The implications of Houthi’s drone and missile attack against Abu Dhabi

The implications of Houthi's drone and missile attack against Abu Dhabi

NICOSIA: Last Monday’s drone and missile attack by Iran-backed Houthis on oil facilities near the airport of Abu Dhabi, in which several fuel tankers were blown up and three people were killed, took most people by surprise.

This is because almost all Emirati troops, which were involved in the bloody fighting in Yemen, had been withdrawn in July 2019 and the United Arab Emirates was always projected as an entirely safe tourist and business hub, free from the bloody conflicts in the region.
It should be noted, however, that recently the UAE air force resumed its strikes against Houthi strongholds and its shipments of military hardware to the Aden-based government, which the Houthis try to overturn.

The attack on Abu Dhabi attracted international condemnation and could have serious implications on the policies of both the United Arab Emirates and other state players in the region. The UAE has promised it will retaliate against the most significant Houthi attack on its soil since 2018.

On Friday there was a military response by the Saudi-led coalition on Yemen’s Sa’ada City Remand Prison which, according to the MSF organization (Doctors without Borders) killed at least 82 people and injured 266. On the following day, Saudi-Emirati coalition fighters hit a telecommunication building in Al Hudaydah, Yemen’s fourth-largest city, killing 20 people.

Houthis’ rare attack against the UAE could be a stern warning to the Emirati government that it should reconsider its support for local militias fighting the Ansar Allah- the official name of the Houthi movement- and completely stop its involvement in the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthis in Yemen since 2015.

But what prompted Houthis to carry out the attack and risk military retaliation and possibly a more general conflagration? The answer is that early in January the Giants Brigade, a well-organized militia that is equipped and supported by the UAE, launched a successful military operation to drive out Houthis from the governorate of Shabwa and then moved to Ma’arib.

The understanding of Houthis, at the time the UAE withdrew its troops from Yemen, was that the Emiratis agreed not to escalate the situation in western Yemen and stop supporting the militias fighting the Ansar Allah. So, the operations of the UAE-backed Giants Brigade were a clear violation of this understanding.

Some military analysts say that the attack against Abu Dhabi may have actually been launched by Iran, while the Houthis just claimed responsibility for it. They think that it is unlikely that the Houthis could launch such a sophisticated and accurate attack from a distance of more than 1200 kilometers.

They believe that Tehran is using the war in Yemen to send a message to the Gulf States that they will either take the interests of Iran seriously into account or risk their stability and security and be targeted by the Houthis.

Michael Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst, points out that the United States had been exercising pressure on the Emiratis to better enforce the sanctions on Iran, while nuclear talks continue in Vienna, and adds: “The attack against Abu Dhabi also served as a dire warning by Iran to the UAE.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Horowitz referred to a series of attacks against maritime traffic off the UAE and said: “The last time the UAE felt such pressure, it reacted by quietly reaching out to Iran, to try and ease regional tensions. Caution on the UAE’s side is far more likely than a shift back to confrontation.”

Another result of the missile and drone attack against Abu Dhabi is that US President Joe Biden is pondering about re-designating the Houthi rebels as an “international terrorist organization.”

Last year the US State Department reversed a decision taken by former President Donald Trump to include Houthis in the list of foreign terrorist groups because it would have stopped the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid to Yemen.

Undoubtedly, the attack on Abu Dhabi has caught the UAE on the horns of a dilemma. Should it retaliate forcefully and escalate its military involvement in the war in Yemen, but be vulnerable to fresh attacks by the Houthis, or should it scale back its involvement to avoid further confrontation?

Both choices present problems. If the UAE chooses to escalate its involvement in the war, it will have to spend tens of billions of dollars to boost its air defense to prevent future missile and drone attacks. It will also be forced to participate more actively in the war and possibly need to send troops to Yemen once again.

This will certainly please Saudi Arabia and strengthen UAE’s alliance with Riyadh but will endanger the current thaw in Emirati relations with Tehran.

It should be noted, however, that the greatest problem with this choice is that, if there are new missile and drone attacks, the reputation of the UAE as a safe and secure country to do business will be badly hurt and the sectors of tourism and financial services will be severely affected.

The other choice, that of scaling back its involvement in the war, which seems to be more likely, will mean that the UAE will lose some military prestige, but will ensure that it will continue to play the role of the tourist and business hub in the region. This implies that now the UAE feels more pressure to seek rapprochement with Iran. The downside is that it will probably anger its ally Saudi Arabia. (ANI)

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