Houthi rebels, also known as Ansar Allah (“Partisans of God”), have launched a series of drone and missile attacks on Abu Dhabi since January 17, striking an oil facility and the area near the new international airport, killing three expatriates. The group’s military spokesman confirmed that the Houthis also fired ballistic missiles aimed at the Al-Dhafra airbase in Abu Dhabi and Dubai – the regional business hub – as well as Dhahran Al Janub and Jazan in Saudi Arabia, killing two people. It has also been reported that the UAE intercepted a ballistic missile that was fired by Yemen’s Houthis during the first-ever visit by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to the UAE.
Houthi rebels launched a series of attacks, killing three expatriates.
While Saudi Arabia has been regularly targeted by Houthi drone and missile raids, it is the first time that the Yemeni rebels have attacked the UAE. The military spokesman for the Houthis threatened that the UAE can expect attacks on multinational corporations’ headquarters in the country in the near future, which may have a devastating effect on the country’s economy and its international reputation.
Tensions with Iran, along with the fear of missile and drone strikes like those on Saudi Arabia, have largely contributed to the UAE’s decision to gradually pull out from the conflict in 2019 and concentrate on its own security. The country has begun to make a shift from military interventionism to diplomacy and dialogue.
Only while the UAE withdrew a large part of its troops from Yemen, it effectively remains involved in the conflict. Abu Dhabi has maintained its influence in South Yemen through its allies the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and has exerted control over the port of Aden, the strait of Bab al-Mandab, the island of Socotra, and Mayun Island, all of which play a strategic role in Emirati maritime strategy.
Last November, Saudi-led coalition forces, including some 15,000 men from the Giants Brigades, a militia supported by the UAE, stopped the advance of Houthi forces on the Shabwa front and pushed the Houthis out of the areas they previously controlled in the Shabwa governorate. The coalition’s advance has continued to the Harib District of Ma’rib governorate. The re-engagement of UAE-backed forces into the battle against the Houthis in Shabwa and Ma’rib has probably triggered the Houthis’ recent attacks on the UAE.
There is little doubt that the fall of the oil-rich province of Ma’rib, the Yemeni government’s last standing territory under interim President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, would lead to the complete collapse of the already weakened Hadi administration. The Hadi-aligned Islah militia and South Yemeni forces, such as the STC or the Joint Forces, are nominal allies in the fight again the Houthis.
However, the Saudi-led coalition’s internal disagreements, primarily between Saudi Arabia, the Hadi-aligned Islah militia, and southern forces, have been the main cause for the coalition’s fragmentation and meager military achievements.
The Giants Brigades have been generally seen as the best trained military unit within the coalition block.
Meanwhile, the Giants Brigades have been generally seen as the best trained military unit within the coalition block. Its withdrawal to southern Yemen would cause serious cracks in the already fragile coalition, weakening Marib’s front lines.
According to Susanne Dahlgren, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and lecturer at Finland-based Tampere University, the Giants Brigades should not be seen as an Emirati force inside Yemen, but rather as a force that it has trained and equipped in its partnership with elements of the Southern independence force, notably the STC. “Accusing [the Giants Brigades of being] an Emirati proxy shows ignorance of Yemeni politics,” Dahlgren told Inside Arabia.
Alex Almeida, Head Security Analyst at the Horizon Client Access, a leading risk advisory firm, told Inside Arabia that the key point to underline here is that “there’s no appetite in Abu Dhabi for re-engaging militarily in Yemen, and their support for the recent counteroffensive in Shabwah was limited to political backing for the Giants, tactical coordination, and probably some logistical support.” Almeida believes that the UAE’s involvement mostly concluded after the offensive retook the northern Shabwah districts.
As for Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, a Senior Researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, the Houthis and the UAE both got themselves into a confrontation neither of them wanted. “The UAE miscalculated the Houthi response to the Giants incursion into northern territories, and the Houthis underestimated the international response to its attack on UAE territory, which they meant to be a signal as indicated by the choice of their targets,” he told Inside Arabia.
