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The war in Yemen has taken a dangerous turn. On January 17, the country’s Shiite armed group known as the Houthis, or Ansar Allah, claimed responsibility for a deadly drone that killed 3 people and destroyed fuel tanks in Abu Dhabi, the capital and commercial hub of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Saudi-led coalition quickly retaliated by launching airstrikes on Houthi positions in northern Yemen, which killed scores of civilians.
The latest cycle of violence follows a series of battlefield losses for the Houthis. With Saudi air support, UAE backed forces repelled the rebel group from the oil rich province of Shabwa and checked their advance on the strategic desert city of Marib. During the fighting, the Houthis also rejected U.N calls to free an Emirati vessel – and its 11-member crew – which was captured for reportedly carrying medical and military supplies.
That’s the backdrop to the latest Houthis attack, which serves as a warning to the UAE to either redirect their proxies from ongoing offensives or face more drone strikes. But rather than abide, Abu Dhabi may strengthen its partnership with Riyadh to counter the Shiite rebel group – and Iranian patron – which directly threatens their respective territorial and economic security.
Ahmed Nagi, an expert on Yemen and a non-resident fellow with Carnegie Endowment, told Fanack that the UAE would need to closely align its military and diplomatic goals with Riyadh in order to counter the Houthis. One scenario could see Riyadh temporarily finance proxy groups that the Emirates traditionally support, he said. That would allow these groups, which have dealt the Houthis significant blows in recent weeks, to continue fighting without making the UAE a target.
“Even if the Saudis borrow these groups, they will always remain loyal to the UAE because the UAE built them from scratch,” said Nagi. “If the UAE later decides to take them back then they can do just that.”
The UAE may also look to Iran for assurances. Tehran is a major supporter of the Houthis, having supplied the group with sophisticated weapons and military intel since 2015. And while Tehran has traditionally been at odds with Abu Dhabi, the two powers have thawed relations in recent years. Just last month, the UAE’s top national security advisor visited his Iranian counterpart to discuss cooperation on files ranging from the economy to healthcare.
However, the exact influence that the Iranians have on the Houthis remains ambivalent. Some analysts believe that the Houthis still act independently regardless of what the Iranians want. Others, like Nagi, believe the Iranians are now calling the shots because of how dependent the Houthis have become on their support.
Either way, the Emirates will look to improve their air defenses to protect its brand as an oasis of stability in the Arab world. Without restoring that reputation, the Emirates will struggle to preserve its lucrative financial and tourism sectors, and fail to become the primary business hub in the region. Equally important for the Emirates, argues Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher with the Sanaa Center in Beirut, is to uphold their image as a strong and brave military partner.
“If one small attack forces the [UAE] to retreat, it will appear weak and vulnerable. The UAE cannot afford that, so it will escalate militarily, mostly with airstrikes, and hope for international mediation to de-escalate,” Al-Iryani told Fanack in an email.
“It’s hard to see this [drone attack on the UAE] leading to anything other than escalation – there’s already been a flurry of airstrikes targeting various Houthi/Ansar Allah positions in Sanaa,” added Adam Baron, a political analyst focusing on Yemen, who spoke to Fanack on the day of the Houthi drone attack. “Escalation in this conflict generally goes hand in hand with the further deterioration of the humanitarian situation.”
Indeed, the Saudi-led coalition has a history of indiscriminately bombing civilian targets such as hospitals, busy markets, and even weddings, which has brought horrific harm and grief to thousands of civilians over the last six years. The coalition has also continued to blockade Hodeidah port, which has for years put millions of civilians at risk of famine. Owing to domestic pressure, U.S. President Joe Biden ended its offensive support to the coalition’s reckless aerial campaign in February 2021. That move hasn’t improved the humanitarian situation, with aid groups reporting a 60 percent increase in civilian casualties in the last quarter of 2021 compared to the three months prior.
The situation could worsen if the UAE convinces Washington to relabel the Houthis as a terrorist organization, a designation that the Biden admin removed when it took over the White House from Donald Trump. Such a designation would do little to inch the Houthis towards the negotiating table since the group views the U.S. as an enemy. All it would do, explains Nagi, is help the UAE score a symbolic victory while exacerbating the suffering of civilians under Houthis control.
“The Houthis would be affected by this move since it would reduce the number of aid organizations in areas under their control, and make money transfers really difficult,” he said.
To mitigate civilian suffering, the coalition needs to exercise restraint and the Houthis need to demonstrate a willingness to negotiate, not exploit peace initiatives to advance their goals on the battlefield. That’s precisely what the rebel group did following the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which saw U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths strike a deal between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Coalition forces agreed to halt their offensive on the port of Hodeidah in hopes of building confidence ahead of possible negotiations. However, the Houthis interpreted the deal as a victory and deployed troops to wage war on new battle fronts.
In March 2021, the Saudis proposed a new peace initiative that called for the partial lifting of the siege on Hodeidah, sharing revenue on trade through oil, a U.N. supervised ceasefire, and the start of negotiations. But again, the Houthis turned it down.
“The Houthis want to go through the military track over the political track,” said Nagi. “They understand the Saudis’ preference for the political track as a sign of defeat.”