Why the Houthi Drones Struck Abu Dhabi

At war for seven years now, Yemen has been the target of heavy air strikes carried out by the United Arab Emirates since December 2021. In retaliation, the Houthi rebels have, for the first time, hit Abu Dhabi with their drones. But the epicentre of the confrontation between Emiratis and Houthis now appears to be located around Shabwa, in southern Yemen.

Ataq, 28 January 2022. Fighters from the “Giants Brigades” pass through the town of Ataq (Shabwa province) on their way to the front line where the Houthists are located
Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP

On the morning of 17 January 2022, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) received a blow to the heart: Abu Dhabi was hit by drones and ballistic missiles. A cloud of thick smoke rose from the Musaffah industrial zone. Three tanker trucks belonging to a refinery of the national oil company had been hit. Two Indian workmen, Hardeep Singh and Hardev Singh and one Pakistani, Mamoor Khan, were killed by the explosions. Six others were injured. This was the first time anything like this has happened in the UAE In July 2018 and again in May 2019, drone attacks probably launched by the Houthis from inside Yemen caused no casualties. At the time, in fact, Abu Dhabi had started withdrawing its troops, most of whom were stationed in southern Yemen.

Since then, however, the UAE, part of the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen, has launched nightly attacks on Sana’a, the capital, or Saada, the Huthi rebel’s stronghold. At the beginning of February, when Israeli President Isaac Herzog was paying an historic visit to the UAE, marking the normalisation of relations between the two countries, Yahya Saria, spokesperson for the Huthi rebels, announced the imminence of a large-scale operation. Later, the Houthis declared having targeted an Emirati operating room located in Usaylan District in the Governorate of Shabwa (southern Yemen). “This surgical strike killed and wounded many enemies, including several Emiratis,” they claimed. This information was not confirmed by Abu Dhabi but does corroborate one thing: the renewed Emirati activity in Yemen has made that Gulf monarchy a target for the rebels.

What is at stake in Shabwa

Despite the UAE’s participation in the coalition alongside Saudi Arabia since 2015, the war in Yemen has never endangered its homeland security, contrary to its powerful ally. This escalation between Houthis and Emiratis is in fact the result of a whole sequence of political and military events in the Shabwa governorate. Rich in gas and oil reserves, the region is under the close scrutiny of the UAE ever since it was recaptured, also in 2015, by local tribes backed by the coalition.

As in other governorates in southern Yemen, Abu Dhabi has been busy training and arming large numbers of local volunteers. Thousands of these are said to form a brigade recently renamed Shabwa Defence Forces. Until July 2021, the UAE paid the wages of 7,000 of such volunteers, mostly from the less prosperous coastal tribes, which also have fewer historic ties with Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, in 2015 Abu Dhabi established two military bases, one to the North of Ataq and another in the centre of the Balhaf installations, intended for the export of liquid gas, an installation whose main shareholder, with 40% of its capital, is the French giant Total Energies. Once the Houthis had been driven out of the governorate, the UAE’s stated objective was the struggle against al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula, but actually it was to perpetuate its political influence in southern Yemen. By arming and financing political or military movements, among them the Southern Council of Transition (SCT)1, the UAE hope to lay an invisible hand on several strategic ports providing access to the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden: Mukalla, Balhaf, Aden and Socotra.

The advent of the SCT in May 2017 and its coup de force in the summer of 2019 when it invaded Aden and drove out the central government’s troops only confirmed this hidden agenda, causing ripples in the UAE’s relations with Saudi Arabia.

Qatar biding its time

For several years now, the influence of the SCT in the southern provinces has never ceased to grow. Today, despite the November 2019 Riyadh agreement whereby there was to be a sharing of power with Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi’s government, the separatists have regularly carried out actions, some of them violent, meant to put pressure on the governorates or to take power in the area. This has been the case since 2019 in the regions of Mahra, Hadhramaut, Abyan and consequently in Shabwa. In Ataq, capital of the latter, heavy fighting has occurred, pitting troops faithful to the central government and the local governor, Mohamed Ben Adyo (a member of Al-Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood’s party) against forces under the command of the SCT, financed by the UAE.

