Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched a volley of cruise and ballistic missiles, along with armed drones, against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on January 16, hitting a fuel depot near Abu Dhabi’s international airport and killing three people, including two Indian nationals and one Pakistani. And again, on January 24, the Emirati state-run news agency reported the UAE had intercepted two more ballistic missiles targeting the capital.
While the attacks themselves attract global headlines, there has been little analysis of what they mean for the UAE’s reputation and security, along with the questions they raise for the Biden administration and its relationship with the Saudi regime.
There has been little analysis of what they mean for the UAE’s reputation and security.
But let’s start with the UAE, which has invested billions of dollars into cultivating a reputation as a gateway to the world and a “safe haven” far away from the turmoil and violence that has bedeviled neighboring Arab states. Unfortunately, the UAE conveniently ignores that it has been aggressively inserting itself into armed conflicts across the region, including civil wars in Yemen and Libya.
[2022 Portends Another Bloody Year for Yemen’s “Forgotten War”]
[The UAE Defies Saudi Arabia and Entrenches Further in Yemen]
The Houthi rebels’ successful and deadly attacks on Abu Dhabi are not only blowback, a term used to describe the unwanted consequences of a covert military operation, but also a cruise missile-sized hole in the UAE’s absurd claim to being the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
This must send chills down the spines of Emirate rulers and the world’s most wanted criminals, warlords, and thugs who have come to believe the UAE to be a safe haven for stolen wealth and money laundering. A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reveals that the “wealth underpinning Dubai’s prosperity is a steady stream of illicit proceeds borne from corruption and crime.”
The authors of the report observed that while the UAE has a strong track record of cooperating in the fight against international terrorism, it is generally “uncooperative and ineffective when it comes to other illicit activities and financial crimes,” making it a destination drawcard for despots, drug lords, and others who profit from destruction and doom.
The UAE, particularly Dubai, is also built on tourism in-flows and migrant workers – all of whom will soon come to believe that if the UAE can be attacked so easily by enemy drones and missiles, then it will be attacked again, given the country’s ongoing military operations in the Middle East and Africa.
Further deadly attacks will evaporate the country’s “safe haven” mirage.
Further deadly attacks will evaporate the country’s “safe haven” mirage and encourage international criminals, tourists, and migrant workers to flee.
Iyad el-Baghdadi, the prominent Palestinian-born human rights activist who lived in the UAE from 1974 until he was expelled in 2014 because of his support for the Arab Spring, recently described what would happen if Iran or its allies, including the Houthi rebels, started targeting major cities in the UAE. Migrant workers will “pack their bags and leave overnight, he tweeted.
“A majority of the UAE’s population are there because of the economic opportunity. Over half are South Asian. They won’t stick around during a war,” he said, adding, “Neither can the UAE authorities stop them from leaving either— they’re not their citizens after all.”
Indeed, migrants account for 88 percent of the country’s residents and 95 percent of its workforce, with upwards of 70 percent employed in low-income jobs, particularly the construction industry, according to the European University Institute.
In other words, the UAE is built on the backs of low and underpaid migrant workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere, many of whom are subjected to human rights abuses. All three people killed in the January 16 attack were migrant workers, making the UAE an even less attractive opportunity for Asians, Africans, and eastern Europeans.
Questions must also be raised about the billions of dollars the UAE has invested in the US manufactured and sold Patriot Missile Defense system, given how easily the country’s air defenses were penetrated by a rag-tag militia group, located thousands of miles away in Yemen.
It is unclear what the UAE’s next steps will be. Will they turn to Israel for its Iron Dome Missile Defense System, investing billions into the Israeli war machine and further adding to Palestinian oppression and suffering?
It is unclear what the UAE’s next steps will be.
The Biden administration is not absolved of responsibility here either and must answer questions regarding its pledge to end the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen.
However, not only did the final quarter of 2021 experience a 60 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to the three months that preceded it, but Saudi warplanes also retaliated against the strikes on Abu Dhabi by bombing targets in the Yemeni capital Sana’a on January 19, killing 20 people, according to local news reports.
Notably, the US has continued to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, which are used to strike targets in Yemen, therefore further prolonging the war.
“I think the Biden administration had a notion that perhaps if they gave Saudi Arabia this support with these latest missile sales, that that would help the Saudis have a few wins and then maybe be able to withdraw with a bit more dignity,” said Annelle Sheline, a Middle East researcher at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in a recent interview.
“But what we’ve seen for the past seven years of this war is when one side feels they’re winning, they want to keep going.”
The raids against Abu Dhabi and counter strikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen not only suggest both sides are a great distance away from victory, but also point to a widening of what has already been a seven-year-long conflict.
The UAE must now be wondering if Yemen has become what Vietnam was for the United States, and Afghanistan for the Soviet Union – a sinking bog that exposes its weaknesses, drains its resources and damages its reputation.