The Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi: What comes next?
On 17 January, Abu Dhabi’s airport and oil industry came under attack. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) conducted a preliminary investigation which confirmed claims by Yemen’s Houthi rebels that they were behind the strikes, carried out with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones.
According to officials in Riyadh, the Saudis shot down nine drones that the Iranian-backed rebels launched at the Kingdom that same day. The attack on Abu Dhabi resulted in three deaths.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting Ansarullah (the dominant Houthi militia) retaliated quickly with airstrikes against Houthi-controlled Sana‘a, resulting in at least 11 deaths.
Saudi Arabia’s deputy defence minister Khalid bin Salman took to Twitter to blast Ansarullah and the group’s backers in Tehran. “The terrorist attack by the Iran backed Houthis against [Saudi Arabia] & the U.A.E. represents a threat to our region’s security. The Houthis aren’t interested in peace and remain hostage to their regional backer, which treats our region’s security as a mere negotiating card.”
"This is a major reputational damage to the idea of the UAE being one of the safest and more secure countries in the world"
The Houthis targeted the Emirati capital because in recent weeks UAE-aligned forces such as al-Weyat al-Amaliqa (a.k.a. the Giants Brigades), which is allied with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), have made gains on the ground in Shabwa, Marib, and al-Bayda at the Houthis’ expense.
Ansarullah attributes such losses to Abu Dhabi and its surrogate warfare in Yemen. The Iranian-sponsored insurgents who have been in control of Sana’a since late 2014 want all their foreign enemies in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to know that their hostilities in Yemen jeopardise their own security on their soil.
The 17 January attack against Abu Dhabi was “a strong and symbolic sign to show that no one is safe and that the Houthis have the capabilities to hit all the countries in the area, at the heart of their assets,” explained Dr Giuseppe Dentice, the head of the MENA Desk at the Center for International Studies and teaching assistant at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, in an interview with The New Arab.
“So, if the attack is a sign of strength, the Houthis' aim is to dissuade ‘the invaders’ from feeling safe.”
With the Houthis waging this deadly assault against Abu Dhabi, the episode was a reminder that the UAE remains a party to the conflict in Yemen. It is not possible for the Emiratis to continue their current involvement in this war without facing serious risks that threaten their security at home.
The 17 January attack hurt the UAE’s reputation as an extremely stable Middle Eastern country with airtight security. As various analysts have warned, there are potential ramifications for the UAE’s tourism and financial sectors, position in the Middle East as a business hub, and nuclear energy ambitions.
“This is something that has created a major vulnerability for the UAE,” Dr Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the School of Security at King's College in London, told TNA.
“This is a major reputational damage to the idea of the UAE being one of the safest and more secure countries in the world. The fact that air defences were unable to protect very critical infrastructure is definitely something the UAE will now have to consider.”
It is important to consider that while the Houthis seem to have launched this attack as a retaliation for their recent losses on the ground in Yemen, their threats to hit the UAE’s homeland have been going on for years.
A valid concern for UAE officialdom is that this will not be the last of such attacks and that the Houthis might make this more routine, like how the Yemeni rebels have spent years waging drone and missile strikes against neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
“From the UAE’s perspective, now that the Houthi drone threats have manifested into an actual attack the Emiratis have to view Yemen as a more existential threat than in the past,” Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at risk consultancy Stratfor/Rane, told TNA.
“Their risk assessment has to change. It's clear they can't just carry out military action in Yemen without a potential threat to the homeland.”
But this does not necessarily mean that Abu Dhabi’s outlook toward Yemen or the UAE’s engagement in the country will necessarily shift in dramatic ways.
“The [Emiratis] don’t want to go back to major combat operations,” argues Dr Krieg. “That’s important to bear in mind. The UAE doesn’t want to go back to an escalation in Yemen. What they will do is do it remotely - either by air power or drones - or by continuing on the path that they’re on at the moment…via surrogates and proxies. I think they will continue doing that.”
