Will the UAE respond militarily to the Houthi attack on its territory?

Will the UAE respond militarily to the Houthi attack on its territory?

 Will the UAE respond militarily to the Houthi attack on its territory?

Houthi attack on the UAE

A drone attack claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels targeting a key oil facility in Abu Dhabi killed three people on Monday and sparked a fire at Abu Dhabi’s international airport.

Emirati police identified the dead as two Indian nationals and one Pakistani. Several people were also wounded at an industrial area where Abu Dhabi’s state-owned energy company runs a pipeline network and an oil tanker storage facility. The police said they suffered minor to moderate injuries.

Senior Emirati diplomat Anwar Gargash blamed the Houthis for the attack, saying on Twitter that Emirati authorities were handling the rebel group’s “vicious attack on some civilian facilities” in the UAE’s capital with “transparency and responsibility.”

“The tampering of the region’s security by terrorist militias is too weak to affect the stability and safety in which we live,” he tweeted.

Three transport tankers caught fire at the oil facility, while another fire was sparked at an extension of Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Police said an investigation was underway and that preliminary findings indicate there were small flying objects, possibly belonging to drones, that fell in the two areas and may have caused the explosion and fire. They said there was no significant damage from the incidents, without offering further details.

Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claimed they were behind an attack targeting the United Arab Emirates on Monday, but they did not offer details. Although the UAE has largely withdrawn its own forces from the war in Yemen, it is still actively engaged in the conflict and supports Yemeni militias fighting the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia condemned Monday’s attack targeting Abu Dhabi, describing it as “a cowardly terrorist attack” that shows the dangers posed by the Houthis. Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States, U.N. experts and others have accused Iran of supplying arms to the Houthis.

The UAE was a key member of the Saudi-led coalition that has waged war against the Houthis since 2015, trying to restore the internationally backed government, ousted by the rebels the previous year.

While Emirati troops have been killed over the course of the conflict, now in its eight year, the war has not directly affected daily life in the wider UAE, a country with a vast foreign workforce that is also home to Dubai, a glitzy city of skyscrapers and five-star hotels.

The airport fire in Abu Dhabi was described by police as “minor” and took place at an extension of the international airport that is still under construction. For years, the airport home to Etihad Airways has been building its new Midfield Terminal, but it was not clear if that was where the fire took place.

Etihad Airways said “precautionary measures resulted in a short disruption for a small number of flights” and that airport operations have returned to normal. Abu Dhabi Airports did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The other blast struck three petroleum transport tankers near a complex for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. in the Musaffah industrial area. The company describes it as a pipeline and terminal facility located some 22 kilometers (13 miles) from the center of the city of Abu Dhabi, where 36 storage tanks also supply transport trucks carrying fuel.

It is also a short distance from Al-Dhafra Air Base, a military installation that hosts U.S. and French forces. U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew Clark, the Al-Dhafra Air Base commander for American forces, said in a statement to The Associated Press that “no incidents” affected the base amid the attack.

“U.S. forces are ready and available to assist and support their Emirati partners if requested,” he said.

The location of the ADNOC facility where the tankers caught fire is approximately 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) northeast of Saada, the Houthis’ stronghold in Yemen.

Background to the attack

The incident comes as the Houthis face pressure and are suffering heavy losses. Yemeni forces, allied and backed by the UAE, have pushed back the rebels in key southern and central provinces, dashing Houthi efforts to complete their control of the entire northern half of Yemen.

Yemen’s government-aligned forces reclaimed the entire southern province of Shabwa from the Houthis earlier this month and made advances in nearby Marib province. They were aided by the UAE-backed Giants Brigades and had help from Saudi airstrikes.

Two weeks ago, Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates have joined coalition troops fighting the Houthi movement around the central city of Marib in a renewed push to secure the prize of an energy-producing region.

The battle for Marib, where the Iran-aligned Houthis had advanced on most districts barring the main city and nearby hydrocarbon sites, dashed hopes for any imminent truce that the United Nations and the United States have struggled to engineer.

U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, told the Security Council on Wednesday that both sides are “doubling down on military options” and warned of devastating implications for civilians and immediate peace prospects.

The nearly seven-year-old conflict, largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced millions and pushed Yemen to the verge of famine as the economy collapsed.

