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Are the UAE's chickens coming home to roost in its ongoing war against Yemen?

Yemenis inspect the damage after The Saudi-led coalition forces announced on Tuesday that they are carrying out airstrikes on Sanaa in response to the latest attacks on Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), by the Houthis in capital Sanaa, Yemen on 18 January 2022. [Mohammed Hamoud - Anadolu Agency]
Yemenis inspect the damage after the Saudi-led coalition carried out air strikes on Sanaa, Yemen on 18 January 2022 [Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency]

World leaders and diplomats were quick to condemn the missile and drone attack carried out by the Houthi-allied Yemeni armed forces ("the Houthis") in Abu Dhabi earlier this week which killed three expatriate workers and wounded six others, causing oil prices to rise to their highest level in seven years. This was the first time since 2018 that the Houthis have attacked the UAE directly, in what is seen as a significant escalation in the seven-year war against Yemen.

The UAE has already stated that it has a "right to retaliate", and that the attack will "not go unpunished". Indeed, the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition, of which the UAE is a leading partner, was swift with reprisals, carrying out yet more deadly air strikes across the impoverished country, including some against a residential area in the capital Sanaa which killed at least 12 civilians.

At first glance it would seem that the UAE is the victim here, which explains the outpouring of expressions of solidarity. Even Lebanon's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdel Latif Derian, weighed in, declaring that any attack on the UAE, or for that matter any other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country, was "an attack on all Muslims and all Arabs".

However, what is missing here is some very important context. The attack on the UAE was essentially retaliation by the armed forces — the majority of which are fighting alongside the Houthis — of a country that has been besieged and attacked relentlessly for the best part of a decade by the coalition in which the UAE plays a leading role. It is illogical, therefore, if not hypocritical, for the UAE to claim that it will "retaliate" against a country that it has itself been bombing regularly in a bitterly-fought war. By and large, though, the international community fails to recognise this fact.

The operation against the UAE was codenamed "Hurricane Yemen". According to Houthi army spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Saree, it involved five ballistic and winged missiles, in addition to several drones. Among the targets were three oil tanker lorries at Al-Musaffah oil refinery and Abu Dhabi Airport. Saree also claimed that Dubai International Airport was targeted. It is worth noting that only a month ago, the Saudi-led coalition carried out air strikes at Sanaa International Airport, claiming that it was a military target.

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The attack in the Emirates should have come as no surprise; Saree described it as something that the Yemeni armed forces had "promised" with their sights set on further targets against the "countries of aggression". Two days earlier, the Houthi-affiliated Al-Masirah published an article about the UAE's recent escalation in Yemen, through the deployment of "mercenaries and Takfiri elements" in the contested provinces of Marib and Shabwa. Ominously, it warned that, "The fragile glass towers are easy to reach." The seizing of a UAE-flagged vessel off the coast of Hodeidah — alleged by the Houthis to be carrying arms — earlier this month was an indicator of the movement's intent to up the stakes. At the time, Saree described the move as a "successful and unprecedented operation" which is "part of the fight against [coalition] aggression."

The Gulf state has managed to evade retaliatory action from Yemen, despite being a lead member of the coalition and occupying Yemeni territory. Although it has been threatened before by the Houthis, other than the 2018 attack the movement has focused its cross-border drone and missile operations exclusively against the Saudis, who more often than not counterclaim that their defence systems intercepted them. However, the key difference between the frequent operations against the Kingdom and "Hurricane Yemen" is the strategy behind it. While Saudi military bases, airports and oil refineries have all been targeted previously, the timing here is what most observers have picked up on.

The Houthis first targeted Abu Dhabi Airport in July 2018, which was initially denied by the UAE. This was at a time when the Emiratis and their proxies were advancing on the important port city of Hodeidah in Yemen, which has been under an effective blockade since the war started. Although no significant damage was caused to the airport at the time, it was enough to halt the UAE's advance and usher in the so-called Stockholm Agreement brokered by the UN. The desired outcome would come about the following year with the UAE announcing that it was scaling back its military involvement in the conflict. However, it remained involved through its continued support of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) separatists and the Giants Brigade militia.

Demonstrators march with a sign reading in Arabic "the UAE is the leader of destruction and fragmenting the Arab region" during a protest in the southwestern Yemeni city of Taez on August 30, 2019, against air strikes carried out by the UAE on Yemen's second city of Aden. [AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP via Getty Images]

This militia is composed mainly of highly-trained southern tribesmen and Salafi commanders, and it is its support for the group that has put the Gulf state back in the firing line as far as the Houthis are concerned. Again, the strategic calculation is to force the UAE to limit or end its support for the militia which has been responsible for pushing back the Houthis from the oil-rich Shabwa province and diverting their attention and resources from taking control of Marib, the last pro-government stronghold in the north. Last month, the militia was targeted by two Houthi ballistic missile strikes at Ataq Airport in Shabwa, shortly after arriving to replace Saudi forces who were stationed there. However, the move against Abu Dhabi illustrates just how formidable a foe the Giants Brigade must be, as it appears to be frustrating the Houthi advance.

There is indeed a serious threat to the UAE and its "glass towers" as long as it remains a key belligerent in the war against Yemen. This has been recognised by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who pledged to offer "security and intelligence" support to its Gulf ally in the face of any renewed attacks. Abu Dhabi has previously expressed interest in acquiring Israel's Iron Dome defence system, but Tel Aviv has refused due to the UAE's rapprochement with Iran. This security dilemma could, therefore, have an impact on the UAE's warm relations with the Islamic Republic, which supports and recognises the Houthi-led de facto government in Yemen, and comes at a time when Tehran and Riyadh are also preparing to reopen embassies and re-establish diplomatic ties.

This week's operation could have been all the more deadly and serious for the UAE — and this sounds harsh, but reflects the racist reality in the Emirates — if the casualties had been Emirati citizens rather than two Indians and a Pakistani. The Houthis certainly have both the will and the ability to target the Gulf state's more sensitive and strategic sites and have sent a clear message. How the UAE reacts going forward is what will influence decision-makers in Sanaa. Having generally avoided any repercussions for its role in the devastating war against Yemen, the UAE has been fortunate. Maybe the chickens aren't coming home to roost just yet, but they are certainly getting closer.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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