on transferring the ship to Yemen after a raid. “By carrying out this operation, the Houthis, who had inflicted heavy casualties on the Saudi coalition in air and ground attacks in recent years, this time demonstrated their capability to take the enemy by sea.”
NOW COMES the justification for the “Storm of Yemen” attack on the UAE. The report claims that the attack “targeted Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports, the Abu Dhabi oil refinery in Al-Masfa (Musaffah), and a number of other important and sensitive UAE positions and facilities.
The operation was carried out successfully with five ballistic and cruise missiles and a large number of UAVs.” This is a key detail. The Houthis say “we warn foreign companies, citizens and citizens residing in the UAE to stay away from sensitive sites and facilities in order to save their lives. We declare that the UAE will be an insecure country if the attacks on Yemen continue.”
This is a “strategic message,” according to Iran. It shows they can strike deep inside the UAE, right under the noses of US forces in Dhafra. The Iranian media claims several successes in this recent attack. First they claim that the UAE miscalculated and did not believe that the Houthis “would not be able to carry out these threats. But yesterday’s attack showed that the Yemeni army and popular committees know no borders in carrying out their threats to defend their country and [that they] have become a great power.”
The Iranians then claim that the “UAE has always made its security dependent on US support and, more recently, the Zionist regime. Even one of Abu Dhabi’s biggest motivations for compromising with the occupiers [Israel] was to receive more military support than Washington [was providing], but Ansar al-Islam’s recent operation showed that even the United States could not protect the security of the UAE.”
Iran says the operation is the start of a new “dangerous phase for the UAE in the Yemeni war; Emirati people must constantly be concerned about protecting their vital facilities.” The Islamic Republic is showing that it can destabilize the UAE if it wants. This is a kind of blackmail and leverage. Iran has done this before in attacks on ships off the Emirati coast in May 2019. The Islamic Republic also used a drone to attack a ship in the Gulf of Oman in July 2021, killing two people.
TEHRAN SAYS that the recent attack “poses a major threat to the economy and trade infrastructure, as well as foreign investment in the UAE. As mentioned, most of the UAE’s income comes from tourism and foreign investment. But this operation could reduce the tourism and investment situation in different parts of the UAE, especially Dubai, which is the economic hub of the UAE.”
The report also says that the Houthis attacked the Emirates to reduce its operations in Yemen during their offensive on Marib. What this means is that the Houthis need their forces to take the capital of Yemen’s Marib Governorate and don’t want to be concerned about UAE-backed offensives on other fronts. This is designed to be a knock-out blow.
Iran’s media says that the Houthis analyzed UAE targets and concluded that “Al-Masfa Industrial Park in Abu Dhabi, which was targeted, is the most important industrial area in the UAE. The oldest port of the UAE is located in the same town, where large companies and factories of construction and heavy industry, factories and companies of light and semi-heavy industries, large international technical and industrial engineering companies (usually American and European), and companies and industries of ‘Hi-Tech’ are located.” This was designed to be a kind of Pearl Harbor moment.
The UAE has invested heavily in these areas, the report says, “especially in the artificial intelligence [sector] in which the UAE has invested extensively and recently the Zionists are also very active. Another part of the region is home to large automotive companies such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, Porsche, Volkswagen and BMW, which also hosts tens of thousands of luxury cars.”
IRAN’S REPORT concludes that the targeting of the Iranian ship by the Houthis marked a new phase of the war. Now they will strike increasingly at the UAE unless they get what they want, which is for the operations to stop on the Shabwa front, where the UAE is backing Yemen forces.
“The UAE has recently transferred large numbers of terrorists to Shabwa and Ma’rib provinces, in addition to increasing military activity in southern Yemen and the occupied island of Socotra,” the report claims. Iranian media claims that the Emirates backs “terrorists” or “mercenaries” in Yemen, whereas the UAE and Saudi Arabia say they back the government of the country and it is the Houthis who are terrorists.
The point is that the Iranian advice for the Houthis is to use the attack on the UAE to stop the battle of Shabwa so they can take Marib. It is a strategic attack for a tactical goal.
The Houthis assert that “if Abu Dhabi makes a mistake” it would be targeted, according to the report. The claim that Dubai Airport was targeted is interesting because it shows how large the planned attack was. The Iran-backed Houthis allege that follow-up attacks will be worse if the UAE doesn’t do what they want.
“Based on this, it can be said that the Yemeni war has entered a new phase in 2022, and if the Yemeni conditions for the end of the war are not met, all the member countries of the aggressor coalition will have to wait for a new surprise from Ansarullah every day,” the report claims.
This is the key point for Iran. It wants to remake the region and show that any country can be targeted with Iranian-backed weapons or Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The attack on Abu Dhabi was a message to the region and the US, as well as the UAE.