Over the past month, fighting in al-Jawf in the north, Marib in central Yemen and Shabwa in the south has displaced more than 15,000 people, according to the United Nations.

“People are pessimistic and do not know where the country is heading,” Abdullah al-Nisi, an engineer in Shabwa, told Reuters.

The Saudi-led coalition two weeks ago announced a new operation aimed at turning the tide after newly deployed UAE-backed Giants Brigade forces, supported by air strikes, expelled Houthi forces from oil-producing Shabwa, reopening access to Marib.

Political analysts considered the Houthi attack on Emirati facilities in Abu Dhabi a major military escalation and an indication of the Houthis’ concern about the UAE’s effective role in the Yemen war.

The Houthi attack came after a heightened political and media rhetoric against the UAE after recent battles, which resulted in the liberation of three districts in Shabwa, in addition to the Harib district in Marib, in which the forces of the southern Giants Brigade made significant progress.

In statements made in Tehran after meeting Iranian officials, including President Ibrahim Raisi, Houthi militia spokesman and head of its negotiating delegation, Muhammad Abdul Salam, vowed to launch more attacks against the UAE.

How will the UAE react?

By attacking the United Arab Emirates the Houthis sought to warn the Gulf state to stay out of a battle for prized energy regions in Yemen, where the Iran-aligned group has been angered by losses to forces backed by the powerful U.S. ally.

The UAE is unlikely to cede. Instead, one likely consequence of Monday’s deadly strike is sharper international scrutiny of Iran’s ties to the Houthis and other paramilitary forces that vie with Gulf Arab monarchies for influence around the Middle East, regional analysts said.

The unprecedented raid on Abu Dhabi, a futuristic metropolis of gleaming skyscrapers, showed the Houthis able to hit a second foreign adversary at long range, undaunted by threats of retaliation that followed similar attacks they have carried out against Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis raised the prospect of more such attacks.

The UAE, a Saudi ally, “should stop tampering in Yemen or have its arm, and those of others, cut,” Houthi spokesman and chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam said on Monday.

Regional sources say that while the attack poses no specific threat to the region’s top diplomatic priority — efforts to revive a 2015 Iranian nuclear deal — it deepens Gulf Arab doubts about Tehran’s willingness to defuse regional tensions.

Iran issued a carefully worded statement. Its foreign ministry, commenting on what it called “recent Yemen-linked developments”, said on Tuesday that military attacks were not a solution to the crisis in the region.

The UAE’s government has pledged to hold those responsible for the attack — suspected to have been carried out by drone — to account. Already on Tuesday, the Saudi-led coalition that’s been at war in Yemen since 2015 began carrying out airstrikes on camps and buildings in the capital of Sanaa belonging to Houthi militants, the coalition reported. The strikes around the Houthi-held city have so far killed around 20 people, a Houthi official told Reuters.

But many regional analysts point to what they believe is likely the directing force behind the Houthis’ attack: Iran.

The deadly drone attack has exposed the country’s vulnerability, analysts say, while also jeopardising its reputation as a tourism and business hub and pushing it towards rapprochement with Iran.

On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia launched air raids in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, killing more than a dozen people. The Houthis claimed 20 people were killed in the attacks.

While the UAE’s presidential adviser Anwar Gargash has denied that the “heinous” attack could affect the country’s stability and security, analysts say the incident uncovers a very different reality.

“This attack brings home to the UAE that they were playing the game of a major power in the region,” said Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. It made the Gulf country realise that “they are, after all a small state with a lot of vulnerabilities,” Krieg told Al Jazeera.

“This [the incident] is the greatest damage to the reputation of the UAE because they have always portrayed themselves as a safe and secure country to do business,” he said.

Marc-Owen Jones, assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University, agreed.

“It [the attack] totally undermines the UAE’s reputation as a place of stability especially vis-a-vis tourism, finance, and trade, but crucially it also casts doubt on their ability to build a nuclear power station,” Jones told Al Jazeera, referring to UAE’s nuclear energy ambitions.

Thus, if the UAE wants to maintain its reputation as a stable and reliable tourism hub, it would not be within its interests to reply to the Houthi attack military, which would lead to unprecedented escalation, involving and endangering the UAE and its population even more.


Hazem Zahab

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