Houthi attack tests UAE efforts to ease tensions with Iran
As plumes of smoke drifted through an industrial district of Abu Dhabi after an explosion killed three people and a fire smoldered at a construction site at the UAE capital’s international airport, leaders across the country have seen their worst fears come true.
The Gulf state said Monday’s events were the result of drone strikes by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, who claimed they carried out an attack “in depth” into the United Arab Emirates. The attack revealed the vulnerability of the nation, which presents itself as an oasis of stability in a volatile region, to onslaught by militants despite its multi-billion dollar state-of-the-art defense systems.
The timing of the attack by an Iranian-backed group will also test Abu Dhabi’s recent efforts to reach out to Tehran in a bid to defuse regional tensions, bolster trade relations and reduce the perceived threat from the Islamic Republic and its proxies.
UAE leaders have for years warned of the threat posed by Iran-backed militant groups. But this week was the first time they acknowledged such an attack on the shores of the region’s premier commercial and tourist hub, whose appeal to the millions of expatriate workers and tourists who flock to Abu Dhabi and Dubai is backed by the promise of security.
The United Arab Emirates insisted on Monday that the Houthis could not undermine its stability. But the rebel group followed up the attack by releasing a propaganda video in which their leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, warned foreign investors not to regard the United Arab Emirates as “a safe country”.
According to the rebels’ own media, Mohammed Abdulsalam, a senior Houthi official, was visiting Tehran on the day of the attack would not have escaped Emirati officials.
“The optics aren’t good for the Iranians given that, so it’s going to be interesting to see what the Iranians signal, both publicly and through diplomatic channels,” said a person briefed on the position of the Iranians. WATER. “It’s definitely not good for awareness. All the signals the Emiratis were getting from the Iranians were ‘we want to see more [engagement]’.”
There have been talks of “taking diplomacy to the next level”, which may have included Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Abu Dhabi, he said. But after Monday’s attack, “the ball is in Iran’s court.”
Gulf and US officials have long accused Tehran – which has not commented on the attack – of training and advising the Houthis and providing them with missile and drone technology. The Houthis regularly launch missiles and drones at Saudi targets – the kingdom said it intercepted three drones on Monday. Tehran has never confirmed having sent weapons to the rebels but claims to support them politically.
The Houthis are fighting Yemeni fighters backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in their country’s civil war. Emirati officials will seek to establish whether they acted unilaterally this week or with a tacit green light from Tehran.
“It could derail awareness,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political science professor. “We are dealing with a very difficult Iran – Iran is still a threat, still a danger to Gulf security.”
The Yemeni conflict erupted in 2014 after the Houthis overthrew the country’s government. The United Arab Emirates got involved due to its concern over Iranian-backed groups operating in its backyard, sending thousands of troops to Yemen in March 2015 to fight the Houthis, alongside Saudi Arabia.
Although analysts debate the extent of Tehran’s influence over the Houthis, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh view the rebels as an Iranian proxy akin to Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement.
The two Gulf powers also backed former US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran in 2018 after it withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
But Abu Dhabi began to change course in 2019 after several oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and Iran was blamed for a missile and drone attack that temporarily destroyed half of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production. The Gulf states were rattled not just by the attacks but by what they saw as a lukewarm response from Washington, analysts said.
“[The Saudi oil attacks] will be seen as a central inflection point in the history of the Gulf,” said David Roberts, a Gulf expert at King’s College London. “The scale fell from the eyes of the Gulf leaders and they realized the full extent of the small contribution of the United States [as guarantor of security] in this fundamental way.
The episode has fueled frustration in the UAE over the swings in US policy over the past decade, what it sees as the unpredictability of successive administrations in Washington and a sense of gradual US disengagement from the region, according to analysts.
After President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory and its impact on the dynamics of the Middle East at a time when the Gulf states were grappling with Covid-19, Abu Dhabi has reset its foreign policy. He has moved away from the assertiveness of the past decade and stepped up economic diplomacy.
Iran has been at the center of change, with high-level official visits and increased trade between the two historic trading partners.
The United Arab Emirates had already withdrawn most of its troops from Yemen in 2019, saying it had achieved key objectives but also partly in an effort to reduce tensions with Iran, analysts said. But in recent weeks, UAE-backed Yemeni militias have joined Saudi-led coalition forces as they repel a rebel offensive.
Saudi-led coalition warplanes bombarded the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Monday night after the attack on the United Arab Emirates, killing at least 20 people.
The Houthis said they carried out Monday’s attack because of the UAE’s “tampering” in Yemen. If this was a unilateral act by the Houthis, as some analysts believe, Emirati officials are still likely to see Iran’s shadow, experts say.
Last month, Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the president of the United Arab Emirates, told a webinar that non-state actors posed a “real threat” to regional security. But he added that while the UAE had any differences with Iran, it recognized the need to deal with the Islamic Republic through diplomacy and economic cooperation to “manage these crises”.
However, Monday’s attack underscored the fragility of the rapprochement. “That’s the dark irony of spoilers,” Roberts said. “[The attack] highlights the need for diplomacy and vulnerability, but at the same time could make things more difficult.