Breaking Point: Consolidating Houthi Military Setbacks in Yemen
Washington can help preserve the recent coalition gains by categorizing the campaign as defensive, deterring further Houthi attacks abroad, and leveraging the next military deadlock to reinvigorate peace talks.
Current battlefield dynamics in Yemen have deeply alarmed the Houthis, and perhaps no development demonstrates this more clearly than the group’s decision to launch a strike on the United Arab Emirates earlier this week. Despite the likelihood that the January 17 attack will strengthen international condemnation of the Houthis and solidarity with the UAE, the Iran-backed group probably took this risky step because it fears battlefield setbacks more than diplomatic isolation. The evolving military balance in Yemen therefore deserves close review; indeed, various encouraging signs suggest that the best way to bring the Houthis to the peace table is to erase their hopes of a complete military victory.
Successful Counteroffensive in Shabwa
The UAE strike was prompted by one of the sharpest Houthi military reversals in the past three years. Just two weeks ago, the group was well-positioned to seize the major energy hub at Marib and another important oil production and gas pipeline corridor between that city and the Gulf of Aden, running through Shabwa province. In short order, however, a counter-punch by redeployed anti-Houthi reinforcements knocked the group’s frontline forces out of Shabwa and may soon relieve pressure on Marib.
How did this happen? As the authors warned in September 2019 after another major collapse in Shabwa, the military balance in Yemen is quite fragile and prone to rapid transformations, largely driven by politics and morale rather than the introduction of new or superior military technologies. The seeds for the latest victory were laid by a pragmatic arrangement between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have historically backed rival anti-Houthi forces in Shabwa—Riyadh supported the Islah Party, while Abu Dhabi backed local southern movements opposed to Islah. On December 25, the Saudis consented to remove Shabwa’s Islahi governor, Mohammed Saleh bin Adio, who was unable to unify the province’s defense or accept the rearmament of UAE-aligned local militias. He was replaced by Awadh Mohammed al-Awlaqi, a key tribal leader who has resided in the Emirates for most of the past fifteen years and has close ties with Riyadh as well.
Following the governor’s replacement, some eight brigades of the Amaleqa (Giants) force, each numbering around 1,500-2,000 fighters, redeployed from the Red Sea coast some 500 miles away. After halting the Houthi advance in Shabwa, they shifted to a counteroffensive, retaking the province’s northern districts of Bayhan, Nuqub, and Usaylan, then pushing into the neighboring Harib district of Marib province. The campaign quickly erased all the gains made by the Houthis during their offensive into northern Shabwa in the second half of 2021. The Amaleqa’s rapid advance now threatens to roll up the southern flank of the Houthi push on Marib city.
The rollback was mainly enabled by three factors.
- Improved Saudi-UAE coordination. For the first time since the beginning of the Gulf coalition intervention in 2015, Saudi and UAE-backed forces in Yemen are coordinating their operations at the tactical level, using a joint operations cell at Ataq airfield in Shabwa. Although Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have maintained cordial relations throughout their involvement, previous ground operations were often hampered by generally nonexistent coordination beyond the national political level. As a result, their forces and proxies often worked at cross-purposes. This damaging trend has now been reversed—for the moment, at least, they seem to be in sync at the political and tactical level. The rapid collapse of Islahi-influenced Yemeni army forces in northern Shabwa late last year, coupled with the hostile attitude of the former Islahi governor, seemingly led Riyadh to reassess its preferential support for that faction and move closer to the UAE’s position on the value of forces such as the Amaleqa.
- Limited Emirati reengagement. The UAE has not reinserted its own forces into Yemen or resumed airstrikes against the Houthis, but it reportedly played an important role in facilitating the redeployment of key forces to Shabwa. Apparently, some militia leaders who had been residing in the UAE were brought back to Yemen with Saudi approval and given the funding, fuel, and ammunition necessary for a sustained concentration of manpower against the Houthis. Such assistance has now begun flowing directly into Shabwa via Ataq airfield.
- Effectiveness of the Amaleqa. These brigades largely consist of veteran Salafi fighters from a range of provinces, and they are more willing than most Yemeni militiamen to fight on any battlefield, not just in defense of their home areas. The Amaleqa defeated the Houthis in multiple locations in the past, albeit usually with close “over the shoulder” support from the UAE military. The rapid switching of elite forces between different fronts was previously a substantial Houthi advantage, but it has been successfully countered in the latest Amaleqa campaign. The return of key Amaleqa commanders was an important factor in reactivating the brigades’ military potential.
