Houthi Attacks On Economic Targets Bring Yemen War Closer To Home For Saudi Arabia And The UAE
Attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on the economic interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to be increasing in number, with claims of several incidents in recent weeks targeting the two countries’ oil and transport infrastructure. While Saudi and Emirati officials have denied that some of the attacks took place, other incidents have been confirmed.
The most eye-catching claim was made on July 26 when the Saba news agency, which is linked to the Houthi rebels, reported that an unmanned drone had carried out an attack on Abu Dhabi International Airport in the UAE. Citing an unnamed military official, it said the raid was carried out by a Sammad-3 drone which had recently been added to the Houthi’s arsenal.
The Houthi movement – which seized the Yemeni capital Sanaa in early 2015 but whose claim to power is not recognized by most countries – said air traffic to and from Abu Dhabi airport was disrupted following the assault. Officials in the UAE subsequently denied there had been an attack, although Abu Dhabi Airport did tweet that there had been an incident at the airport at 4pm on Thursday, caused by a supply vehicle. The airport said it did not affect the airport’s operations or the schedule of incoming and departing flights.
A day before the claimed attack on Abu Dhabi airport, Saudi Arabia said two of its oil tankers had come under attack in the Bab al Mandeb strait, at the entrance to the Red Sea. That led Riyadh to pause oil shipments through the narrow straits, an important choke-point for the international oil trade. National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia (Bahri) said in a statement to the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul) that its tanker Arsan was hit on the morning of July 25 while sailing in the Red Sea. The vessel suffered minor damage and no crew were hurt.
Houthis have also recently boasted about drone strikes on economic targets inside Saudi Arabia, including one against the infrastructure of oil giant Saudi Aramco on July 18. At the time the oil company merely acknowledged there had been a fire which it said was caused by “an operational incident”.
Last year, Houthis claimed to have fired missiles at the UAE on a number of occasions, including a claimed targeting of the Barakah nuclear power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi. There have also been numerous missile attacks launched into Saudi Arabia from Yemen, including a number in late 2017 and earlier this year fired towards King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh.
The Saudi authorities typically claim their missile defense systems, including US-made Patriot anti-missile batteries, have been successful in protecting its territory, although there have been reports of casualties as a result of shrapnel.
Taken together, these incidents highlight the fact that Houthi rebels remain a real threat to Saudi Arabia and the UAE more than three years after the two countries launched a campaign (with other allies) to oust the rebel movement from power. The targetting of the oil and transport sectors goes to the heart of the Gulf countries’ economies and, if the attacks prove more successful in the future, could have wider repercussions beyond any immediate damage to infrastructure.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi place much of the blame for the ability of the Houthis to continue fighting with Iran, saying Tehran is supplying them with missiles and other weaponry as part of a pattern of nefarious behavior around the region.
“What we have seen is an Iranian government that is willing to spend $5bn every year in Syria and more, to put in thousands of recruits into Syria, to try and influence Iraqi politics, exporting missiles – which it claims is a defensive programme – to the Houthis, targeting places like the airport in Riyadh and threatening to target our cities in the UAE,” said Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, speaking at the Policy Exchange think-tank in London on July 26. “You can’t take a quietist view towards all this. Because if you do you are actually allowing Iran in this case to build another Hezbollah in the south of the Arabian peninsula.”
The war has now reached something of a stalemate and the UN’s envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths is trying to bring the conflict to an end through diplomacy. While that process continues, the threat posed to the economic interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE is unlikely to disappear and governments in the region appear to be getting more serious about tackling the evolving threat from drones in particular.
Australian firm DroneShield recently reported that it had taken an order for 70 Droneguns worth $3.2m from an unnamed Middle East country which it described as allied with Western governments. It also said that larger follow-on orders were “in the pipeline”.
In addition, a UAE delegation recently visited a number of companies that manufacture anti-drone systems in France and Finland in early July.