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The recent drone attack on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) fuel depots by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels has caused escalation in the protracted conflict in Yemen and has underlined existing challenges in the region. The attack, which led to three casualties (two Indians and one Pakistani), marred the UAE’s image as a safe tourist cocoon amidst a volatile region. The UAE has been a key player in the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen since 2015. The Gulf state is also a close ally of the United States. The recent attack will have consequences that affect the geopolitics of the region.


Background of the Crisis in Yemen


The crisis in Yemen, which is now termed as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the UN agencies, started back in 2014 when the Houthi rebels took control of the capital city, Sanaa. The Houthis in Yemen, also known as the Ansar Allah or the Partisans of God, belong to the Zaydi school of Shiite Islam. In early 2000, tensions rose between the government in Sanaa and the Houthis. The anti-government demonstrations and skirmishes between the Saleh government and the Houthis continued till the Arab uprising in 2011, which led to the resignation of Saleh in November after months of protests. This did not however mean an end to the long-standing contention between Saleh’s government and the Houthi rebels. After the removal of Saleh, a power sharing arrangement was orchestrated by the Gulf States leading to Islah Party and the opposition making up for half of the Cabinet and parliament seats while the other half went to Saleh’s party. President Masour Hadi, formerly the Vice President of Yemen, swore in as President in February 2012.


 The Houthi’s takeover of Sanaa disturbed the traditional power matrix in Yemen held by Sunni Islamists, army generals and tribal chiefs. The rebels took control of government offices and institutions. This was despite an UN-brokered deal that was supposed to end the fighting in Yemen and put the country on the path of peaceful change along with the formation of a technocratic government within a month after consultation with all political parties. The deal also agreed for President Hadi to appoint key officers from the ranks of the Houthis and southern pro-separatist factions. However, one failed negotiation after another led the Houthi rebels to seize the presidential palace in January 2015, forcing Hadi to resign.


After the Houthi seizure of the palace, the Gulf States, led primarily by Saudi Arabia, aided by the United States, launched a military alliance (Operation Decisive Storm) to prevent the advances being made by the Houthis. Other West Asian states such as the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan, along with Pakistan, also committed to sending troops for ground offensive. Meanwhile, Iran, the key supporter of the Houthis, demanded an immediate halt to the operation. The Gulf support bolstered Hadi to retract his resignation and resurface in Aden, Yemen’s temporary capital, in 2015. He also declared all measures to control the capital by the Houthi rebels as void. Until 2016, all efforts made by the UN to broker peace between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels failed. In 2016, ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh was assassinated after breaking an agreement to form a political council by Saleh and the Houthis in 2016 to run the country. Hadi went into exile in Saudi Arabia, and violence in Yemen continued.


Recent Houthi-led Drone Attack on the UAE


The recent drone attack on the UAE claimed by the Houthis is a first of such direct attack on a member of the military alliance in Yemen since 2018. The last Houthi-claimed attack on Abu Dhabi Airport was in 2018, although the UAE government denied any such attack. Saudi Arabia has witnessed similar attacks from the Houthi rebels since the beginning of the conflict in 2015. A day after the Houthi attack on the UAE, the Saudi coalition attacked Sanaa, which led to the killing of 14 people. Even though the UAE has massively scaled down its presence in Yemen, it continues to train and supply arms to the Yemeni government. The attack, which has disturbed the otherwise safe tourist and business hub reputation of the UAE, was a loud signal from the rebel group to halt Abu Dhabi’s support in the fight against the Houthis.


The attack happened weeks before the Israeli President’s visit to the UAE. The timing and the intent of the attack were perhaps to display displeasure at the UAE’s attempts to deepen its ties with Israel, which has probably come at a price for the UAE with this attack. The UAE has been trying to walk a tightrope between Israel, the US, and Iran to bolster its trade and tourism ambitions. The UAE has been wary of Iran’s nuclear ambitions but is also concerned about any direct confrontation involving the US in the region. The recent attack certainly puts this concern in jeopardy and has escalated tensions in the Arabian Peninsula.


Implications for the Region


The attack has widespread regional implications. Firstly, the UAE has thus far presented itself as a safe business and tourist hub located in a volatile region. The attack has challenged that status making the UAE’s security vulnerable. The UAE has in the recent past tried to make efforts to de-escalate tensions with Iran. In December 2021, the UAE security official, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, visited Iran and met with President Ebrahim Raisi seeking to improve ties and establish security and stability in the region. It is without a doubt that following the attack, the UAE will expand its military operations against its adversaries in the Persian Gulf with the US’ help. The US has its air base at Al Dhafra in Abu Dhabi.


Secondly, the attack underscores the regional balance of power. The signing of the Abraham Accord in September 2020, under Trump administration, and the bid to normalise relations with Israel was to offset Iran’s regional ambitions. The Trump administration had also revoked the Iranian nuclear negotiations.


Certainly, Iran would not have sat back and witnessed this. It has used proxies against its adversaries in the past, and to counter this, it tried to strengthen the Axis of Resistance by resuming talks with the Syrian government, support to Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah. This, besides the continued support to the Houthi rebels, has been key to Iran’s strategy to respond to the changing geopolitics in the region.


Using the Axis of Resistance and proxies by Iran has been a cause of threat to Israel. Israel has seen the proliferation of Iranian missiles in the hands of proxies in its northern borders with Lebanon, Syria, and the Shiite-majority Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq. Certainly, Raisi’s foreign policy agenda, transcending ideology, points to Iran’s regional ambitions.


Iranian support to the drone missile attacks by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia are known. However, weeks before the attack on the UAE, Israel deployed Iron Dome and Patriot missile defense batteries around its southern tip of Eilat in anticipation of an attack orchestrated by Iran, in reaction to the anniversary of the killing of Qasim Soleimani. Israel fears the transfer of long-range missiles by Iran to the Houthi rebels, therefore making its security vulnerable.


Thirdly, the removal of the Houthis from the US list of terrorist groups in February 2021, a month after Biden’s inauguration, also had a foreseeable effect on the increased activities of the group in the region. In February 2021, Biden had announced the end of the US support to the Saudi coalition in Yemen. Further, in the same year, the administration resumed difficult talks on the nuclear negotiations with a resentful Iran through Vienna. It was an indication by the US that perhaps the Houthis would be coopted in the political process in Yemen, something that Iran has been calling for.


Lastly, the strategic attack on the UAE is, in a way, Iran’s indication of its regional dominance in view of deepening ties with Israel and to exert pressure on the US to stay on track with its compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA] by using the Houthis in Yemen to attack the US’ Gulf allies. Days after the attack, the UAE has claimed to have intercepted, with the help of the US, two ballistic missiles launched by the Houthi rebels, at a base in Abu Dhabi that stations 2000 Americans. The military spokesman of the Houthis, Yahya Sare’re, has claimed that they intended the missiles to attack the Al Dhafra air base, where the US military bases are stationed. It is unlikely that the United States will abandon its Gulf allies and its own military bases, but it is also left with two difficult options – one, sealing the nuclear deal with Iran; and two, prolonging the deal to show its displeasure after the escalation of violence. The latter seems unlikely. Overall, the Houthis, with this attack, have not only turned a new leaf in the conflict in Yemen but also for the geopolitics of the region, none of which seem to indicate a thaw in tensions.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.