Smoke rises from Houthi drone attack in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Photo Credit: Tasnim News Agency
By Navdeep Suri*
The four missile and drone attacks against the UAE in the space of less than three weeks are a cruel reminder of the fragility of peace moves in West Asia. Responsibility for the first three attacks that took place on 17, 24, and 31 January was claimed by the Houthis as retaliation for the UAE’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The Houthis have close ties with Iran, and it would be fair to assume that the missiles and drones used in these attacks are of Iranian origin, with Hizbollah technicians from Lebanon reportedly providing on-ground support. The fourth attack, an attempt by three armed drones to strike unknown targets in the UAE on 2 February 2022 has been attributed to a relatively unknown Iraqi Shia group with presumed ties to Iran. The missile attacks on 17 January and 31 January and the drone attack on 2 February were thwarted, while the drone attack on 24 January caused limited damage but resulted in the death of two Indian and one Pakistani national in Abu Dhabi.
And yet, 2021 had just ended with a glimmer of hope, a sense that some of the festering disputes in West Asia were heading towards a modicum of rapprochement, even if a lasting resolution was still some distance away.
The departure of President Trump and the decision of the Biden administration to pivot towards the Indo-Pacific provided some early impetus for regional players to settle their intra-regional quarrels. But the real momentum came after the shambolic way the US withdrew from Afghanistan in August. That brought a recognition that the onus of settling their internecine disputes might now have to rest on the uncertain shoulders of regional powers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Al Ula Accord at the GCC summit in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 had put to bed the boycott of Qatar by the Arab quartet comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. Later in the year, the visits to Qatar and Turkey by Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, the UAE’s powerful National Security Advisor, paved the way for a degree of normalisation in the UAE’s ties with these countries. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed visited Ankara in November to formally bury the hatchet and announced a US $10 billion investment package for the struggling Turkish economy. A return visit by President Erdogan is expected to Abu Dhabi soon to place the thaw on a more firm footing.
The visit of Sheikh Tahnoun to Tehran on 6 December 2021 was, perhaps, even more significant. Dr. Anwar Gargash, Diplomatic Advisor to the President of the UAE described the visit “as a continuation of Emirati efforts to strengthen ties and co-operation in the region” and that “the UAE seeks to solidify regional stability and prosperity through developing positive ties by dialogue”. He called on President Ebrahim Raisi and invited him to visit the UAE. Taken together with the ongoing talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, there was a muted expectation of an entente between Iran and its two main rivals across the Gulf.
The attacks on Abu Dhabi have now placed a question mark around some of these efforts, and it is important to look at reaction of some of the dramatis personae.
The United States
The US has been drawn back into the region despite its apparent desire to reduce its footprint. The missile attack on 17 January was aimed at the UAE’s strategic Al Dhafra airbase where the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing of the US Airforce is based. Around 2,000 US military and civilian personnel are also based at Al Dhafra, as are Patriot missile batteries to defend the facility. A US Central Command spokesperson confirmed that the Patriot interceptors were used to bring down two of the missiles, while the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which the UAE acquired at a cost of over US $1 billion, was used in two interceptions. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the Head of the Central Command, said that this was the first time ever that the THAAD system has been fired in combat.
The US has responded to subsequent attacks by dispatching the guided missile destroyer USS Cole and advanced F-22 fighter aircraft to bolster the UAE’s defensive capabilities. Following a phone call between Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, the US embassy in Abu Dhabi confirmed the deployment, adding other actions to include “continuing to provide early warning intelligence (and) collaborating on air defense”. That collaboration was clearly visible in the speed with which the UAE F-16s hit back to destroy the Houthi missile launchpads in Yemen.
Gen. McKenzie himself arrived in Abu Dhabi on 6 February to boost the UAE’s defenses and underscore the seriousness with which the US is viewing the attacks on Abu Dhabi and the threat to its own facilities in the region. The F-22s, he said, have one of the best look-down radars in the world, capable of identifying targets including land attack cruise missiles and drones.
