After reaching a peak during the last three weeks of January, when a series of Houthi drone and missile attacks targeted the United Arab Emirates (UAE), tensions seem to be subsiding in the Gulf. However, the strikes represented a breakthrough moment, not only because they thwarted the country’s image of invulnerability, but also because they exposed – for the first time – the US and French troops stationed in the country to the fire of Houthi weapon systems.
Though the situation appears to have returned to normal, the different variables at play, the magnitude of the interests at stake, and the raids’ long-term ramifications raise critical questions that need to be investigated. How have the UAE’s strategic partners shown their support to the country and what are the UAE’s main takeaways in the wake of this game-changing event?
Is Washington Going “All In” with Abu Dhabi?
With its military assets stationed at the Al Dhafra Air Base, the US has been directly – and intentionally – targeted by the Houthis, as affirmed by a Houthi military spokesperson in the aftermath of the attacks. After sending the troops to the shelters, it is reported that the American-made Patriot Air-Defense System has intercepted missiles coming from launching pads located in Northern Yemen on two occasions. As a result of its military hardware being in the Houthi firing line, it is no surprise that Washington immediately expressed solidarity with Abu Dhabi.
The US has been directly – and intentionally – targeted by the Houthis.
As a sign of retaliation, President Joe Biden is weighing the possibility of restoring the designation of the Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), a Trump-era decision that the Biden administration promptly reversed in February 2021 once entering the White House.
However, human rights groups and some experts question whether sanctions are an effective tool to weaken the Houthi military prowess on the ground. They point to the fact that innocent civilians in Houthi-controlled areas – and not the militia’s members – will ultimately pay the highest price if the insurgent movement is re-listed as an FTO. The main concern is that sanctions will further deteriorate the precarious living conditions of a battered population already on the brink of collapse after seven years of war.
While the White House is busy buying time, the US State Department and the Pentagon have taken several concrete steps to restore Emirati confidence in the US and improve the country’s security. On the diplomatic level, Biden dispatched the US Special Envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, to the Gulf to hold talks with its regional partners. During his stop in the UAE, Lenderking met with Dr. Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and discussed de-escalation and political solutions to the Yemeni quagmire.
On the security level, the Pentagon approved the redeployment of the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole and a squadron of advanced F-22 fighters to the UAE. Stationed in Emirati territorial waters and at the Al Dhafra Airbase, respectively, the US military assets are tasked with surveillance operations to detect illegal arms shipments moving across the Gulf and new potential raids by cruise missiles and drones.
At the same time, the US State Department has recently given the green light to massive sales of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE. The deal, currently under congressional review, is expected to benefit the UAE with $30 million worth of spare and repair parts for its Homing All the Way Killer (HAWK) missile defense systems.
Last but not least, the US Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., commander of the US Central Command, arrived in Abu Dhabi on February 6, 2022, to enhance the country’s air defense capabilities. The presence of a high-profile figure from the US military establishment underscores how serious the White House is taking the issue. Gen. McKenzie has also assured Washington’s support to Abu Dhabi in restoring Emirati stockpiles of THAAD and Patriot missile interceptors.
The US still represents the UAE’s primary security guarantor.
These moves suggest that, despite the often proclaimed “US withdrawal from the Middle East” rhetoric, the US still represents the UAE’s primary security guarantor. Washington has proven that it keeps its word and, most importantly, is not reluctant to mobilize troops, assets, and resources when the security of its regional partner is called into question.
France Shows Off its Muscles
Despite French President Emanuel Macron then being entangled in delicate shuttle diplomacy across Central and Eastern Europe – aimed at defusing the Ukrainian crisis – and France’s aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle involved in NATO-led navy drills in the Mediterranean, Paris has shown no hesitation in devoting part of its military assets to boost the Emirati airspace defense.
By allowing Rafale fighter jets to carry out refueling and observation missions, France is demonstrating to the UAE that the Emirati’s territorial security remains critical in the Elysée’s strategic calculation. Ensuring the security of the Emirati airspace is absolutely necessary for Paris, as the UAE is home to hundreds of land, air, and naval French military personnel deployed in different facilities in Abu Dhabi, from Camp de la Paix (“Peace Camp”) to the Al Dhafra Air Base, and Zayed Port.
There is a long-standing, multi-layered, strategic partnership between France and the UAE.
Undoubtedly, France’s commitment should also be viewed within the broader framework of a long-standing, multi-layered, strategic partnership between France and the UAE. The $19 billion arms sale contract for 80 Rafale fighter jets and 12 military helicopters signed on December 3, 2021, and hailed by French Macron and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, confirms France’s historical role in the Emirati military build-up, further consolidating the close ties between the two countries in the military and defense sectors.
Let the Abraham Accords Flourish
On January 30, 2021, the latest Houthi rebels drone strikes targeting Abu Dhabi coincided with a historic moment in the country’s history. Indeed, while the Emirati air defense systems engaged and intercepted a ballistic missile breaking into its national air space, Israeli President Isaac Herzog was in the middle of his first official visit to the UAE. In his speech at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, President Herzog expressed solidarity with the UAE and promised Israel’s support.
Nevertheless, skepticism remains over the possibility of Tel Aviv handing over its cutting-edge Iron Dome air defense system to the UAE. That said, the significant nature of the Israeli military industry’s portfolio suggests that the two countries are likely to find a middle ground and formalize their security cooperation through various arms sale contracts.
By focusing the negotiations on weapon systems less vital to the Israeli military strategic advantage – such as the “Surface-to-air Python and Derby” short and medium-range mobile air defense system by Rafael Advanced Defense System or the Barak 8 medium-range surface-to-air missile system by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) – Israel is likely to soon become a key armaments provider to the UAE.
Israel is likely to soon become a key armaments provider to the UAE.
While Israel is always keen on defending the tactical edge of its military forces, and is generally cautious about sharing its cutting-edge technological know-how, it is still willing to find creative solutions to boost the Emirati air defense. This inclination stems from the joint partnerships inaugurated under the Abraham Accords’ flag.
The Memorandum of Understanding penned in March 2021 between the Edge Group – a conglomerate regrouping 25 Emirati defense companies – and the Israeli military-champion IAI for the realization of a fully autonomous counter-drone system is a case in point. The prospect of earning big from these joint business ventures and the shared threat perception vis-à-vis Iran are the main drivers of the UAE-Israel convergence.
No Houthi attack on the UAE has materialized since January’s escalation. Yet, the high volatility and the transregional nature of the Yemeni conflict keeps the threat risk at high warning levels. Aside from that, the timing and magnitude of the Emirati strategic partners’ response leaves Abu Dhabi with an important lesson: when the country’s national security is called into question, the UAE can rely on both its historically close allies and its new partners. Using different tools and voicing diverse narratives, the US, France, and Israel provide the UAE with a broad spectrum of nuanced solutions all pointing to a common denominator – a vested interest in upholding UAE’s security.
When the country’s national security is called into question, the UAE can rely on both its close allies and new partners.
It is crucial to highlight that this alignment of intents comes with inherent limitations. Indeed, Washington, Paris, and Tel Aviv did not pursue a direct armed retaliation against Houthi strongholds, but rather offered a phased, measured display of diplomatic solidarity and defensive military support to the UAE.
By showing off fighter jets, combat vessels, and high-ranking military figures, the Emirati strategic partners have signaled that they are fully committed to shoulder the country’s territorial security and safeguard its economic prosperity. Still, these diplomatic partners have no intention of being caught up in the tangle of a far and endless regional conflict.
This, it may be said, is the strategic takeaway that Abu Dhabi is likely to prize the most when defining its foreign policy’s future projections.