After Abu Dhabi, Is Israel's Red Sea Port of Eilat Next Target for Houthi Drone Strike?

Drone and missile attack on UAE oil facilities and airport sends a message about the war in Yemen, and an equally strong signal to the U.S. and Israel about Iran’s determination

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Eilat, Sinai and Egypt, in a nighttime view from the International Space Station
Eilat, Sinai and Egypt, in a nighttime view from the International Space StationCredit: NASA
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

More than 24 hours after the fact, Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett condemned the drone and missile attack on the oil facilities and international airport in Abu Dhabi. Three people were killed in the attack, which occurred in broad daylight on Monday morning and also caused massive property damage.

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But the Israeli media, preoccupied with stories about the pandemic, a possible plea bargain for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and police use of NSO’s Pegasus spyware, gave the strike in the Gulf short shrift.

The Houthi organization that operates in Yemen with Iranian support claimed responsibility for the attack, an event that chiefly attests to the Islamic Republic’s boldness and determination. The signal it sends was intended not only for the United States and Israel as the nuclear talks resume, but also for the Gulf states, in wake of the Emirates’ renewed actions in Yemen. The message is that Iran, through its proxies in the Middle East, has no intention of backing down from its ambition of regional hegemony – not in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen. The attack may also be an expression of the Houthis’ mounting frustration at their futile efforts over the last two years to conquer Marib, a city of significance.

Smoke rising from Abu Dhabi's port following the Houthi strike, as seen from a video circulating social media.Credit: Screenshot

The attack was carried out from Yemeni territory, some 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) from Abu Dhabi. Bear in mind that the distance from this launching area to Eilat is 1,500 kilometers. The Houthis have previously threatened to fire missiles at Israel, and the Israeli defense establishment takes these threats seriously. Netanyahu once cited Yemen as another threat to Israel and, following his comments, Israel likely stepped up intelligence-gathering efforts in that country, with an emphasis on the cooperation between the Houthis and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Quds Force. It’s also possible that Israel strengthened its missile and drone detection and interception capabilities on the southern front.

After the Abu Dhabi strike, Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid held consultations on Monday night, and decided to wait with their response. After the United States condemned the attack, Bennett issued a brief statement that said: “I strongly condemn the terror attacks in Abu Dhabi carried out by the Iranian-backed Houthis and send condolences to the families of the innocent victims. Israel stands with the UAE. I stand with [crown prince and acting ruler] Mohammed bin Zayed.”

The Houthis control 60 percent of Yemeni territory, primarily in the north and center of the country, including the capital Sanaa. The area they have conquered is home to 16 million people, or about half of Yemen’s population. Diplomatic and defense sources in Israel believe the direct pretext for the attack was the Emirates’ renewed intervention in the civil war in Yemen.

Eilat seen from Jordan's Aqaba. The attack was carried out from Yemeni territory, some 1,200 kilometers from Abu Dhabi. The distance from this launching area to Eilat is 1,500 kilometers.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

As part of the Saudi-led coalition, the UAE’s air force resumed its strikes against Houthi strongholds. In addition, the UAE stepped up its arms shipments to Yemen’s Aden-based government – the Houthis even captured a ship flying the UAE flag as it was nearing Yemen’s shores. At first, Abu Dhabi tried to claim that the ship was carrying humanitarian aid, but footage of the cargo left no room for doubt. The ship was hauling military equipment, armored vehicles and communications devices. Saudi Arabia’s call for the ship’s release went unanswered.

This is not the first time the Houthis have launched an aerial attack on the Gulf, and at Abu Dhabi specifically. They launched a similar attack over two years ago, but there were no casualties then. Abu Dhabi kept the details under wraps, but in wake of that attack, the UAE reduced its involvement in the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia was left to bear the lion’s share of the burden alone.

In 2019, the Houthis claimed responsibility for another missile and drone attack, this time on the Aramco company’s oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia. Although American intelligence found that the attack was carried out from Iranian territory, the Trump administration chose not to respond to it, thereby conveying a message of weakness to Tehran. Subsequently, Saudi oil facilities were attacked again, this time from Iraqi territory, with a Shiite militia claiming responsibility. The United States and Israel were quite confident that this attack was also planned and authorized in Tehran.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in December.Credit: WAM / REUTERS

But at this stage, it not yet certain that the attack on Abu Dhabi was an Iranian initiative. Which is why, at least for now, the Biden administration is not mentioning Iran in connection with it, as Bennett did in his statement. Israeli sources monitoring events in Yemen believe that, unlike the Shiite militias in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis will often launch operations without waiting for Tehran’s approval. However, there is no question that Iranian aid – which includes supplying arms with an emphasis on missiles and drones, Iranian advisors and Lebanese Hezbollah members – is what is enabling the Houthis to maintain their grip and perpetuate the war in Yemen.

The Houthis’ interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has grown over the last couple of years, and they have amplified their threats to use their weaponry against Israel. The last time they did so was during Operation Guardian of the Walls in May. They have also showed this interest in other ways: When Saudi Arabia once proposed a deal to the Houthis for the release of two Saudi pilots, the Houthis demanded in return, among other conditions, the release of Hamas prisoners from Saudi jails.

Another interesting side note: Mohammed Abdul Salam, Houthi spokesman and head of the Houthi delegation to the Yemen peace talks, visited Tehran this week. At his meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, he called the UAE “a small country that is dependent upon the goodwill of the United States and Israel.”

Even if the attack on Abu Dhabi was not done at Tehran’s direct behest, it unquestionably could not have happened without Iran’s ongoing support of the Houthis. The meticulous planning, combined with the capacity to fire missiles and drones simultaneously at a number of targets, shows a high level of daring and sophistication. The Houthis’ arsenal also includes long-range missiles, explosive motorboats and shore-based missile systems, and with the proximity of the areas they control to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, they can also threaten the shipping traffic to Eilat from the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea.

Israel sees strategic importance in its freedom of naval traffic to its south, which explains why, for decades, its air force and navy operated near the Yemen area. According to foreign media reports, they still do today. Although it is rather unlikely, Israel must still contend with the possibility that, as part of a wide-scale war, it could find itself under attack from Yemen as well.

And there is one more lesson to be drawn from the attack on Abu Dhabi. Besides the United States, whose level of commitment to its friends in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world is often questionable, the UAE has another important ally: Israel. A shared wariness of Iran was one incentive for the signing of the Abraham Accords two years ago. In wake of the recent attack, cooperation between the two countries may well deepen, and in the near future we could see the Emiratis acquiring Israeli radar, Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems. Discussions to this effect have been going on for some time already.

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