In Yemen, Houthis and the UAE are both on the wrong side

In Yemen, Houthis and the UAE are both on the wrong side
The recent Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi should not be welcomed by those who oppose the UAE's foreign policy. Nevertheless, the UAE urgently needs to review its approach in Yemen which has ultimately strengthened Iran, writes Yasser Abu Hilala.
6 min read
28 Jan, 2022
Abu Dhabi's Mussaffah industrial zone, where three people were killed after a drone attack on 17 January, 2021. [Getty]

Whoever was pleased to hear of the Houthi drone and missile attack which hit Abu Dhabi on 17 January - perhaps because of the UAE's role in the manufacture of counterrevolutionary movements across the region or due to its alliance with the State of Israel - are overlooking the fact that Iran is also a major counterrevolutionary player, and that the Houthis have destroyed the Yemenis' dreams of building a new unified, pluralistic and democratic country.

Worse, they have regressed Yemen back to an oppressive, dynastic rule of the imamate, and opened up sectarian, factional and regional fissures which will prove difficult to close.

Whatever one's opinion on Abu Dhabi's foreign policy, we should not be celebrating an Iranian attack on an Arab capital. This is a severe blow to the UAE and has shaken its standing, much as the strike on Abqaiq did to Saudi Arabia in September 2019.    

"Though the UAE will be able to repair the damage done by the Houthis, what cannot be mended is what the Houthis did to Yemen when they occupied its capital, destroyed its political system and ousted its legitimate government"

However, though the UAE will be able to repair the damage done by the Houthis, what cannot be mended is what the Houthis did to Yemen when they occupied its capital, destroyed its political system and ousted its legitimate government. None of this could have happened were it not for Iran's support, which has not ceased, and in actual fact, there is UAE's complicity with that support.

Iranian aggression in the region has not been confronted through open war, nor will it be in future. The UAE could review its policy regarding the Houthis, repositioning themselves in a way that can empower the people of Yemen to defeat the Houthis, and Iran, rather than relying on diplomatic machinations.

Nevertheless, only the Yemenis will ultimately be able to dismantle Iranian designs in Yemen. Emirati politicians have deluded themselves in thinking that it would be possible to divide influence over the country with Iran: for the Iranians to take the north, and use it to pressure Saudi Arabia, while UAE extends their power over the south and the ports, and use it to exert pressure on Oman.


Were it not for the UAE's aggressive policy towards the Arab uprisings, then the Houthis would never have been able to enter Sanaa in the first place. The forces of the Arab uprisings in Yemen, at the forefront of them the Islah Party (or The Yemeni Congregation for Reform), formed a partnership early on in order to confront Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime.

Meanwhile, the UAE was busily defanging the revolution-aligned armed forces, by dismantling those military elements that had taken a stand alongside the protestors. The final instalment of financial aid offered to President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi by the UAE, amounting to $US 200 million, was conditional upon the dismantling of the First Armoured Division, which had protected the capital, but which had stood with protestors. When it was gone, the Houthis found no one standing in their way, especially after they killed Brigadier-General Hameed al-Qushaibi in July 2014.

Emirati politicians have followed the logic of "either Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood" in Yemen, and in effect, tacitly allied themselves with the Houthis. The UAE deceived them, using Ali Abdullah Saleh and his son Ahmed (who lives in Abu Dhabi), leading them to believe they were all working to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood (Islah), but privately intending what transpired would be Saleh's coup, not Iran's coup.

The Emirati politicians calculated that the clash between Islah and the Houthis - or, as the UAE saw it, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran - would destroy both forces to the advantage of Ali Abdullah Saleh. At worst, Islah (Muslim Brotherhood) would exit the scene in surrender, retreating or destroyed after losing the battle. Due to the above strategy, the Houthis were able to use Emirati influence to their advantage and got rid of both Saleh and Islah.

Confronting the Houthis cannot only be done militarily, rather this is a political task. This approach will be necessary to restore a unified, pluralistic and democratic Yemen and protect those who are striving for this ideal. These people are the majority, against whom the Houthis and the UAE formed their alliance. Before the Abu Dhabi strike, the governor of Shabwa was sacked, under pressure from the UAE, despite his strong record in fighting and defeating the Houthi forces. Taiz, the capital of the revolution, remains trapped between the Houthis and UAE-backed factions.

The Yemeni people overthrew imamate rule and later ousted the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. It is the Yemenis, against whom the UAE has tacitly allied itself with the Houthis, who will be able to defeat their dynastic, oppressive, divisive and sectarian project. The irony is that, despite everything the UAE has done, the forces of the Arab uprisings never aligned themselves with the Houthis, preferring patience over taking sides.

"If it had not been for the UAE's aggressive policy towards the Arab Spring uprisings, then the Houthis would never have been able to enter Sanaa in the first place"

The UAE could review its policy approach in Yemen, as it has reviewed it in several other issues in the region, and it should trust the people of the region and not be hostile to them. The people reject Iranian hegemony, just as they reject the alliance with Israel - and when the Israeli prime minister announces that he stands with the UAE in facing aggression, he knows he is serving the UAE's detractors and not the UAE's interests.

The UAE is not fooled by the Houthi chants against the US and Israel, as they know the US has removed the Houthis from the terrorist list. They also know that the US is negotiating to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran and if this happens, it will only result in an even more vicious Iranian foreign policy across the region.

In the meantime, the world searches for Iran's link to the attack, as they did with Abqaiq: everyone knows that ultimately the Houthis do not have the capacity nor the decision-making power.

Yasser Abu Hilala is a reporter, writer and journalist who served as Al Jazeera's director-general between 2014 and 2018.

Follow him on Twitter: @abuhilalah

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here. Translated by Rose Chacko.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.