The attacks on major cities in the Gulf mark a dangerous escalation that could see the spillover beyond Yemen and parts of Saudi Arabia.
The capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is located 750 miles away from Yemeni battlefields. Nonetheless, this month Abu Dhabi became the Yemen war’s latest front to open.
On January 17, Houthi rebels carried out a drone and missile attack against Abu Dhabi’s airport and oil infrastructure, resulting in three deaths. One week later, the skyline of the UAE’s capital lit up with “fireballs in the sky” amid an attempted Houthi missile strike that the UAE and the US successfully countered.
Since the January 17 attack, Emirati and Saudi forces have retaliated with intensified bombing of Houthi positions in Yemen, including airstrikes that knocked out the internet.
Unfortunately, worsening hostilities between the Houthis and the UAE indicate that the end point of Yemen’s intersecting conflicts is likely nowhere on the horizon. The firing of missiles and drones against major cities of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states marks a dangerous escalation which threatens to expand the war in Yemen far beyond Yemen and parts of Saudi Arabia. There are dire ramifications for Arabian Peninsula security.
The Houthis are sending a message to the UAE about Abu Dhabi’s reestablished role as a more central member of the Saudi-led Arab coalition.
With Emirati-sponsored forces such as al-Weyat al-Amaliqa (the Giants Brigades) successfully reversing some of the Houthis’ 2020 and 2021 gains, the rebels who have been ruling Sanaa since late 2014 want the UAE to understand that Houthi drones and missiles can continue threatening its vital security and economic interests. As long as Abu Dhabi remains directly or indirectly involved in Yemen, the Emiratis must live with constant threats to their homeland.
The UAE now knows such threats are not merely hot air. As demonstrated by the attacks this month, the Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen have the capabilities to strike at the heart of the UAE.
The psychological harm of the January 17 and 24 attacks must not be underestimated. Maintaining perceptions of peace, stability, and airtight security is critical to upholding UAE’s reputation for being a safe tourist destination, a hub for international trade and business, and a country with a good foreign investment climate.
The UAE has the military resources and skilled security organisations to protect itself. But there is still good reason for the Emiratis to be nervous about the continued Houthi threat, as missile attacks are difficult to defend against.
With a much smaller geography, the UAE and the other small GCC states lack Saudi Arabia’s strategic depth, making them more vulnerable when it comes to missile and drone attacks from the Houthis. The Houthis are aware of this vulnerability.
How the intensification of Houthi-UAE hostilities will impact Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy positions will take more time to realise. To be sure, the Emiratis want to avoid being seen as weak and the leadership in Abu Dhabi has felt the need to respond forcefully.
By the same token, the UAE is not interested in drastically escalating its involvement in Yemen. The whole Saudi-led coalition, which the UAE has been a part of since 2015, is fatigued.
How does detente with Iran fit into Abu Dhabi’s calculations? The UAE has welcomed the opportunity to engage the Iranians in dialogue at a time in which Gulf countries have been moving toward de-escalation. The fact that Emirati officials have not formally blamed Iran for the January 17 and 24 attacks underscores the extent to which the UAE is cautiously reacting to events and considering many of its interests which are currently at stake.
It appears that Abu Dhabi will be keen to compartmentalise issues with Iran and continue engaging the Islamic Republic diplomatically when that serves the UAE’s national interests.
Over the years, the Emiratis, far more than the Saudis, have managed to approach Iran in shrewd and pragmatic ways, and the January 17 and 24 attacks likely will not fundamentally alter the UAE’s strategies for dealing with Tehran.
That said, the Emiratis stepping up their military operations against the Houthis without simultaneously reversing the thaw in Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Tehran could prove challenging. There are delicate balances which the UAE will feel pressured to strike.
It is important to consider how Houthi attacks against the UAE may impact Abu Dhabi’s alliance with Riyadh. It is no secret that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been on different pages vis-a-vis Yemen’s southern question.
With Abu Dhabi advancing its interests in southern Yemen within the context of a maritime empire stretching from Dubai to Africa while Saudi Arabia has been mostly focused on the situation with the Houthis in northern Yemen, these two Arabian powerhouses have pursued conflicting agendas in Yemen.
The Riyadh Agreement, which sought to resolve the conflict between forces loyal to the Saudi-backed, UN-recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the UAE-sponsored Southern Transitional Council, was always messy and difficult to implement.
Perhaps with Abu Dhabi perceiving the Houthis as an increasingly dangerous threat to the UAE, the significance of these two Arabian countries’ conflicting interests and agendas in Yemen will decrease.
Uncertain US role
Where is Yemen’s conflict(s) headed? There seem to be more questions than answers.
It is not clear if the UAE will try to de-escalate in Yemen or not. Important variables include how much support the Biden administration will give Abu Dhabi and how far the White House will go to back the UAE in its positions vis-a-vis Yemen.
The Emiratis are pushing Biden and his team to reverse their decision to end the Houthi terrorist designation. The White House must also consider the sensitivities surrounding talks in Vienna and take into account the possible ways in which escalating violence in Yemen can undermine diplomatic efforts aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal.
In any event, how Washington responds to intensifying hostilities between Abu Dhabi and the Houthis will heavily impact the UAE’s perceptions of the US as a security guarantor in the Gulf.
The Trump administration’s lacklustre response following Iran’s attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations in 2019 fed perceptions of American withdrawal from the region, which can continue having serious geopolitical ramifications felt far beyond Yemen.
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