One week after a first attack on the United Arab Emirates, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels fired ballistic missiles at Abu Dhabi and Dubai on Monday. The attacks mark a new chapter in the crisis that has engulfed Yemen, according to Marc Goutalier, a geostrategy consultant and Middle East specialist.
The UAE intercepted and destroyed two ballistic missiles launched by Houthi rebels on Monday, just one week after the group carried out a deadly drone attack on the capital Abu Dhabi. The Houthi rebels, a predominantly Shiite Iran-backed militia, currently controls the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, located just 1,500 kilometres (932 miles) from Abu Dhabi.
A military spokesman for the Houthis, Yahya Sare’e, confirmed the group was responsible for Monday’s attack and said the missiles were aimed at the regional economic powerhouse of Dubai and the Al-Dhafra air base in Abu Dhabi, where French and US military personnel are stationed. Earlier that same night, Houthi missiles had also targeted Dhahran Al Janub, a town in southern Saudi Arabia. Two people were killed in the town of Jazan.
In response to the attacks, the Saudi-led coalition said it had destroyed a “ballistic missile launch platform in the Al Jawf region” in northern Yemen.
Conflict has reigned in Yemen since the Houthis seized control of most of Sanaa in late 2014. Now it seems the Houthi militia is expanding the conflict beyond national borders into neighbouring countries in the Arabian Peninsula.
The attacks come as military forces from the UAE have helped recapture territory seized by the Houthis in the central Yemeni province of Shabwa. At the same time, international attacks have been facilitated by the Houthis’ growing arsenal, said Marc Goutalier, a geostrategy consultant and Middle East specialist who is the author of a book on borders in the region (Quand le printemps brouille les cartes : Une histoire stratégique des frontières arabes).
FRANCE 24: How is your view of the conflict shifting as it spreads to nearby countries, including the UAE?
Marc Goutalier: A new chapter of the war in Yemen is beginning. After the first attack last week against Abu Dhabi, the Houthis said on Monday they were responsible for subsequent attacks on the capital as well as Dubai. This is linked to the context on the ground in Yemen; fighting has recently intensified between the Houthis and militias supported by the Emirates in Shabwa province. The conflict in Shabwa has turned in favour of Abu Dhabi’s allies, and the Houthis, who have lost territory, have responded by attacking the UAE directly.
The Houthis threatened to do this in the early years of the conflict, but didn’t – probably because they didn’t have the resources at the time. However, in 2019 the Houthis did attack the UAE border in Shaybah, a major crude oil production site in Saudi Arabia. At the time, the message hit home, because from one day to the next Saudi Arabia announced that it was withdrawing from the conflict.
During this period, the UAE also seemed to withdraw because it wanted to secure its own territory and concentrate on organising the World Expo 2020 in Dubai, which is still happening. The UAE invested a lot in the exhibition to breathe new life into its economy and attract new investors.
The Houthis know they cannot defeat the UAE militarily since it is one of the few credible military forces in the Gulf region. But by striking on its territory, the militants are targeting the UAE’s ambitions for development and symbols of its economic power. In terms of image and potential economic consequences, these attacks could be disastrous over time.
The risk for the Houthis – who want Abu Dhabi to withdraw from the conflict – is that the UAE will become even more involved on the ground because logic dictates that the UAE will respond to the attacks.
The Houthis also have sophisticated weaponry at their disposal, which allows them to carry out long-range attacks on targets in the UAE. Where do these weapons come from?
Whatever the Saudi-led coalition is able to do, and whatever the strategy, the Houthis continue to amass resources and fire missiles. There are a few factors that explain how the Houthis have managed to increase their strike force and expand their weaponry significantly. First, we need to remember that they have had resources since the beginning of the conflict – when they seized what used to be North Yemen, the rebels claimed the weapons arsenal that belonged to the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Notably, this contained a number of ballistic missiles. The Houthis have also incorporated a number of former Yemeni army soldiers into their ranks who know how to operate these kinds of missiles.
Additionally, they have taken over weapons trafficking networks. These are substantial, as Yemen has been a regional hub for this kind of trafficking for decades. Fares Manaa, one of the most famous weapons traffickers in the country and who was close to ex-president Saleh, is now a minister in the Houthi government.
They also have external support, most obviously from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has given them access to more sophisticated technology. This support has been key.
How has Iran been supporting the Houthis?
Everything leads back to Tehran, despite the denials of both the Iranians and the Houthis themselves. Iran has been accused by the United Nations of disrespecting the embargo on sending weapons to Yemen because it has been sending all kinds of arms to its Shiite allies in the Houthis.
And it is not just missiles that are passing through the cracks in the blockade. Tehran has also provided a lot of individual parts, which are harder to track and don’t necessarily fall under the UN sanctions. These parts are mostly used to assemble drones, such as those used to attack the UAE and which are completely revolutionising warfare in the Middle East and beyond.
The Houthis have also received training from Iranian instructors – mostly from the Quds Force, which is a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, but also from Hezbollah in Lebanon. We don’t know how many instructors or how many weapons the Houthis have but we do know that, over the years, their arsenal has continued to grow in quantity and quality, as their ability to attack long-distance targets demonstrates.
The fact that they have frequently taken aim at Saudi territory has allowed the Houthis to become increasingly precise and to do real damage. Experts from the UN found missiles and equipment among debris with elements that are undoubtedly linked to Iranian technology, either because they came from Iran directly or because they were identified as Chinese military technology, which Iran has purchased.
The most worrying factor for the Saudis and the Emirates is that these missiles are effective and inexpensive to make – but stopping them means that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have to spend a fortune importing equipment from overseas.
This article was translated from the original in French.