The Attack on Abu Dhabi: Dilemmas, Threats, and Opportunities

by May 2022
A Houthi supporter holds a weapon in Yemen. Photo credit: Hani Al-Ansi/dpa

Three global hot spots are developing in early 2022. In Europe, the crisis in Ukraine overshadows all else; in the Far East, the crises of Taiwan and the South China Sea threaten to boil over; and in the Gulf, the nuclear crisis and the conflict in Yemen are dangerously linked. While world attention is focused upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we need not forget that the confrontation between the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is once again escalating. Given the blunt Houthi threats, the potential for missile strikes on Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world, could take us back in time to 9/11—thousands dead, a tower collapsing, and possibly an intensified and longer war would follow.

Since the beginning of 2022, the Houthis have launched four significant attacks on the UAE. On January 17, Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s seat of governance, was attacked. As part of the attack, three fuel tanks were damaged and exploded in an industrial area near the warehouses of the national fuel company, ADNOC. Another hit was at a construction site at the Abu Dhabi International Airport. Two Indians and Pakistani residents of the UAE were killed. The Houthi (or by their own name, Ansarallah) regime, now in control of large parts of Yemen and backed by Iran, claimed responsibility and threatened to conduct further attacks if Abu Dhabi continued to support their rivals in the war in Yemen (UAE-backed forces have indeed made significant gains on the ground). 

Indeed, another attack took place on the night of January 23, when two ballistic missiles were fired at Abu Dhabi—missiles intercepted by an American system—the first successful operational interception by the THAAD missiles. On January 30, another shooting was carried out in Abu Dhabi, timed precisely during the official visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog. The missile was intercepted and the launch facility in Yemen was destroyed. Iran’s proxies did not lie idle either. The next day, seven UAVs were launched from Iraq into UAE airspace, all of which were successfully intercepted.

An analysis of all recent attacks illustrates that the first barrage surprised Abu Dhabi. About 20 Quds-2 cruise missiles and UAVs made in Yemen were launched and possibly also “Dhulfiqar” ballistic missiles made in Iran. In past cases, the Houthis’ threats of widespread attack did not come to pass. But at the same time, the January 17 attack is reminiscent of the decisive Iranian attack in September 2019 on the main oil rig in Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia. This attack was also initially attributed to the Houthis in Yemen, but later it became clear that the cruise missiles and UAVs were launched directly from Iran by the Air Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In all, the attacks on Abu Dhabi have the potential to affect all regional actors and their relationships, as well as to provoke Washington to rethink the US disengagement from the Middle East.

Missiles and drone aircrafts are seen on display at an exhibition at an unidentified location in Yemen in this photo released by the Houthi Media Office. Photo credit: REUTERS

Why the Attacks on the Emirates?

In recent weeks the war in Yemen has undergone a certain turnaround. The Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies captured Shabwa province from the Houthis and also started contesting parts of Marib, an energy-rich province that the Houthis had conquered from the Yemeni government. As part of what appears to be a joint strategy of the UAE and Saudi Arabia to continue to support Yemen’s legitimate government, Abu Dhabi has also stepped up its support for anti-Houthi groups, such as the “Giants’ Brigades,” which played a key role in the reoccupation of Shabwa district. In addition, the Saudi Air Force has stepped up its airstrikes on the Houthis in response to the ongoing weekly barrage of missiles and drones on Saudi Arabia. 

The Houthis want to deter the UAE from continuing to support militia operations in Yemen. As of this writing, however, it seems that the Houthi deterrence strategy has not worked out well.

The relative success of the Saudi-led coalition on the battlefield has provoked the Houthis, who have now chosen to respond directly against the UAE, apparently to raise the price of UAE actions in Yemen and to force them to withdraw from their commitment to local forces (bearing in mind that the UAE withdrew its forces from Yemen in 2019). Given that Saudi Arabia does not give the ongoing Houthi attacks much publicity, having already grown accustomed to them, the Houthis have been tempted to point their long-range weapons at the UAE—an economic, commercial, and tourist center far more sensitive and fragile than Saudi Arabia. 

The Iranians, for their part, who are behind the Houthis’ campaign, are encouraged by their ability to simultaneously negotiate in Vienna and act militarily against their enemies in the Middle East (US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE), without the latter (except Israel) retaliating. Furthermore, it seems that the UAE’s senior role in the Abraham Accords peace agreements with Israel has also motivated the Iranians to prod their proxy into launching blows against the UAE.

A Surprise? No. An Escalation? Yes

The attack on Abu Dhabi did not come as a surprise—not to the UAE, Israel, or anyone who is following the war in Yemen. The capabilities of the Houthis in Yemen to deploy large-scale force using long-range unmanned missiles and aircraft, built on the basis of Iranian technological and financial assistance, are known to Israeli, American, Saudi, and Emirati intelligence. The intention to launch at the UAE was also not a surprise as the Houthi spokesman had threatened to do so a few days before the attack. In the Middle East, however, not every threat materializes, and the intensity of the attack has certainly exceeded the Emirati expectations and constitutes an escalation of the conflict. 