"Their risk assessment has to change. It's clear they can't just carry out military action in Yemen without a potential threat to the homeland"
Ramifications for de-escalation in the Gulf
An important question raised by analysts is, how will the 17 January drone and missile attack impact the mending of Emirati-Iranian relations?
In late 2021, when the UAE’s national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan paid a rare visit to Iran, Abu Dhabi and Tehran were de-escalating their tensions and trying to begin a new chapter in bilateral relations. Some analysts have expressed concern about Emirati-Iranian diplomatic engagement suffering from this attack on Abu Dhabi.
But some experts expect the UAE and its Persian neighbour to compartmentalise issues and continue their dialogue.
“I don’t think that the rapprochement between the UAE and Iran at the strategic level is going to be impacted by these developments because the UAE knows…that they can’t really compete with the Iranians,” Dr Krieg told TNA.
“There is no way that the UAE can militarily engage, and defend against, Iran. This episode [on 17 January] is just bringing it home again that Iran can strike the UAE indirectly via [Tehran’s] proxies and get away with it with plausible deniability. But I don’t think necessarily that the UAE will change course vis-à-vis Iran.”
Dr Dentice agrees. “I don’t think that this terror act could derail UAE (and wider Arab Gulf) dialogue with Iran because there are too many interests at stake. All parties will be engaged to exercise maximum restraint and prevent any escalation.”
Considering that the UAE does have its own national interests being advanced by talks with the Iranians, the plausible deniability that Tehran has in this situation could give Abu Dhabi some cover as it continues talks with Iranian officials without wanting to look weak.
As Bohl emphasised, “The Houthis are an independent Yemeni actor and, while they take support from Iran, they don't necessarily take orders from them, so the UAE can use that as an excuse not to allow its outreach to Iran be disturbed.”
According to a 15 January report from Iranian state-owned media, President Ebrahim Raisi received an invitation to the UAE.
If true, and if Raisi becomes the first Iranian president to visit the Emirates since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that would underscore an Emirati determination to continue engaging Tehran diplomatically notwithstanding the extent to which Abu Dhabi feels threatened by Iran’s surrogate warfare in Arab countries.
Put simply, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s fears of the Iranian threat are prompting both Gulf states to move cautiously in relation to Tehran, especially with less confidence in the US to protect their security if US-Iran or Israel-Iran tensions spiral out of control.
Talking to officials in Iran is part of this strategy for mitigating the threats posed by the Islamic Republic and its regional allies, partners, and surrogates.
"I don't think that the rapprochement between the UAE and Iran at the strategic level is going to be impacted by these developments because the UAE knows…that they can't really compete with the Iranians"
Support for the UAE
A long list of governments expressed solidarity with the UAE in the immediate aftermath of the 17 January attack. From Russia, Turkey, and Western governments to many Arab states, officials worldwide used strong language to condemn Ansarullah’s launch of missiles and drones at Abu Dhabi.
Many eyes are on Washington as the Emiratis are now pressing the Biden administration to respond by taking a harder line against the Houthis.
In terms of support from fellow GCC members, it is safe to assume that the highest levels of support for the UAE will come from Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis will see this episode as an opportunity to try to mend part of the rift that has emerged between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi because of their conflicting interests and agendas in Yemen. The attack can help the Saudis bring the UAE on board with a more aggressive posture against Ansarullah.
Beyond Saudi Arabia, however, the other GCC states will likely continue providing symbolic backing for Abu Dhabi. After the 17 January attack, all members of the sub-regional institution used powerful rhetoric to demonstrate their support for the UAE.
But this can’t lead one to expect countries such as Kuwait, Oman, or Qatar to begin pushing for a further escalation of hostilities against the Houthis to retaliate.
On the contrary, Kuwait City, Muscat, and Doha are in favour of more mediation, negotiations, and de-escalation in Yemen, and the attack against the Emirati capital will probably not change that.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero