Why Now? Contextualising the Houthi Attacks on the UAE
by Nikola Zukalová
On 17 January 2022, the Ansar Allah (aka the Houthis) in Yemen claimed a missile and drone attack on Abu Dhabi which killed three people. Then, on 24 January, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intercepted two ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis and retaliated by destroying the missile launcher in Al-Jawf from where they were launched. While the Sanaa-based Houthis have threatened the UAE in the past, these attacks are a clear escalation and their timing is suggestive of a wider pressure campaign serving the interests of Iran, particularly as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks rattle along, sanctions remain in place and the Abraham Accords countries (Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco and Israel) continue to enhance their relationship. Battlefield developments in Yemen, such as the routing of Houthi forces in Shabwa province and Marib, may, by themselves, provide the reasoning for the Houthis to retaliate against the UAE. However, that would be too simplistic: the Houthis are an integral part of Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance — which identifies the US and its many regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Israel (etc) as its main adversaries — and therefore plays a part in the larger game of statecraft. Attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE unfold within that context.
Deploying proxies to pressure adversaries into making concessions has long been revolutionary Iran’s modus operandi. Already in the 1980s, during the Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) orchestrated the Beirut bombings of the US Embassy and Marine barracks which killed 370 people and Hezbollah took over one hundred hostages, mostly civilians from the US and Western Europe, as both arms-length revenge for supporting the Shah, Israel and the moderate Arab monarchies and as punishment for aiding Iraq in the 1980-1988 war with Iran. Little has changed in the following decades, with similar patterns in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, among others.
A key driver for the string of attacks on the UAE is economic by nature. Ratcheting up pressure on the UAE, Yahya Saree (Houthi spokesman), denounced the so-called ‘Saudi-UAE-American aggression’ and called on foreign companies to leave the UAE, underlining that the country is unsafe and will remain so as long as their forces remain in Yemen. Opponents of the UAE seized the opportunity and amplified that message across various media. The Houthis, it seems, are now following a similar strategy for the UAE as they did with Saudi Arabia—increasing attacks as a coercive tool and boosting their internal and international standing at the same time. Since the UAE is a key trading hub and a popular tourist destination a sustained missile and drone campaign will hit the UAE’s tourism sector particularly hard especially if the target area would be expanded to Dubai. The same could be said if targets included trade infrastructure; if the Houthis attacked ports and energy infrastructure — considering the UAE’s role as a key trading hub with one of the largest and busiest ports in the world, Jebel Ali, adjacent to Dubai — not only would the UAE suffer but so would global economics.
The UAE, for its part, continues to seek-out tools to limit external attacks from the air and, much like Riyadh, it will be forced to increase its spending on security and defence. The UAE currently uses the US Patriot and the THAAD air defence systems, and has been in the market for other partners to upgrade its defence capabilities. In the wake of the Abu Dhabi attacks, Israel’s Prime Minister, Naftali Benett, offered ‘security and intelligence support’ to help protect the UAE and the two are likely to further intensify their security cooperation. Abu Dhabi might consider Israel’s famed Iron Dome shield.
The Abu Dhabi attacks coincided with a visit of the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, to the UAE and the signing of a $3.5 billion (USD) deal to acquire South Korea’s Cheongung II air and missile defence system. The timing is noteworthy because of recent tensions between Seoul and Tehran over frozen Iranian funds in Korean banks owing to the reimposition of sanctions. In January 2021, the IRGC seized a South Korean tanker Hankuk Chemi in the Strait of Hormuz to pressure South Korea to unfreeze the funds. It partially worked. South Korea agreed to unfreeze $1 billion (USD) of the total $7 billion in Iranian assets held at South Korean banks. The remaining $6 billion has not been recovered and timing the Abu Dhabi attacks with President Moon’s visit might also serve as a not-so-friendly reminder. The South Korean angle is also interesting considering Iran’s strengthening ties with China and the Sino-US tensions in the Indo-Pacific. Two days after the Abu Dhabi attacks, China, Iran and Russia began joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, demonstrating their capabilities and their cementing of a trilateral alliance. Iran's President, Ebrahim Raisi, then headed to Moscow for talks with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. It remains to be seen whether Raisi will still embark on his scheduled visit to the UAE on 7 February.
The UAE had been in the process of reducing its direct involvement in Yemen. The Houthis’ attacks might just draw them back deeper into the conflict, which would likely thrust the UAE back into European and US lawmakers’ radar—both have called for banning arms sales to the country because of its actions in Yemen. Alternatively, the UAE now could have more manoeuvrability to retaliate. Immediately after the 17 January attacks, the UAE called on the US to re-designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation and the UAE’s Director of National Intelligence, Ali Al-Shamsi, arrived in Washington for talks with US officials in the White House and Congress. It was the current Biden Administration that cancelled the Houthis terrorist designation as soon as it took office and while it is unlikely to reinstate the status due to political considerations, the decision might reenter the public debate for the upcoming US midterm elections.
In Brussels, the European Union (EU) was, characteristically, absent from the crisis and only released a short statement condemning the 17 January attacks, urging ‘all parties’ to engage with the UN Special Envoy. Meanwhile, the emboldened Houthis have been rejecting any political solution proposals and have continued their military offensive in the country. The Abu Dhabi attacks came at a delicate time for the EU—just when Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officials were in Brussels for talks with EU representatives as the two sides seek to restart and boost cooperation.
The recent attacks on the UAE and the continued cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia need to be understood within a wider context rather than being treated in isolation. From the above, several recommendations can be drawn:
1. Contextualisation—when forming policies towards the region, contextualising events such as the Abu Dhabi attacks is crucial. Looking at the bigger picture and the less obvious motivations, particularly when it comes to violent non-state actors.
2. Solidarity—openly expressing support for, and solidarity with, regional partners that are under sustained attack would go a long way in building a stake in regional affairs for the EU. The EU’s reluctance to show outright solidarity to the victims of extremist missiles and drones, which also openly terrorises Yemen’s civilian population, raises questions about Brussels’ commitment to Middle East peace and security.
3. Coordination—in support of the defensive capabilities of key regional actors. Many of the Arab Gulf countries share core interests with Europe in the region and their military efforts should be complemented by the West in a bid to curb terror finance and weapons supplies to the Houthis. Only a comprehensive approach can help support peace efforts in countries overtaken by violent non-state actors.
26 January 2022