• 28 November, 2023
Geopolitics & National Security

UAE Under Attack

Col Rajeev Agarwal (Retd) Mon, 17 Jan 2022   |  Reading Time: 3 minutes

In a surprise and rather shocking incident, Abu Dhabi airport was targeted by a drone attack today afternoon resulting in three oil tankers being blown off in close vicinity of the main airport and casualties to three persons including two Indian nationals. The responsibility was promptly claimed by the Houthis in Yemen. This attack comes close on the heels of a UAE ship Rawabi which was  captured by the Houthis on 02 January 2022, across the coast of Hodeidah in Yemen, in the Red sea. While the UAE and the Saudi coalition claimed that the ship was carrying medical equipment from a dismantled Saudi field hospital in the Yemeni island of Socotra, the Houthis claimed that it was carrying military equipment and supplies. Despite efforts by various international agencies including the UN, the ship is yet to be released. This is also the first time that the Houthis have attacked the UAE mainland.

This attack on the Abu Dhabi airport has come as a shock to the region. The statement of the Houthi claiming “a special military operation that was carried out in the heart of UAE” adds further concern over the seriousness of the act by the Houthis. The attack also raises serious questions on the future trajectory of peace in the region, a possibility which was showing promise in recent times. Also, the fact that Abu Dhabi was targeted and not Dubai, too is significant as Abu Dhabi is the political capital and has a very different messaging.

It is well known fact that the Houthis in Yemen, who are waging a protracted war against Saudi led coalition since March 2015, are spiritually, materially and militarily supported by Iran. The attack therefore puts focus squarely back on Iran. Coming at the back of visit of the UAE’s National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Tehran in December 2021 for high-level talks seeking peace, cooperation and improving relations between the two countries, it is surprising. This attack on UAE potentially also turns the clock backwards on the going talks on the Iran nuclear issue, the 7th round of which commenced in late December and is reported to be moving in a positive trajectory. This will upset many of the emerging possibilities in the region.

Houthis and UAE

The Houthis and UAE have had a troubled relation in recent past. In the ongoing conflict against the Houthis, the UAE has contributed military brigades, tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers to ‘Operation Decisive Storm’. In May 2015, the UAE deployed special units of the Emirati Presidential Guard to regain control of Aden. In March 2016, Emirati airstrikes began targeting terrorist bases and training camps in Yemen. In January 2018, UAE supported Southern Secessionist Movement called the Southern Transitional Council (STC) attempted to overthrow the government operating from Aden. The attempt was thwarted by timely Saudi intervention. Again, on 30 April 2018, UAE suddenly landed troops and tanks on the Socotra Island of Yemen driving away Yemeni Armed forces and government officials. It was again the Saudi intervention which led to return of status quo few days later.

The Iran Angle

It is not possible that the Houthis could have launched this strike on their own will. A strike at the heart of UAE cannot be a one-off decision, taken at the local level. It not only requires planning but also needs clear support from its sponsors and supporters. Iran, in recent times, has been particularly hurt by continuing sanctions and not much progress on the nuclear talks.

The killing of the IRGC Chief General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2020 in Iraq, has been a sore point for Iran. On the first death anniversary after appointment of its hardline President Raisi on 02nd January this year, Iran raised the issue again demanding former US President Donald Trump to be “prosecuted and killed” for it. In fact the death anniversary coincided with the capture of the UAE ship as also armed drones that targeted Baghdad’s international airport on the same day. Iran thus may have taken this calibrated decision on upping the ante in the region.

During a recent Iranian military drill in December 2021, Iran fired multiple ballistic missiles that it said were a warning to Israel and included a mock strike on Israel’s nuclear facility designed to look like the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the Israeli city of Dimona. Israel too has been upping the ante demanding a military strike on Iran quickly before it becomes a fully operational nuclear weapons power.

Whatever maybe the reasons and rationale behind today’s attack on Abu Dhabi international airport, it can’t be good news for the region in any way. The start of 2022 has been rather tumultuous and could very well lay the foundation for the events to unfold later in the year.


Col Rajeev Agarwal (Retd) is Assistant Director at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is a research analyst on West Asia and Afghanistan and was formerly a Director in the Military Intelligence Directorate and a Director at the Ministry of External Affairs.


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