The conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels in Yemen has been going on since 2015. It has simmered away with various clashes between 2015-2020 but 2021 saw a dramatic escalation in strikes by the Houthi and strikes/retaliation by the Saudis.
For background, Saudi Arabia and Yemen sharing a land border on the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen holding a highly strategic position facing the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This conflict has serious implications for trade through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait that stretches only 30 kilometres between Yemen and Djibouti in North Africa. At worst, aggressive control of the Strait could prevent all vessels (and notably oil tankers originating in the Persian Gulf) from transiting directly to the Indian Ocean forcing them to exit the region via the Suez Canal and then around the southern tip of Africa. That is an immense journey adding weeks and substantial cost to the shipping lines and global supply.
So, the conflict with the Houthi rebels has significant international implications yet rarely seemed to gain much attention by the media outside the Middle East, until now.
The Houthi rebels are primarily supported by Iran who provide weapons with North Korea also providing some support. Saudi Arabia has its own resources in addition to support from the Yemen government, the UAE, USA and Jordan among others in the region. The UAE was backing the Saudis with Emeriti troops but those forces were withdrawn in 2019 although the UAE still provides financial and other aid. Further, shortly after taking office US President Joe Biden ended US support to Saudi Arabia for offensive operations against the Houthi and reversed former President Donald Trump’s listing of the Houthi as a terrorist organisation. (Apparently, Joe is now having second thoughts and may re-list the Houthi as terrorists).
Since the beginning of January the stakes have ramped up with a UAE flagged cargo ship hijacked off the coast of Yemen and the crew of 11 are still held hostage. Even more recently, two missile/drone attacks on Abu Dhabi have occurred in the space of a week. The first attack killed three people and wounded six with only minor damage to infrastructure. The second attack targeted an oil facility near Al-Dhafra Air Base that hosts the U.S Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing and about 2,000 American military and civilian personnel. Those missiles were intercepted in flight by U.S. and Emirati defence systems with no injuries or damage.
The trigger for the Houthi’s renewed vigour is the recent visit to the UAE by Israeli President Isaac Herzog not long after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the UAE following the normalising of relations with Israel in September 2020. A spokesman for the Houthis said the most recent attacks were meant to send a message from the Iran-backed group about ties between the UAE and Israel. “Our attack proves that the UAE is not safe for as long as it continues to be in the service of the Zionist enemy in Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” the spokesman said.
A little later the Israeli President responded with “We completely support (the UAE’s) security requirements.… we are here together to find ways and means to bring full security to the region”. Most analysts interpret this to mean a favourable response to the UAE’s enquiry about obtaining Israel’s Iron Dome missile interception system.
Events are moving quickly in the region. At the time of writing this post, Saudi warplanes had just completed significant bombing raids on various Houthi strongholds and provinces across Yemen. Damage and death tolls are currently unavailable.
The upscaling of attacks, and potential for more, on Abu Dhabi and Dubai are deeply worrying to the Emirs by shaking the carefully cultivated sense that the UAE is a safe and peaceful destination for tourists and international business. We can expect the UAE to flex its considerable financial muscle to protect their reputation for security and calm in a turbulent Middle East.