At first glance, the attacks on the UAE appear to reflect the frustration of the Houthis following dramatic losses on the battlefield. Until a month back, they appeared to be consolidating their hold on additional regions in Yemen. Control over three key districts in the oil-rich Shabwa governorate had opened up the possibility that they could also seize the neighbouring Marib governorate. The fall of Shabwa and Marib to the Houthis would have left the Aden-based government of President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi in an untenable situation.
The urgency of the situation persuaded the Saudis to coordinate more effectively with the Emiratis and pay heed to their longstanding demand for the removal of Shabwa governor Mohammed Saleh bin Adio. He was seen as ineffective in fending off the advances of Houthi forces and the fact that he was also a member of the Islamist Islah party didn’t help matters. His outburst against Emirati interference in Yemen was probably the last straw for Abu Dhabi. But once he was replaced by Abu Dhabi’s preferred candidate Awad al Awlaki, the UAE-supported Al-Weyat al-Amaliqa or the Giants Brigades militia quickly swung into action. By 10 January, they had succeeded in pushing the Houthis out of Shabwa, demonstrating once again that the Emiratis and their local partners are the principal resistance against the Houthis.
Where does this leave the Houthis? Will the latest setbacks convince their leadership that the war is also unwinnable for them? Will they agree to come back to the negotiating table with a more serious intent? Or will they continue flailing at Abu Dhabi, particularly if it fits into the strategy of their Iranian patrons? For now, these tactics may have backfired. They’ve strengthened the resolve of the Emiratis and reinvigorated the Saudi-led coalition. And they’ve brought the US back into the fray, probably with the recognition that it can’t really walk away from the region.
Iran has been remarkably quiet over the developments, mostly allowing the Houthis and the official Tehran Times to do the talking. Threats by Houthi spokespersons that the attacks are aimed at punishing the UAE for its role in Iran and their warnings of further escalation have received wide coverage, while little has been said or done to condemn the attacks or indeed to restrain the Houthis. It would appear that Tehran has one eye on Washington and the other on the JCPOA talks in Vienna as it plays its cards. As in the case of missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2019, there is little doubt about Iran’s role in orchestrating the latest round. By using proxies like the Houthis or friendly groups in Iraq, Tehran can maintain the fiction of deniability and avoid a direct response even as it sends a ‘pay heed or else’ kind of unspoken message to its interlocuters outside the region. It’s a low-cost strategy that has worked well in the past.
Going forward, a lot will hinge on the outcome of the current and possibly final round of talks that have commenced in Vienna on 8 February. The initial soundings out of Vienna suggest that there is room for cautious optimism. “A deal that addresses all sides’ core concerns is in sight, but if it is not reached in the coming weeks, Iran’s ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible for us to return to the JCPOA,” a US State Department spokesperson said on the eve of the talks. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said the answers that “the United States brings tomorrow to Vienna will determine when we can reach an agreement…We have made significant progress in various areas of the Vienna negotiations.” Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian negotiator at the talks went a step further to say, “We are five minutes away from the finish line…A draft of the final document has been crafted. There are several points there that need more work, but that document is already on the table.”
Ties between the UAE and Israel have blossomed in the wake of the Abraham Accords, with direct flights, regular visits of business and official delegations and a growing agenda of defence, intelligence, scientific and economic cooperation. The two countries have a shared antipathy towards Iran and until recently, both saw it as something of an existential threat. While Israel has been largely obsessed with Iran’s nuclear program, the UAE has also expressed concern over its meddling in several Arab countries, often through Shia communities in an arc ranging from Yemen and Bahrain to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran, by the same token, sees the Abraham Accords as a threat and has been vocal in its opposition, often describing the normalisation of ties with Israel as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.
The Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, was, in fact, on a historic visit to Abu Dhabi when the Houthi missiles were intercepted above Abu Dhabi on 31 January. That didn’t deter President Herzog from continuing with a programme that included a visit to the Israeli Pavilion at the busy Dubai Expo. To the contrary, reports suggest that Israel may now be more responsive to the UAE’s interest in purchasing top of the line air defence systems. It remains to be seen whether Israel would offer its vaunted Iron Dome system that has provided its cities with remarkable protection against missiles and drones unleashed by Hamas forces from Gaza.
Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the anti-Houthi coalition, also responded to the attacks on Abu Dhabi by launching airstrikes against Houthi strongholds and reports suggest significant casualties and possible collateral damage on the ground. Riyadh has also been at the receiving end of the Houthis’ asymmetric warfare strategy. Its cities and airports have been targeted by Houthi missiles and drones on multiple occasions. The most serious of these was the attack on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq-Khurais facilities on 14 September 2019 but although the Houthis claimed responsibility for it, other reports suggested that the wave of drones was launched from southern Iraq, or possibly from Iran itself.
The UAE’s decision to pull out a majority of its troops from Yemen earlier in February 2019 had caused a degree of friction between the two close allies and allowed the Houthis to make significant advances in the battlefield over the last few months. But the UAE’s renewed coordination with the Saudis and its active support to the Giants Brigades has altered the situation swiftly.
The Saudis, meanwhile, have been relying on the good offices of Iraq to renew the first substantive dialogue with Iran since diplomatic ties were ruptured in 2016. Some headway has clearly been made and the Iranians have resumed their representation at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) headquarters in Jeddah by sending three diplomats. After four rounds of talks in Baghdad, the Iranian semi-official news agency Fars reported on 5 February that President Raisi has spoken on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi and conveyed that “Iran is ready to continue these negotiations until reaching an outcome, provided that the Saudis are willing to continue the negotiations in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect.”
The Emiratis, it is worth recalling, were always reluctant to enter the Yemeni quagmire. They reluctantly joined their Saudi allies because they knew that the Saudi forces wouldn’t be up to the task. They also recognised that without their active participation, a military setback to the Saudis was imminent and that this would hand a strategic advantage to Iran. But after five years, they had realised that the war was unwinnable and their continued presence in the country came at a heavy financial and reputational cost. This was also the time that Abu Dhabi was veering away from its distinctly assertive foreign policy posture of the previous decade to declare that they would work for peace and prosperity in the region.
The UAE has so far refrained from pointing the finger directly towards Iran. The missile and drone attacks are a grim reminder of the vulnerability of Dubai and Abu Dhabi to the actions of a capricious neighbour situated a mere 150 kilometres across the Gulf. Having invested in an improved relationship with Tehran, Abu Dhabi has tried to be extremely circumspect in its reaction. It has condemned the Houthis and demanded that the US should put them back on the terrorist list but hasn’t spoken against the Iranian patrons. For now, the focus is on highlighting the military capabilities of the country in repulsing the attacks and punishing the aggression while showing that the streets are busy, the markets are crowded and the schools have reopened. The Dubai Expo is underway and the country has also undertaken a number of significant reforms to make the UAE a more business-friendly destination. For now, Abu Dhabi would prefer to remain focused on its ‘collective peace and prosperity’ agenda.
The Way Ahead?
Even as the Emiratis and their US allies keep a close watch on the skies for the next missile or drone headed their way, they will also keep an eye on the unfolding scenario in Vienna. A successful revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has the potential to alter the dynamics in the region, particularly if it combines with progress in the talks initiated by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with Tehran. The elephant in the room, though, isn’t just what happens in these talks or indeed in Vienna. A lot also depends on what happens in Tehran itself, where hard-line factions may have to quietly retrench from some of their stated positions.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed has finally met Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani on the side-lines of the Beijing Winter Olympics and President Erdogan is soon headed towards Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Valentine is round the corner and maybe, just maybe, spring is in the air!
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).