The international community condemned the attack, including the UN secretary-general, who condemned indiscriminate attacks on civilians, European countries, and even China and the Taliban in Afghanistan. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken even called his Emirati colleague, Abdullah bin Zayd, to express support for the UAE, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has vowed to support the UAE and hold the Houthis accountable. 

It is important to remember the UAE’s disappointment with its ally, the United States, both over the delay in arms deals (due to disputes over the UAE’s defense relations with China) and over the fact that the Biden administration’s first step in the Middle East was to remove the Houthis from the terror list. But at the same time, it is important to note that after the first attack by the Houthis, the Americans did take an active part in defending Abu Dhabi and even sent a naval and air force task force to strengthen the UAE military capabilities in case of escalation.

The UAE will have to decide whether to increase their activity against the Houthis in Yemen or, alternatively, reduce their activity as they did in 2019.

The Strategic Dilemmas of the Players

The attacks on the UAE create strategic dilemmas for all players. At its core, this is a practical matter: How to manage the tension between deterrence and escalation.

The Houthis want to deter the UAE from continuing to support militia operations in Yemen. As of this writing, however, it seems that the Houthi deterrence strategy has not worked out well. Less than a day after the January 17 attack, coalition airstrikes targeted Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, which has been under Houthi control since 2014, killing dozens. In one of the attacks, with the help of accurate intelligence, key Houthi officials were killed, including the commander of the Houthi Air Force in Sanaa, Brigadier General Abdullah Qassem al-Junaid, who was responsible for building the power of the unmanned vessels in Yemen, after having been trained in Iran and Lebanon. Missile launch bases and launchers of Shiite forces were also attacked, and the coalition airstrikes apparently managed to cause significant damage to the Houthis’ launch capability.

The UAE will have to decide whether to increase their activity against the Houthis in Yemen or, alternatively, reduce their activity as they did in 2019. The damage to the UAE’s economy—based on financial institutions, tourism, aviation, and mainly dependent on stability and security—will be a major consideration in managing the tension between deterrence and escalation. But the more important strategic dilemma facing the UAE is its relationship with Iran.

Abu Dhabi’s “strategic compass” in the past year has been “zero problems with the neighbors—calm and reconciliation,” including with Iran. Thus, the two countries have conducted high-level contacts in recent months in order to alleviate regional tensions. The Emirates are now asking themselves whether Tehran nevertheless had a direct role in the attack. Given the substantial support they receive from the IRGC, the Houthis often make decisions that are not in Tehran’s interest. At the same time, however, any Iranian attempts to deny their involvement may be undermined by reports suggesting that senior Houthi negotiator Muhammed Abdul-Salam met in Tehran with President Ebrahim Raisi and Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani shortly before the first attack. President Raisi’s planned visit to Abu Dhabi next month, or its cancellation, may be an indicator of the strategic direction chosen by the Crown Prince (and effectively the ruler of the UAE) Mohamed bin Zayed.

American recognition of the Houthis as a terrorist organization is important to the UAE leadership, which probably feels frustrated by the Biden administration’s indecision in this regard.

The United States also plays a key role in the Gulf conflict. The dilemma in Washington is related to the war in Yemen. The US administration had hoped the war would end in negotiations between the parties and begin to effectively address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, considered the most severe one so far of the 21st century. Moreover, the Americans, who are interested in reaching a nuclear agreement in Vienna with the Iranians, do not want an escalation in the Gulf. 

At the same time, however, US credibility in the Middle East is at an unprecedented low. Washington’s failure to defend its allies and the apparent willingness to abandon them to Iranian-sponsored terrorism could further undermine American credibility. A lack of American diplomatic and military support may encourage Arab allies to seek sponsorship in Russia or China, hoping to have better support. Therefore, the Americans must clarify to their allies two things: first, whether they are capable of defending their allies and their own forces from the Iranian drones and cruise missile barrages; and second, whether they are able to rehabilitate their deterrent credibility, which has been severely damaged by attacks on their forces in Syria and Iraq and on their allies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

Washington will also have to resolve the dilemma of how to continue negotiations to end the war in Yemen and provide humanitarian assistance to millions of Yemeni civilians affected by the war and, at the same time, in light of the attack in Abu Dhabi, to re-list the Houthis as a terrorist organization, a decision previously made by the Trump administration and overturned by the Biden administration. In fact, American recognition of the Houthis as a terrorist organization is important to the UAE leadership, which probably feels frustrated by the Biden administration’s indecision in this regard. 

Above all, the strategic objective for Washington is the need to strengthen the credibility of their policies in the world, especially after the problematic message conveyed by the manner in which the US withdrew from Afghanistan. Active aid to the UAE, following the assassination of the ISIS leader in Syria, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, has returned some color to American cheeks. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Americans now prefer to concentrate on the crisis in Ukraine, with Russia under Putin’s leadership posing a more significant challenge than Iran and its proxies in the Middle East.