Al-Iryani says that both are probably looking for a way out of this conflict through third-party mediation. And while the Giants have declared they are withdrawing some of their units from the North, the Houthis are calling for the militia’s full disengagement with the UAE.
Abu Dhabi will continue to provide political backing for the Giants.
Almeida believes that Abu Dhabi will continue to provide political backing for the Giants and will work to rebuild Shabwah’s UAE-backed provincial security forces, which were dismantled by the Hadi government following the UAE drawdown in 2019.
Still, Abu Dhabi should be careful not to fall into the Houthi trap, Dahlgren noted. She sees the attacks on the UAE as a Houthi provocation, aimed at gaining global media attention and proving its steadfastness against what many Yemenis view as the enemy. This way, the Houthis build an international reputation as a far more important player than it actually is. According to Dahlgren, “the end of the war would be a catastrophe for the Houthis; it is a war cabinet [that] only can rule on the pretext of the war.”
The recent attacks call for immediate action that will probably result in the strengthening of UAE’s air defense, and many analysts expect that Abu Dhabi may ask Israel for help.
Yossi Melman, an Israeli writer and intelligence and strategic affairs correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper, told Inside Arabia that a high-ranking Israeli delegation consisting of Ministry of Defense officials, Mossad operatives, and executives of Israeli security manufacturers already visited the UAE.
The Emirate executives are especially interested in Israeli-made air defenses such as Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow, as well as their radar systems. Speaking to Inside Arabia, Melman also noted that according to Israeli sources, “Israelis are considering the UAE request but added that it is a serious matter which has to be dealt with caution.” Adding, “Israel will have to balance between its desire to sell weapons around the globe and the need to protect its homemade, sensitive equipment.”
The UAE is faced with tough decision-making, and many observers wonder how they will respond to the latest attack.
Nevertheless, the UAE is faced with tough decision-making, and many observers wonder how they will respond to the latest attack. If they continue to support the Giants’ efforts in Marib, they may become a regular Houthi target. As a business and tourist hub, this would have incalculable repercussions on the Emirati tourism industry with the ongoing Dubai Expo being no exception.
On the other hand, disengagement may impact their relations with their coalition partner – Saudi Arabia – and make them appear weak to the Houthis, as well as Iran.
In Al-Iryani’s opinion, the UAE will probably reduce its involvement in Yemen, which will irritate Saudi Arabia. But the special relationship between Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan will prevent serious deterioration in their relations. He also thinks that the UAE agenda of controlling the south and breaking the Yemeni state apart will make the Houthis the dominant force in the rest of Yemen, a scenario that worries Saudi Arabia.
The UAE will probably reduce its involvement in Yemen, which will irritate Saudi Arabia.
However, Almeida observes that the kingdom has moved closer to the UAE’s view on the military value of a non-Islah, non-Hadi government, and tribal and local forces. But the fact is that this isn’t a coalition war anymore – it’s a Saudi war (that Riyadh is also desperate to get out of) with Abu Dhabi helping out here and there.
Al-Iryani does not expect the UAE to resume airstrikes or reinsert major combat forces in Yemen. Instead, Abu Dhabi will avoid being involved in Marib, which has always been Saudi turf. “Although the UAE has to respond to attacks on its soil – hence the recent airstrikes on Houthi missile launch sites,” he explains that “these attacks will likely only reinforce the perception in Abu Dhabi that it isn’t worth being drawn back into the Yemen mess, particularly as it runs counter to the post-2019 realignment of Emirati regional policy, where the focus is on diplomacy, soft power, and domestic economic reforms.”.
Finally, the UAE is emphatically uninterested in any escalation with Iran, and according to Almeida, Abu Dhabi will try as much as possible to avoid disrupting its ties with Tehran. In his opinion, the Houthis are not important to Tehran and if it is offered a better deal, Iran would abandon its Yemeni partner at the drop of a hat.