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While the world remains focused on the unrest in Ukraine and fears of an impending Russian invasion, in a small corner of the Middle East, a drone strike could very well mark a dangerous turning point.
Stability is one of the main selling points of the United Arab Emirates, which attracts millions of expatriates and billions of dollars in foreign investment.
The UAE is heavily dependent on foreign workers, who make up the vast majority of the country’s workforce. The authorities intensively manage the country’s reputation and freedom of political expression is virtually non-existent.
Advocates of these speech restrictions argue that they are necessary to maintain stability through thick and thin in a strife-torn Middle East.
This image of stability suffered a major shock when a deadly drone attack hit fuel trucks near Abu Dhabi airport on Monday, causing multiple explosions and killing three people, CNN reported.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks, sending the Middle East into uncharted waters just as the region’s leaders sought to bridge years-long divisions.
In response, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia responded by bombarding the Yemeni capital of Sanaa with airstrikes, killing at least 12 people.
Hailing the attack as “a successful military operation”, Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree warned they could target more facilities in the United Arab Emirates, which is part of an Israeli-led military coalition. Saudi Arabia fighting rebels in Yemen, AlJazeera reported.
The years-long war has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed the country towards a humanitarian catastrophe.
Negotiations between Iran and Western powers over how to revive the 2015 deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear program have recently shown signs of progress.
And there are also indications that historic but difficult talks between Saudi Arabia and regional rival Iran were beginning to bear fruit, CNN reported.
But the Houthis’ unprecedented attacks in Abu Dhabi could put a damper on those talks.
And if the rebels keep their promise to launch new strikes, it could tarnish the image of the United Arab Emirates as a safe place to visit, live, work and do business.
As well as being the first deadly attack in the UAE in many years, Monday’s drone attacks demonstrated the Houthis’ ability to launch long-range attacks, CNN reported.
Yemeni rebels frequently carry out cross-border attacks on Yemen’s neighbor Saudi Arabia, but these were relatively short compared to Abu Dhabi, and the majority of missiles and drones were intercepted.
Now Yemen’s Houthis have followed through on a threat they have made for years against the United Arab Emirates, a major coalition partner in a six-year Saudi-led military campaign to crush rebel-backed by Iran, CNN reported.
In 2019, the United Arab Emirates withdrew most of its troops from Yemen, after privately deeming the war unwinnable.
More recently, however, the United Arab Emirates has entered the fray, backing Yemeni groups in trouble spots like the oil-rich provinces of Shabwa and Marib and pushing back against Houthi fighters.
Now analysts say the rebels are eager to trigger another Emirati withdrawal.
“The intervention of UAE-backed forces was a game-changer. It infuriated the Houthis,” said Maged al-Madhaji, executive director and co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.
“The Houthis are trying to create some sort of balance by striking the image of stability and security in the Emirates.”
It is strongly suspected that the drones were supplied by Iran, the main backer of the Houthis in their war against the internationally recognized government of Yemen.
But it’s unclear if Houthi supporters in Tehran ordered the strike or if the rebel group suddenly went rogue.
It would not be the first time that Iran-aligned groups have appeared to go their own way, and Iran has repeatedly said it wants to rekindle relations with its regional enemies.
The attack also has the potential to derail the CPOA [Iran nuclear deal] negotiations in Vienna, as well as parallel talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran considered essential to the success of a possible second version of the 2015 agreement.
“This attack reminds the UAE that they were playing the game of a great power in the region,” said Andreas Krieg, senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. AlJazeera.
This made the Gulf country realize that “this is, after all, a small state with many vulnerabilities,” Krieg said.
“This [the incident] is the greatest damage to the reputation of the United Arab Emirates, as it has always presented itself as a safe and secure country to do business.
Meanwhile, the UAE has quietly and unofficially asked Israel to acquire missile defense systems to help protect it from Houthi missile attacks, Israeli sources said. breaking defense.
The idea of using Israeli defense systems arose during recent unofficial talks between officials of the two countries in the UAE, when UAE officials probed whether Israel would be willing to supply the systems, sources said.
In September, Israeli sources said the Saudis were considering the Iron Dome produced by Rafael, which is better against short-range rockets, or the Barak ER, produced by Israeli Aerospace Industries, which is designed to intercept missiles from cruise.
A few weeks ago, the Emirates signed a $3.5 billion deal with South Korea to acquire its Cheongung II medium-range surface-to-air missile weapons system, but the system is not expected to be delivered. before 2024.
An Israeli system could serve as an interim solution to a pressing problem, sources said.
An Israeli source said breaking defense that three operational systems, or a combination of the three, could be a partial answer until the South Korean system comes online: the Israeli Aerospace Industry’s Barak 8 or Barak ER, or the Rafael Spyder.
The Barak-8, currently in use in Israel and India, was also reportedly used to shoot down a Russian-made Iskander ballistic missile launched by Armenia in November 2020 during a conflict over Nagorno-Karabash, breaking defense reported.
The Spyder, a truck-mounted system, is a “rapid response” defense system that Rafeal says has “multiple target engagement capability to deal with saturation attacks.”
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who visited Abu Dhabi in mid-December, told UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed that Israel stood ready to offer security support and information, BBC News reported.
Marc-Owen Jones, assistant professor of Middle East studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University, said Monday’s attack could have long-term implications.
“This [the attack] totally undermines the reputation of the UAE as a place of stability, especially vis-à-vis tourism, finance and trade, but more importantly, it also casts doubt on their ability to build a nuclear power plant,” said Jones. AlJazeera, referring to the UAE’s nuclear energy ambitions.
Apart from the UAE’s public bravado, experts say it’s more likely [the attack] will pressure the UAE to seek a rapprochement with Iran.
“Caution on the UAE side is far more likely than a return to confrontation,” the source said. AlJazeera.
Dave Makichuk is a Western Standard contributor.
He worked in the media for decades, including as editor of the Calgary Herald. He is also the Calgary correspondent for ChinaFactor.news. and covered military issues for decades