Will Houthis follow up on their threats to hit UAE targets?

The Houthis announced a halt in hostilities against Saudi Arabia but said nothing about the United Arab Emirates, raising questions about how serious the group is about carrying out threats to target the UAE.

al-monitor Houthi followers attend a gathering to receive food supplies from tribesmen in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 21, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

Sep 29, 2019

SANAA, Yemen — When Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree threatened to target the United Arab Emirates, questions were raised about the seriousness of carrying out such a threat. This was the second such threat in two days: Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam had made another threat Sept. 17, saying, "The UAE deserves to be targeted at this time more than ever before."

Saree said in a televised speech Sept. 18, amid tension following the attacks on Saudi oil processing facilities days earlier, “We have dozens of targets within our range in the UAE; some are in Abu Dhabi and can be attacked at any time.” 

Hannah Porter, a Washington-based Yemen analyst, told Al-Monitor, “The recent statement by the Houthi military spokesman is interesting, since the UAE has largely backed off of its offensive against the Houthis and is primarily focused on its interests in the south [of Yemen].” 

This is not the first time Houthis threatened to attack the UAE, but it was the first to go viral on several international news outlets. This caused people to wonder how serious these threats were. Houthis have carried out various threats against Saudi Arabia, more so than against the UAE. Most recently, Houthis took credit for the attacks on Aramco oil processing facilities Sept. 14 — although the United States and Saudi Arabia said Iran was behind behind the attack, not the Houthis.

Abed al-Thawr, a pro-Houthi independent military affairs researcher, told Al-Monitor that the Sept. 14 attack on the Saudi oil sites of Abqaiq and Khurais is “the biggest proof of the seriousness of the Yemeni military options toward the UAE if it does not withdraw [from Yemen] and stop its aggression.” 

Asked why Houthis executed few of their past threats against the UAE compared with those against Saudi Arabia, Thawr said, “The UAE is not as big as Saudi Arabia and we're not bound by borders with it. [The UAE] is not as threatening and dangerous as Saudi Arabia.”

It remains unclear whether Houthis will carry out their threats against the UAE. But what is clear is that these threats have triggered fears of a new escalation. This is especially true since the Saudi-led coalition, in which the UAE is a key partner, announced Sept. 20 a new military operation against Houthi military targets in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah.

The Houthis said in a statement that this operation threatens the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement on Hodeidah reached in Sweden in December 2018, which led to a cessation of hostilities in the Yemeni port.

Tensions in the Arabian Peninsula have been running high following the Sept. 20 Saudi-led airstrikes on Hodeidah. The United Nations scrambled to contain the situation with its spokesman expressing “concern over the air raid” on the same day.

However, the latest operation by the Saudi-led coalition seems to have been limited, with no reports of airstrikes in Hodeidah.

However, the possibility that Houthis will attack UAE territory may remain high; the Houthis did not mention the UAE when they announced Sept. 20 that they are ready to stop launching drones and missiles against Saudi Arabia. 

“Houthis are pushing to end the war by claiming to stop the attacks on Saudi Arabia,” Porter said. “[Houthis] don’t want to be perceived as weak or unwilling to fight, so they are simultaneously issuing threats against their regional enemies.”

Porter said that the UAE is primarily focused on its interests in the south and that any attack from Houthis on the UAE might be ill-advised “as the UAE would then likely be drawn back into the fight against the Houthis.”

Saree’s threat against the UAE came hours after the Saudi Ministry of Defense held a press conference during which it revealed details on the oil attack while blaming Iran.

In the past, Houthis have targeted the UAE following attacks against Saudi interests either in the Red Sea or inside Saudi territory. Houthis may have targeted UAE territory only twice since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in the war in Yemen in 2015.

The first such instance was in December 2017, when Houthis said they fired a cruise missile at an under-construction nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi. The UAE was quick to deny it, stating the nuclear plant was “secure against all eventualities.”

Houthi leader Abdul Malek al-Houthi had warned in September 2017 that if the Saudi-led coalition attacked Hodeidah, “All countries that have economic relations with the UAE shouldn't look at the UAE as a safe zone, and it's from now on within range of our ballistic missiles.”

The second claimed attack against the UAE was on July 26, 2018. Houthis said they attacked the Abu Dhabi International Airport, which the UAE denied. But controversy arose as airport authorities had earlier tweeted that there had been an incident involving a supply vehicle, which had not affected operations.

Attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia are often documented and footage is released to prove the attack happened. On May 23, Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV released footage of the July 2018 incident that shows a drone flying before it hits two supply vehicles and explodes.

The airport attack coincided with the Saudi energy minister's announcement of a temporary suspension of oil shipments through the Red Sea following the rebels’ attack on two of its giant crude carriers produced by the state-run oil company Aramco.

The footage was released one week after Houthis launched, for the first time, drones on one of Aramco’s pipelines deep inside Saudi Arabia on May 14.

On Sept. 22, flights at the Dubai International Airport were briefly disrupted due to “suspected drone activity,” airport officials said. But no group claimed responsibility in the matter. 

Meanwhile, Thawr downplayed the likelihood that the UAE would resume the offensive on Hodeidah. “I do not think that the UAE will be tempted by such an adventure,” he said.

On Sept. 21, UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths welcomed the Houthi statement to stop attacks against Saudi Arabia. On the same day, Saree said on Twitter that 39 airstrikes were carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in several Yemeni provinces during the previous 12 hours.

Shortly after Griffiths’ remarks, another statement was published by Houthi said war fronts needed to be supplied with “money, weapons and men.” He also threatened “more painful strikes” if the “Saudi-led aggression” didn't seize the opportunity to stop the raids, blockade and aggression.

Porter said, “Martin Griffiths should put as much pressure as possible on all parties to refrain from fighting and aerial bombardment in and around Hodeidah.”

She added, “The port city is critical to the flow of desperately-needed humanitarian aid, and no battle is worth losing that important lifeline.” 

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