Having emerged victorious from these skirmishes, the governmental forces have had to deal with many street protests organised by the southern secessionist movement, challenging the legitimacy of the governor, accused of taking bribes and of authoritarianism. The repression of pro-SCT activists and partisans of the UAE has further increased tensions in the region of Shabwa. Backed by most of the local tribes as well as by Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Ben Adyo has for many years been critical of the Emirati military presence in his governorate, going so far as to declare they were his enemy, on an equal footing with the rebels. Now, at the same time, Qatar has come out in favour of the governor’s political entourage but has not established a direct relationship with him in order to avoid undermining his good relations with Saudi Arabia and thereby strengthening the UAE in the region. Doha is also said to have financed the tribal chieftains in order to avoid being involved in the war against the Houthis and thus challenging the Emiratis’ influence. As a result, the bloody fighting between the troops faithful to the government and those financed by the Emirates—allied with the STC—has taken precedence over the struggle against the Houthis, diverting Abu Dhabi from what was supposed to be its original objective and sparing it the vigorous reprisals of the Zaydi2 rebels. This major rift between local forces explains the success of the Huthi offensive in September 2021 aimed at taking Shabwa in order to outflank Marib by the South. Mohamed Ben Adyo was then accused of attaching greater importance to political rivalries between Al-Islah and the STC than to the war against the Houthis. His position has been weakened by the invasion of Usaylan, Beihan and Ain, three districts located in the North.

The UAE take the Giants Brigades under their wing

At the end of 2021, when the rebels invaded northern Shabwa and made lightening advances in southern Marib, they crossed a red line, threatening the interests of the UAE in southern Yemen. Previously more concerned to consolidate their influence, the Emirati leadership decided to go on the offensive against the Houthis. This time the confluence of interests between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, both intent on pushing back the Houthis, was going to make things easier. Under a good deal of pressure since his military setbacks, governor Ben Adyo was replaced by a less divisive figure, a man more favourable to the UAE, Awadh Ben Al-Wazir Al-Awaki. “The coalition is a key partner in this battle, and the United Arab Emirates are part of it. Their military presence in Shabwa is quite normal. We maintain a fraternal and cooperative relationship with them since time immemorial. In particular the visit of Sheikh Zayed attests to that powerful entente”, the new governor insists. Subsequently the coalition forces and those backed by the Emirates have begun to cooperate. Thus, for the first time since its 2019 withdrawal. Abu Dhabi has gone to war indirectly against the Huthi rebels.

Stationed until now and dormant on the West Coast of Al-Hudaydah, the Giants Brigades3 have been redeployed by Abu Dhabi in the governorate of Shabwa to launch the operation “Southern Tornado”, a tactical move which would have been impossible under the governance of Mohamed Ben Adyo. Indeed, this squadron of 30,000 men, which has existed since the early seventies, has been trained, financed, and armed by the UAE since 2015. This is confirmed by Aseel Al-Sakiadi, in charge of communications for the Brigades: “The UAE have provided a great deal of support for the Giants Brigades since it was created in terms of training, logistics and material. Operating within the Arab coalition, the Emirates also provide the Giants Brigades with direct support on the front lines.” Made up of Salafi chiefs driven out of Saada by the Houthis in 2014, of tribesmen from Yafa, of resistance fighters from Tibamah and of soldiers from the South-West, the Brigade is also politically close to the STC.

In December and January, the three districts north of Shabwa lost to the Houthis were recaptured by this consortium of resistance and the Houthis were forced to withdraw as far as the distinct of Harib, the second largest in the Marib governorate, located 90 km to the south of the town of Marib. This Emirati success offered the anti-rebel forces a breath of air and played a key role in the departure of Mohammed bin Adyo, or such is the opinion of Al-Wazir Al-Awaki: “Did my appointment facilitate the struggle against the Houthis? I think what is happening now should amply reply to your question.”

Despite the withdrawal of the Giants Brigade subsequent to their victories, Aseel Al-Sakladi hints that further offensives may be forthcoming. “The heroes of the Giants Brigade are determined to free the country from those sinister militias (Houthis). Consequently, nothing is impossible and if there are obstacles, we shall overcome them.”

Despite some major offensives since September 2021 and territorial gains in southern Marib, in Al-Baydah and Shabwa, the Zaydi rebels have lost many fighters and seem visibly affected. Their inability to hold on to the key sectors gained a few months earlier obliges the movement’s leaders to try to intimidate Abu Dhabi with their drones and ballistic missiles. In any case such is the opinion of Governor Awadh Ben Al-Wazir Al-Awlak: “That offensive against our Emirati ally is a logical response to our victories here.” The United States and France have already expressed their readiness to provide the city their air support. Another step towards internationalising the conflict and further escalation.

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The SCT is an off-shoot of the separatist Southern Movement, whose ambition is a return to the autonomy of South Yemen, an independent socialist country between 1978 and 1990.

2TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The Houthis are followers of the Zaydi Islamic jurisprudence, called Zaydi Shia and make up about 25% of Muslims in Yemen, with the greatest majority of Shia Muslims in that country being of the Zaydi school of thought.

3TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Militia that fights for the Yemeni government.