China is also in a dilemma after the Houthi attack on the Emirates, a place where 200,000 Chinese live and 6,000 Chinese companies operate. Furthermore, the UAE is China’s largest logistical trade hub, as more than 60% of Chinese goods in the region transit through it. Despite its ties with all sides in the Gulf, China has condemned most of the Houthi attacks against the Emirates. Yet China’s silence following the attack on American targets in the UAE may imply that Beijing aspires that American interests in the Gulf will continue to be harmed. Hence, it is not inconceivable that China would prefer to see the US slowly lose its grip in the Gulf. With China being partners with both sides in the Yemen conflict, a state of relative stability in the region is important to Beijing.

The Iranian dilemma is simpler. Since Trump’s departure, Iran feels more secure and recognizes all too well that the Americans are unwilling to escalate the situation. Thus, Tehran perceives that Washington is not even interested in responding in a measured way to their provocations—the lack of American retaliation to the attacks against their forces in Iraq and Syria sent a clear message to the Iranians that there was no risk in unleashing their proxies against US targets and those of the American allies. The Iranians may believe that an assassination like that of Qasem Soleimani will not repeat itself, and that the strategic trend of expelling the Americans from the Middle East and weakening its Arab allies can be continued. Nevertheless, one of Tehran’s tactical pillars is the preference of proxy warfare over direct activity that can lead to conflicts that Iran is not interested in risking. In addition, Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine is playing in favor of the Iranians—giving them leverage in the energy market, diverting attention from their negative activities in the Gulf, and in general further weakening the US position.

Finally, the Israeli dilemma is related to the Jewish state’s willingness to help countries that have chosen to normalize relations with it. However, Israel is currently reluctant to transfer air defense weapons to the UAE. This reluctance stems from Jerusalem’s desire to maintain the unique technologies of its defense systems, as well as preventing a precedent of eroding its qualitative advantage—a move that has already begun in light of its consent to sell F-35 aircraft to the UAE. 

This reluctance can be overcome, however, and an important strategic step that will provide better air defense to the Emirates and even to Saudi Arabia is still possible. There are two benefits to this step. Firstly, it will greatly strengthen the sense of the residents of the Arabian Peninsula that the alliance with Israel improves their situation, and does not just bring condemnation and perhaps future military attacks of the kind experienced recently. Israel also needs to study the characteristics of the attack from Yemen to Abu Dhabi, especially since the distance from Sanaa to Abu Dhabi is similar to the distance from Sanaa to Eilat. Israel, of course, has much better intelligence, detection, and interception capabilities—but even these capabilities do not guarantee hermetic protection. Secondly, it will inject a lot of resources into Israel’s defense industries and may help accelerate the more efficient Laser Air Defense system, which Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently announced that Israel is developing and would deploy in the future.

Saudi-led coalition spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, displays the debris of a ballistic missile which he says was launched by Yemen’s Houthi group towards the capital Riyadh. Photo credit: REUTERS
Saudi-led coalition spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, displays the debris of a ballistic missile which he says was launched by Yemen’s Houthi group towards the capital Riyadh. Photo credit: REUTERS

Following the attacks on Abu Dhabi, Bennett sent a letter to the heir to the throne, Mohamed bin Zayed, in which he offered “intelligence and security assistance, to protect the Emirates’ citizens from similar attacks.” Bennett also wrote that he instructed “the Israeli security forces to provide their counterparts in the United Arab Emirates with any assistance that may be required.” The determination of Abu Dhabi to continue promoting relations with Jerusalem, despite the concrete prices and potential risks paid, is also worthy of appreciation and requires a mutual move on the part of Israel. The warm public welcome to Israeli President Herzog, despite the shooting from Yemen, is an important gesture that constitutes another important pillar in relations between the two countries. 

Similar to his visit to the UAE in December 2021, Bennett’s visit to Bahrain in February 2022 also strengthened the relationship between Israel and the Gulf states. Bennett’s visit, as well as Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s visit to Manama when the Iranians apparently launched UAVs to Israel—which were intercepted in Iraq by the Americans—reinforces the need to establish a Middle East Air Defense Treaty (MEADT) against the Iranian threat. This regional defense partnership against Iran’s air and missile threats could well be achievable and perhaps develop as a Middle East Air Defense Alliance. Certain indicators following the historic foreign ministers meeting in Sde Boker on March 28, 2022 seem to confirm that this option is under active consideration.

Beyond words, it is time for action. There is a historic opportunity here to strengthen the Abraham Accords and perhaps to lay the foundations for a joint Israel–US–UAE air defense alliance, extended in the future also to Saudi Arabia, against the threat of Iran’s precision attacks, with advanced missiles and UAVs.

Amos Yadlin
Major General (res.) Amos Yadlin is a fighter pilot, former Director of Military Intelligence and head of the Institute for National Security Studies, and is currently a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
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