In 2018, the UAE and Saudi Arabia sought to bring the Houthis under concerted military pressure on multiple fronts, with the aim of bringing them to the negotiating table and ending the war. That effort was undermined not only by insufficient coalition coordination, but also by international concern about the humanitarian ramifications of a UAE-led offensive around the vital port of Hodeida.
After the Emirati withdrawal from Yemen in 2019, the Houthis could afford to concentrate on one front at a time, enabling gains in Marib and Shabwa in 2020-2021. In other words, reducing military pressure on the Houthis merely gave them hope that they could conquer all of Yemen by force—a shift that reduced their incentive to seriously engage in peace talks and, perhaps predictably, doomed multilateral diplomatic efforts after years of hard work. Since December, however, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their anti-Houthi partners in Yemen have finally been demonstrating the ability to implement a unified national-level war strategy.
Going forward, it is important to recognize that the Houthis do not have to be pushed all the way back to their starting positions, but only to the mountains and out of rocket/artillery range from Marib city and local energy facilities. The U.S. government should tacitly support this effort to stabilize the Marib front and decisively check the Houthi route to all-out victory. To achieve this goal while preserving another U.S. priority—limiting the conflict’s destructiveness—Washington should take the following steps:
- Deter Houthi attacks on Gulf states and shipping. If the recent Houthi strike on the UAE coerces Emirati leaders into backing down from their apparent reengagement in Yemen, it will set a dangerous precedent that may be imitated by other foes around the world—namely, intimidating a major U.S. partner with just a few low-cost militia weapons. Moreover, Houthi fears of further battlefield defeats may prompt them to launch more extreme attacks on not only the UAE, but also Saudi Arabia and international shipping, potentially killing more civilians, including Americans. To deter such attacks, the United States should privately signal the Houthi leadership that they will be held directly responsible for further strikes, with all judicial and military options on the table. Putting the leadership at personal risk is probably a more effective lever than re-designating the Houthi movement as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
- Categorize counteroffensives in Marib and Shabwa as defensive operations and provide non-kinetic support. In the same manner that counter-missile and counter-drone operations are permitted to use offensive weapons for a defensive purpose, the Pentagon should officially characterize current coalition operations in Marib as a defensive operation. U.S. defense officials have previously described American assistance in Marib in a different light, so changing this categorization would require expanded authorities for the Pentagon and some significant executive-branch work on Capitol Hill. The goal should be to authorize U.S. intelligence support for defensive campaigns at the battlefield level, as well as for intensified interdiction of arms smuggling operations by Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.
- Encourage and facilitate restraint in urban strikes. Nothing will evaporate residual international sympathy for the coalition like a major collateral damage incident in Sanaa or other Houthi-held cities. The United States should once again offer collateral damage mitigation assistance to the targeting cells in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Coalition operations against Houthi, Iranian, and Hezbollah missile and drone specialists have already become highly selective in urban environments, and U.S. expertise could further reduce the casualty risks.
- Use a military deadlock as leverage to reinvigorate peace talks. The Houthis are more likely to genuinely commit to negotiations once they no longer believe they can win the war outright—or, better yet, once they realize they will be increasingly isolated and punitively weakened if they actively oppose peace. Defensively consolidating Marib and other key battlefronts (Hodeida, Taizz, al-Jawf) against new Houthi offensives is the surest way of encouraging this change of heart.
Alex Almeida is the head security analyst at a leading risk advisory firm. Michael Knights is the Bernstein Fellow with The Washington Institute and cofounder of its Militia Spotlight platform.
Houthi Strikes on UAE Open Another Front in Yemen War
by Elana DeLozier
Washington Institute – Jan 18, 2022
Screengrab of a video of a fire caused by a Houthi drone attack in Abu Dhabi (Social media)
As Emirati-aligned forces gain ground on the battlefield in Yemen, the Houthis are trying to raise the costs of Abu Dhabi’s involvement.
On January 17, a series of suspected Houthi drone strikes targeted fuel trucks at Musaffah, an industrial zone just outside Abu Dhabi city, along with a construction site at the capital’s international airport. Video footage posted on Twitter showed massive, billowing clouds of black smoke in Musaffah. Initial reports suggest three people were killed (two Indian nationals and a Pakistani) and six injured, marking the first known deaths inside the United Arab Emirates stemming from the Yemen conflict.
What Spurred the Attack?
Given the Houthis’ tit-for-tat targeting strategy and their warnings last week of an attack on the UAE, the incident is not a surprise—but it is an escalation. In announcing responsibility for the strikes, the group said that it targeted various locations in the UAE (including the Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports) with many missiles and drones. It also framed the incident as a response to recent military activity by UAE-aligned groups in key Yemeni conflict zones.
