The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been exposed to a recent wave of drone and missile strikes from Houthi militants in Yemen. These attacks are in retaliation to a change in the UAE’s strategy in its intervention in Yemen’s civil war. The UAE’s robust defense systems have been able to thwart Houthi attacks. However, the UAE’s continued intervention in Yemen risks provoking Houthi rebels into adopting military tactics that target civilians. The mere risk of such an attack would negatively affect the UAE’s perception of security, which is crucial for the UAE’s success as an economic powerhouse in the Middle East.
A not-so-local Civil War
Since 2014, Yemen has been ensnared in a Civil War with multiple international participants. The conflict began when the Houthis, an Iran-backed Shia militia from Yemen’s North, violently attempted to overthrow the internationally recognized government of President Saleh. As the Houthi insurgency accelerated, Sunni-majority countries in the Gulf intervened in a coalition to support government forces.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have engaged in hostilities through a military campaign that has seen the use of airstrikes and the backing of local militias to prevent a Houthi takeover. The involvement of regional powers has essentially turned the civil war into a proxy war between Sunni Gulf states and Iran. The protracted conflict has destroyed the country and created what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
By late 2020, the conflict in Yemen was heading toward a stalemate with the coalition forces being unable to end Houthi control over the capital city, Sana’a. As a result, the UAE announced it would start disengaging from the war. However, in late 2021, the Houthis moved toward the oil-rich governorate of Marib. To prevent the group from controlling oil rents, the UAE renewed its involvement in the conflict by backing the Giant’s Brigade, a local Sunni militia, to fight against Houthi advancements.
Houthi Response to the UAE
In response to revamped UAE intervention, the Houthis, and other groups sympathetic to their struggle, have retaliated through a campaign of attacks against the UAE using low-cost missile and drone systems. On February 2, 2022, the UAE’s Defense Ministry announced that it had successfully destroyed three drones heading toward the UAE with “hostile intent”. The attempted attack was claimed by the Iraqi True Promise Brigades, a relatively unknown terrorist organization that sympathizes with the struggle of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The attempted strike in February is just the latest in a string of attacks. On January 31, 2022, an official spokesperson announced that the country’s defense forces had successfully repelled a ballistic missile strike originating from Yemen. A similar incident happened on January 24, when U.S. Central Command announced that it had stopped two ballistic missiles launched from Yemen and headed toward the capital Abu Dhabi. On January 17, drones laced with explosives flew into an oil storage facility on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. The attack came at the hands of Houthi rebels in Yemen and left three people dead, and destroyed three petroleum tanker trucks.
Is the UAE safe?
While this recent wave of attacks is worrying, the UAE’s defensive capabilities ensure that it can protect itself from a barrage of aerial attacks from abroad. However, these attacks and the UAE’s reaction to them risk undermining the perception of the country’s security.
For decades, the UAE has been an island of stability in a region noted for political and economic turmoil. The country ranks as one of the safest countries and its pro-business environment has attracted foreign investment that has turned the UAE into a hub for international commerce. While domestic stability is ensured through authoritative governance, defense from foreign threats is possible through initiatives that have provided the UAE with sophisticated weapons systems. In recent years, the UAE has spent billions on state-of-the-art security systems to defend its borders. This has included U.S. manufactured THAAD and Patriot PAC-3 missile systems. On January 16, just a day before the lethal Houthi drone strike, the UAE signed a $3.5 billion deal with South Korean weapons manufacturers to provide surface-to-air missile systems. Alongside these purchases, the US cooperates with the UAE by providing air and naval power. Indeed, the UAE’s focus on protecting itself makes some security analysts believe it is one of the best-defended countries in the world.
These defense systems ensure the well-being of the UAE’s infrastructure and population. Yet, they are not as effective in protecting the perception of safety, a necessity in the growth of the UAE’s economically vital business and tourism sector. Following the January 17th drone strike that killed three, UAE markets dipped as investors feared further attacks. When the Houthi launched more strikes, local markets again slumped despite being intercepted by the UAE’s defenses.
The analysis above shows that whilst the UAE is militarily superior and can repel any material threat posed by the Houthis, the mere perception of a threat is sufficient to erode the domestic perception of stability and therefore influence the UAE’s business climate. This illustrates a particular vulnerability that the Houthis can exploit: fear. The Houthis do not need to score a massive attack on the country’s heavy industry to damage its economy. Rather, a targeted attack on the country’s softer targets can shatter the country’s perception of safety inducing reputational costs that are harder to repair. The Houthis will utilize terrorism against the UAE so long as they remain engaged.
Indeed, the likelihood of Houthi terrorism in the UAE is more pronounced than ever given its offensive posture in the war in Yemen. In response to Houthi aerial attacks, the UAE has bombed locations in Yemen said to store weapons intended for the UAE. This action, coupled with continued intervention in the civil war, will possibly goad the Houthis to seek retribution. Hampered by a reduced weapons stockpile that, regardless, is ineffective against Emirati defenses, the Houthis may turn to terror tactics that can skirt past expensive missile defense systems.
The Houthis have already implemented terror tactics such as suicide bombings in Yemen. Therefore, it is foreseeable that similar tactics be exported to the UAE. Attacks against civilians in the lavish shopping malls and hotels of Abu Dhabi and Dubai would rock the country’s economy, impacting the sectors of the economy that rely most on the perception of security to flourish. In particular, the tourism sector, which is particularly susceptible to terrorism and accounts for 12.2 percent of the UAE’s GDP, may be the worst impacted sector as a result of potential Houthi terror attacks.
Knowing full well the cost a terror attack would induce on the UAE economy, it can be expected that the UAE may seek to mitigate this threat by deploying more police throughout major cities. While effective, this defensive presence comes with its own series of costs. The image of armed troops on busy street corners and outside landmarks might make civilians feel protected, but in doing so it evidences the existence of a threat. With threat comes the concern, one which complicates the idea of UAE as a pillar of stability and security in a region otherwise known for the opposite.
By Global Risk Insights
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