Two attacks combining missiles and drones in the space of a week have shaken the legendary peace and prosperity of the United Arab Emirates and may portend a new era of rising security risks, analysts say.
The two attacks launched from Yemen by Houthi militants – the first on January 17 and the second on January 24 – were relatively minor. The first left three people dead and six wounded, and caused minor damage; the second was intercepted by U.S. and Emirati defenses.
Still, many analysts say the attacks threaten to undercut the UAE’s reputation as a safe and secure oasis for business and tourism, in a region wracked by war, terrorism and political instability.
“It’s something the Saudis have been dealing with since 2018 rather quietly and without eliciting much international sympathy or condemnation of the Houthis,” said Karen Young, director of the Program on Economics and Energy at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
With the Emirates, however, “this seems to resonate differently because of the UAE’s reputation – more people travel there and work there. It changes how people perceive the country. ... No one wants to live and operate in a country under direct threat on a regular basis – it’s a bad escalation,” she said.
Because it is leading the Yemeni government’s fight against the Houthis in the country’s brutal civil war, Saudi Arabia is regularly targeted by Houthi missiles – close to 1,300 strikes since 2015, killing 59 civilians, according to the Saudi-led coalition forces.
The UAE has reportedly been targeted in the past, too, but the attacks caused no significant damage and the authorities denied they had taken place at all. In any case, in 2019, the Emiratis pared back their role as Riyadh’s junior partner in the war.
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What seems to have angered the Houthis – assuming the attacks were initiated by them and not their Iranian patrons – was the UAE’s stepped-up role in a recent offensive by pro-government forces in Yemen. The attacks on the UAE also demonstrated the group’s military capabilities.
The incidents were “a reminder that Iran’s regional proxies will continue to act aggressively, with or without direct guidance from Tehran, while also demonstrating a clear ability to strike sensitive targets in the GCC,” said Paul Sheldon, chief geopolitical adviser for S&P Global Platts Analytics, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council that groups the region’s Arab powers.
The Houthis make a threat
The UAE is especially sensitive to security threats. Unusual in the Arab world, its economy is based on foreign investment, the presence of multinational corporations and international tourism. The government, especially in the emirate of Dubai, carefully cultivates a reputation as a place for foreigners to do business and have fun.
Moreover, some 90 percent of the UAE’s 10 million people are expats, who keep the economy running. Indeed, the three casualties of the January 17 attack were Pakistani and Indian oil workers. These expats are free to pick up and return home, as they did during the 2008 financial crisis and at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Houthis have made clear the attacks were aimed at the Emirates’ soft underbelly of the economy.
“The armed forces warn foreign companies, citizens and residents of the UAE enemy state that they will not hesitate to expand the bank of targets to include more important sites and facilities during the coming period, that they should stay away from vital sites and facilities for their own safety,” Houthi spokesman Yahya Sare’e said in a tweet following the January 17 attack.
This week, the Houthis warned that they may target the Dubai Expo – a showcase project for the emirate as it tries to revive tourism and investment in the wake of the pandemic.
The anxieties prompted by the two attacks were expressed in the tightly controlled local media with comforting assurances by editorialists about how safe the UAE remains.
“UAE citizens and residents go about their business as usual, feeling forever secure in one of the safest countries in the world, knowing fully that the country is in safe hands,” The Gulf News assured readers.
Beyond the threat posed to the domestic UAE economy, the attacks could have an impact on the world oil market.
The UAE is the third-largest crude oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, with the vast majority of the oil produced by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – one of whose facilities was targeted in the first attack.
The UAE’s ranking, however, understates its role in the current oil market because the Emirates and Saudi Arabia account for a growing share of the world’s shrinking spare production capacity. Current trends show that by June, the two countries will account for 95 percent of the global total of 1.8 million barrels per day, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics.
What comes next for the UAE hinges both on its ability to defend itself and the intentions of the attackers.
The UAE deploys a U.S.-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD (an antiballistic-missile system). This system reportedly intercepted one of the Houthi missiles in the first attack; in the second, it’s less clear what happened – the UAE took credit for bringing down two missiles, but so did the U.S. Central Command, saying somewhat confusingly that its intercepts with Patriot missiles were “coincident to efforts by the armed forces of the UAE.”
The January 24 attack prompted a U.S. response because it targeted the Al Dhafra Air Base, home to some 2,000 American troops.
That raises the question of UAE capabilities. THAAD is designed to counter medium- and long-range missiles. After the January 17 attack, the UAE asked the United States to bolster its defenses against missiles and drones, signaling that it isn’t entirely prepared to meet the Houthi threat.
Earlier this month, the UAE reached a $3.5 billion deal to buy a South Korean Cheongung II medium-range surface-to-air missile system, but it won’t be delivered until 2024. In doing so, the UAE rejected an Israeli offer to sell it Iron Dome. But a report this week said Emirati officials had been in contact with Israel about acquiring the Barak 8 or Barak ER, or the Rafael Spyder, from Israel Aerospace Industries as a stopgap.
The UAE’s need for a more comprehensive missile defense depends on who’s really behind the attacks and what their motives are. Scholars are divided on that.
If it is indeed the Houthis, the UAE may give in to the threat and again reduce or end its role in Yemen. That, however, would come at the cost of its partnership with Saudi Arabia. Alternatively, stepping up its operations in Yemen would undermine the UAE’s recent thaw in relations with Iran and risk more Houthi attacks.
“The attack ... brings home to Emirati leaders that, if they don’t change their behavior, their country will be included in the Houthis’ target list from now on,” Ahmed Nagi, a nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said in a note following the January 17 incident.
If it is really Tehran calling the shots, the UAE may be trapped in a situation beyond its immediate control.
Some observers contend that Iran is using the Houthis to send a message to the anti-Iran powers in the Persian Gulf of the risk in confronting Iran, and/or to show the United States its ability to destabilize the region. The goal is to encourage more flexibility on Washington’s part in the Vienna nuclear talks.
“Is Tehran negotiating with Washington by once again using force against more vulnerable U.S. partners, this time the Emiratis? Do the Iranians see more U.S. sanctions against them on the horizon and thus are trying to stop them? Is this attack part of their broader regional intimidation/bargaining campaign against the Americans?” asked Bilal Y. Saab, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, in a note.
If so, he concluded, the UAE’s efforts to improve relations with Iran have failed to ward off future missile threats. Its fate then lies with Washington and Tehran.