In the past week, under the banner of a new coalition operation, the Amaleqa (Giants) Brigades and their allies pushed the Houthis out of critical parts of Shabwa province in the south and began contesting parts of Marib as well. The Houthis have long fought to control Marib, a critical energy-rich province and the last major northern stronghold for the Yemeni government. Their recent setbacks—which they blame on the UAE’s reentry into the war—will make a Marib takeover much more difficult.
Since the UAE withdrew from Yemen in 2019, it has retained only a small counterterrorism contingent on the ground and claimed not to be involved in anti-Houthi operations. In recent weeks, however, U.S. officials and various local fighters have reported that Abu Dhabi is once again ramping up its air operations and support to anti-Houthi groups such as the Giants Brigades, which it helped found and initially fund. After playing an instrumental role in liberating the west coast from the Houthis earlier in the war, the Giants Brigades recently redeployed to Shabwa as part of what appears to be a joint Emirati-Saudi strategy. Their success on the battlefield seemingly provoked the Houthis, who chose to retaliate directly against the UAE on its territory, likely in a bid to drive the Emiratis back out of the military fight.
Implications for UAE Policy on Yemen and Iran
The UAE prides itself on being a safe and economically vibrant place to live in an otherwise volatile region. As such, it has generally shown zero tolerance for externally motivated attacks against expatriates, who make up some 90 percent of the population and are central to the economy. Many recall the shocking 2014 case of the so-called “Reem Island Ghost,” a radicalized woman who stabbed a Hungarian-American kindergarten teacher to death and was summarily executed for it. Continued Houthi-led attacks on UAE soil over the long term could chip away at this carefully cultivated reputation for safety.
In the shorter term, the key question is how the UAE will respond in Yemen. Emirati leaders were likely aware that reentering the fray might provoke the Houthis, and they no doubt heard last week’s public threats of retaliation. So will Abu Dhabi continue supporting its allies in Yemen to push forcibly against the Houthis, perhaps even doubling down in a bid to fully retake Marib? Or will it back down in line with its more recent, less interventionist foreign policy?
The UAE’s relationship with Iran may be tested as well. The two countries have held high-level negotiations in the past few months with the goal of easing regional tensions. Now observers are wondering whether Tehran had any role in or knowledge of this attack. On one hand, the Houthis often make decisions independent of Iran despite the country’s ample support for the group. On the other hand, any Iranian attempts at plausible deniability may be undermined by reports suggesting that top Houthi negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam was in Tehran meeting with President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani. The nature and scope of the strikes also conjure up memories of the 2019 attack on major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, which was initially claimed by the Houthis but later deemed to have probably come from Iran. Regardless, Tehran’s close relationship with a group that is now actively targeting the UAE will likely become central to the Iranian-Emirati talks if they continue.
American officials are no doubt studying the flight path of the suspected drones and missiles closely. Just a few miles south of Musaffah sits al-Dhafra Air Base, where U.S. troops and equipment are deployed. Washington will want to know where the drones and missiles originated, how far they flew, and whether any air defense systems were engaged. According to the latest UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen, which was widely leaked, the Houthis now claim to possess advanced drones capable of flying up to 2,000 kilometers, which would put Abu Dhabi International Airport within range of launch points in Sanaa. But an accurate hit from that distance would still be difficult.
Whatever the case, U.S. officials will be particularly concerned about the attack on Abu Dhabi’s airport—an international travel hub where Americans often fly or transfer. After a Houthi-claimed drone strike there in 2018, the nature of the latest attack may be worrisome enough to reopen internal U.S. discussions about designating the group as a foreign terrorist organization or levying additional targeted sanctions on its members.
Meanwhile, the ramping up of coalition military activity in Yemen may resurrect the Washington debate over the best way forward in that conflict to protect U.S. interests. The Biden administration publicly opposes offensive operations there, which is in line with the UN view. In fact, Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy for Yemen, recently lamented that the coalition and the Houthis are “doubling down on military options.” Yet as some U.S. officials and analysts conclude that the Houthis are unwilling to negotiate, they might inevitably see a military option as a way to prevent Yemen from falling to the group—especially if said campaign is led by the UAE. Any such option is incompatible with current U.S. policy, however. If Abu Dhabi chooses to remain engaged in Yemen, its involvement will likely have an outsize impact on the conflict’s trajectory in the near term, and the Biden administration may face renewed pressure over its standing policy.
The attack on the UAE will also resurrect past questions about whether the United States should protect its Gulf allies from Houthi projectiles, and how it can do so while opposing their offensive operations in Yemen. The Biden administration has been carefully threading this needle with Saudi Arabia for some time, and it may now have to do the same with the UAE.
Elana DeLozier is the Rubin Family Fellow at The Washington Institute.