Deadly Strikes on UAE Upset Efforts to Ease Gulf Frictions


Iran-backed Yemeni fighters launched drone strikes on the United Arab Emirates that caused explosions and a deadly fire outside the capital, Abu Dhabi, ratcheting up security risks in the major oil-exporting region at a critical time.

One of the biggest attacks to date on UAE soil ignited a fire at Abu Dhabi’s main international airport on Monday and set fuel tanker trucks ablaze in a nearby industrial area. It took place days after Yemen’s Houthi fighters warned Abu Dhabi against intensifying its air campaign against them.

Anwar Gargash, an adviser to the UAE presidency, said the Houthis were behind the attack but were “too weak to impact the security and stability” of the country. 

Iran’s longtime support of the Houthis, however, means the incidents could roil diplomatic efforts to ease frictions in the Persian Gulf, and separate talks to restore Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Stock markets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi reversed gains made before the assaults. 

A preliminary investigation suggests drones fell in both incidents and may have triggered the blasts, the UAE’s state-run WAM news agency said on Monday. Three people — two Indians and one Pakistani — were killed and six others injured in the fuel-tank fire close to the storage facilities of state-run oil group Adnoc, Abu Dhabi police said. Adnoc said the attack took place at 10 a.m. local time and that the casualties were all employees. 

The assault coincided with a visit by a senior Houthi official, Mohammed Abdusalam, to Tehran, where he met with the Iranian president and other officials, Houthi-run Al Masirah Television reported. 

The Persian Gulf has seen a series of attacks on shipping and oil facilities since the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018. Washington has blamed the attacks on Iranian-backed militias, including the Houthis in Yemen, where a Saudi-led military coalition including the UAE has been battling the group since 2015. 

“The suspected drone attack in Abu Dhabi underscores the ongoing threat against civilian and energy infrastructure in the region amid heightened regional tensions,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft. 

“Reports of damage to fuel trucks and storage will concern oil market watchers, who are also keeping a close eye on the trajectory of ongoing nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran,” Soltvedt said. “With negotiators running out of time, the risk of a deterioration in the region’s security climate is rising.”

Strategically Significant

Yemen is strategically significant because it lies on a waterway linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden that is a conduit for much of the world’s oil. The conflict there has killed tens of thousands of people and helped create one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

One Houthi leader said the group would carry out more attacks on the UAE because of its involvement in Yemen. 

“This operation is a prelude and there are still a lot of surprises in the pocket of our military forces to deter the UAE,” Abdulmalik Al-Ejri told Al-Masirah TV. 

The Houthi forces’ commander, Mahdi Al-Mashat, later warned that if the UAE aggression continues, “this would pose serious risks to the economy and investments in the UAE.”

The UAE will respond by asking the U.S. to put the Houthis back on its list of terrorist organizations and look to build up pressure through the UN Security Council, a person familiar with government thinking said. 

The U.S. removed the designation a year ago as part of a push to end the Yemen war, but its efforts have floundered amid Houthi reluctance to embrace peace talks. 

Attacks Increase

The Houthis regularly attack the UAE’s neighbor Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones, and a strike on a major Saudi oil facility in 2019 shook global oil markets and raised fears of a new conflict in the Middle East. 

The fighters also claimed previous attacks on the UAE in 2017 and 2018. The UAE began withdrawing from Yemen in late 2019, partly to avert attracting strikes on its own soil, but maintained links to separatist groups and has increased airstrikes in recent weeks. The latest assault follows an uptick in maritime attacks in recent weeks as talks to revive the nuclear deal enter a critical stage and fighting escalates in Yemen. 

Forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government drove the Houthis out of three districts of energy-rich Shabwa province in a recent offensive, helped by intense Saudi and UAE air strikes. The spike in hostilities came despite attempts by diplomats from the two Gulf states and Iran to ease regional tensions. 

“In the past year, we’ve seen a fierce escalation on multiple fronts in Yemen,” said Fawaz Gerges, Middle Eastern politics professor at the London School of Economics. 

“The talks by the UAE and Saudi with Iran, whether secret or public, have not been enough to obscure the geopolitical and strategic rivalries that are continuing to unfold.”