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Why tensions are escalating between Yemen’s Houthis and the UAE

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 25 Jan 2022

The Houthis have targeted the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, as well as Dubai, after the Emirates ramped up its military operations in Yemen.

The Yemen war has recently intensified around oil-rich northern provinces of Shabwa and Marib between the Houthis and Saudi-UAE ally forces. ( Nariman El-Mofty / AP )

Yemen, the least developed country in the Arab world, is going through the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but recent escalations between the Houthis and the UAE have shown that no party to the conflict has a willingness to end the country’s suffering. 

Most recently, the Houthis targeted the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, in two different attacks with both ballistic missiles and drones. They also claimed an attack on the country’s commercial capital, Dubai, but the UAE authorities have not verified the Houthi claims. 

Last year, the Biden administration announced an end to its involvement in the Yemen war on the side of the Saudi-led coalition, pushing the warring sides, Riyadh alongside its allies and the Houthis, to negotiate and reach an agreement to cease hostilities. But negotiations have not brought a resolution, instead, both sides have stepped up attacks.

Following the Houthi attacks on Saudi and UAE soils, the Riyadh-led coalition has intensified their fight against the Iran-backed rebels. On Friday, air strikes have killed dozens of civilians and also targeted a Yemeni detention centre, killing more than 80 people. The Saudi-led coalition denies reports over targeting the detention centre in Yemen’s Saada

“The UAE, which has avoided confrontation with the Houthis over the past couple of years, has suddenly deployed its allies to attack the Houthis,” says Sami Hamdi, a Middle Eastern political analyst and head of the International Interest, a political risk group, 

“The 'Giants Brigade' has been making advances and gains against the Houthis which has caused much concern among the Houthi leadership,” Hamdi tells TRT World, referring to Abu Dhabi’s recent military engagement in two crucial locations, Shabwa and the oil-rich Marib.

This is a real change from the UAE’s disengagement from the Yemen conflict. As a result, the UAE-backed forces took over Shabwa, which is a crucial province for the Houthis to claim the entirety of northern Yemen, cutting the Iran-backed group’s supply lines in Marib. Those military setbacks angered the Houthi leadership, leading them to attack the Gulf country.  

“The Houthis want the UAE to return to its policy of non-confrontation, and are firing missiles to pressure Abu Dhabi into doing so,” Hamdi says. 

This satellite image shows the aftermath of an attack claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels on an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in Abu Dhabi, UAE.(AP)

But why has the UAE changed its non-confrontation policy in Yemen? 

Possible scenarios

According to Hamdi, there are three main political scenarios to explain the shift in conditions. 

“The first is that the UAE wants to reinforce relations with Saudi Arabia,” he says. The Saudis felt alone in the Yemen war after the UAE decreased its engagement there. With their remobilisation of its ally Yemeni forces against the Houthis, Abu Dhabi might be sending a positive message to Riyadh. But Hamdi finds this scenario not very plausible. 

“This is unlikely because Saudi and UAE have never disagreed publicly on Yemen in the manner they have on issues regarding Qatar, Turkey, and OPEC,” he says. 

“The second scenario is that they have been asked to attack Houthis by a frustrated Washington that has been left astounded by the Houthis’ refusal to engage in negotiations despite a number of US concessions,” Hamdi says. 

Washington was "beyond fed up" with the Houthis due to the group’s Marib offensive, according to US State Department spokesman Ned Price in July. The US special envoy Tim Lenderking, who was assigned to develop a peace process in Yemen, also found the Marib fighting as a “stumbling block” to reach an agreement between the two sides.

In November, the Houthis also stormed the US embassy in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, which has been under the group’s control since 2014. While the American embassy did not have any diplomatic staff at the time of the Houthi raid, its Yemeni employees were detained by the group. 

During the latest Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi, the group may have also targeted the city’s Al Dhafra Air Base, which hosts both American and British forces. American forces using their Patriots helped the UAE military intercept Houthi missiles to prevent them from hitting the base and other UAE locations, according to the US military. 

The Houthi attack on the US military base, which hosts nearly 2,000 troops, indicates another escalation in the Yemen war. “US forces at Al Dhafra stand with the UAE and our coalition partners across the region,” said Brig. Gen. Andrew Clark, commander of the American forces in the base, reacting to the Houthi attack. 

The first Houthi attack on the Abu Dhabi airport killed three foreign workers while the second attack caused no casualties, according to Emirati sources. But the Houthis vowed to continue targeting the UAE, with the goal of scaring away foreign investors in the Gulf country. The group has already launched several attacks on Saudi territory. 

According to Hamdi, the third political scenario for the UAE’s increasing involvement in the Yemen war could be about the country’s division plans. “The UAE, which has been advocating for Yemen to be divided into North and South, believes that the time is ripe to do so,” Hamdi says. 

“However, in order to divide Yemen, it needs the negotiation process to begin. Therefore it is attacking the Houthis to force them to the negotiating table in order to get the process started,” Hamdi argues. 

The UAE has long backed the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which fights not only with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, but also against the Houthis. 

Why the world tolerates Yemen atrocities

Bulent Aras, professor of international relations at Qatar University and a prominent expert on Gulf disputes, strongly believes that things are out of control in Yemen.

“We need to look at the Yemeni situation from a humanitarian perspective not from realpolitik arguments,” Aras tells TRT World. “How possibly can the international community and warring sides tolerate this much loss and human trauma?” he asks. 

Last year, the latest United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that the Yemen war death toll will reach 1.3 million people by 2030. According to 2021 projections, the total dead passed 377,000. 

Previous UN reports also found ‘immeasurable’ atrocities against children in Yemen as the conflict killed tens of thousands of civilians - and at least one third of civilian deaths are children. 

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