The month of January saw a serious escalation of the seven-year-old war in Yemen, resulting in more bloodshed and inflicting more suffering on its people. In the third week of January, the Houthi movement, which has been fighting the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen, fired drones and missiles targeting the airport and an oil depot in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Three people working in the refinery, two of them Indians and one Pakistani, were killed in the attacks. Six were severely wounded. This strike at the heart of the UAE was a move that caught both the region and the strategic community by surprise.
The Houthis have regularly targeted cities in Saudi Arabia, including the capital, Riyadh. A missile strike on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 severely affected the kingdom’s oil exports. The Houthi-led alliance also claimed that it had previously targeted the UAE, although this has been refuted by the government in Abu Dhabi.
The Saudi Arabian Air Force responded immediately to the Houthi strikes by launching a large number of air raids over North Yemen. As in the past, the raids killed more civilians than military combatants. Among the targets hit was a detention centre that housed illegal migrants in the city of Saada, near the Saudi border. According to the Red Cross, more than 100 people, including women and children, were killed in the attack. The Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF/Doctors Without Borders) said that more than 200 people were seriously wounded in the attack.
Another Saudi air strike on the port city of Hodeida hit a key telecommunications centre, cutting off Internet services for most of Yemen for weeks. There were several civilian casualties as well. The Save the Children Fund said that at least three children were killed in the Hodeida attack. The spokesperson for the Fund said: “Migrants seeking better lives for themselves and their families, Yemeni children and civilians injured by the dozens, is a picture we never hoped to wake up to in Yemen.” The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, condemned the Saudi-led air raids. He called for “a prompt, effective and transparent investigation” into the incident.
The Houthis have described the latest Saudi-led air raids as “an American escalation”. Most Yemenis believe that the war, and the devastation that it caused, is a direct result of the United States’ backing of the Saudi war effort. Jamal Benomar, a former U.N. special envoy to Yemen, said that the air raids are the latest in the series of war crimes committed by the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia. He said: “There has been no accountability since the start of the war. It’s a failure not only from the U.S. but also from the permanent members of the Security Council. The reality is that all the five members, instead of cooperating to try and find a way on how to compel the Saudis to end the war and compel the Yemeni sides to enter in good faith the political process to end this strife, have in fact been competing for lucrative contracts from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”
The situation in Yemen is being described as the worst humanitarian disaster the world has faced in recent times. According to the U.N., more than 2,73,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians, have been killed as a result of the war. Millions more have been rendered homeless. The U.N. has warned that more than five million Yemenis are in imminent danger of succumbing to famine and disease. The Saudi-led blockade of Yemen has prevented a lot of essential humanitarian aid from reaching the country.
The aid agency Oxfam has said that the people of Yemen “are not starving, they are being starved”. According to the Save the Children Fund, at least 85,000 children under the age of five died of starvation in the first three years of the war. Yemen also has the highest COVID-19 fatality rate of 29 per cent, which is five times the global average. The war has devastated the country’s health infrastructure. Even before the war started, Yemen was ranked among the poorest countries in the world.
The war began in the last years of the Barack Obama administration. The U.S., along with its major European allies, backed the Saudi military intervention in Yemen from the outset. With Washington’s blessings, the Saudi-led coalition imposed an air, land and sea blockade on Yemen, which severely restricted the flow of food, medicines, fuels and other essential goods to the country. Ships carrying U.N.-sanctioned relief material have had to wait for months to get clearance from the Saudis. The main airport in the capital Sana has not been allowed to open for commercial flights. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute, a leading U.S. think tank, has characterised the Saudi-led blockade as “an offensive military operation that kills civilians”.
The Saudi-led alliance has increased the scale of its bombing raids since late 2021 in its ongoing efforts to halt the advance of the Houthi forces into the oil-rich Marib province. The oil and gas infrastructure in the province is controlled by the government in exile, which is backed by the Saudis and the Emiratis. Militias financed and trained by the UAE have also played an important role in halting the Houthi advance into the south. Mercenaries from many countries, including Sudan, have been brought to Yemen to fight by the Saudis and the Emiratis.
The Houthi movement lost the district of Harib, located south of Marib. The alliance led by the Houthis, also known as the Ansar Allah, controls the north of Yemen including Sana. They made steady territorial gains until end 2021. To avoid a serious setback for their Yemeni proteges, the Saudis and the Emiratis ramped up their attacks on the Houthi forces.
The Emiratis have their own agenda in the region and have been propping up a secessionist movement that wants South Yemen to once again become an independent entity. North and the South Yemen became one country only in 1990. The UAE military has taken control of Socotra Island. It is nominally administered by the Southern Transitional Council formed by southern secessionists. The island, famous for its biodiversity, is strategically located near major shipping routes connecting the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and East Africa.
The UAE is also in de facto control of many ports in the south of Yemen. Though the UAE officially withdrew its military contingent from Yemen in 2019, it continues to back militias, many of whom have a separatist agenda. According to reports, around 90,000 fighters are armed, trained and financed by the UAE. Said Farea al-Muslimi, a non-resident fellow at the policy institute Chatham House: “The UAE has surprised everyone, even themselves, on how well they have done militarily in Yemen. They have almost had a free rein as a result to control and have presence in whatever they want in the country, including Yemen’s ports, which is a prize for them.”
The Joe Biden administration, which, until recently, was mouthing platitudes about the need for an immediate ceasefire, has had no qualms about supplying the Saudis and the Emiratis lethal weaponry and ammunition. Since the war began, the U.S. has supplied the Saudis with military aircraft and air-to-ground munitions worth billions of dollars.
On the campaign trail, Biden had promised to bring an end to the war. After taking office in January 2021, Biden said that ending the war was one of his priorities. He announced the curtailing of military aid to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, stating that only “defensive weaponry” would be sold to them. Biden had also said at the time that he wanted to “reset” relations with Saudi Arabia and that he would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant weapons sales”.
However, by late 2021, the Biden administration changed tack as soon as the Houthi forces started making military advances against the Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces. In November 2021, it announced that it would be supplying to Saudi Arabia air-to-air missiles worth $650 million, conveniently classifying them as “defensive” weapons.
The Biden administration also approved the additional sale of weaponry worth $23 billion to the UAE despite its role in the Yemen conflict. The deal was first announced in the last months of the Trump presidency, after the UAE along with Bahrain signed the “Abraham accords” that led to the establishment of official diplomatic relations with Israel. As a reward, the UAE will now be receiving F-35 jet fighters and Reaper drones. According toThe New York Times, the Arab signatories were also given access to the Israeli Pegasus spyware as a quid pro quo for the Abraham accords. Israel has also offered its Iron Dome technology to the UAE to protect the Emirate from drones and missiles launched by the Houthi alliance.
A few days after the first attack, two more missiles targeting Abu Dhabi were fired from Yemen. This time the Houthi target was a U.S. military base in Al Dafra which houses more than 2,000 U.S. troops and civilian personnel. The missiles were intercepted by the U.S. anti-missile batteries stationed in the UAE. On January 31, the day Israeli President Isaac Herzog made his first visit to the UAE, the Houthis fired a missile again. The UAE authorities said that the missile was intercepted and destroyed over uninhabited territory.
In a video statement, the Houthi military spokesman said that the attacks were a response to the Saudi-led coalition’s intensification of the war. He said that a missile was fired at Abu Dhabi and armed drones were directed at Dubai on the day the Israeli President landed in UAE. He claimed that drone and missile strikes were also carried out against targets in Dubai and Saudi Arabia in the third week of January. The spokesman issued a warning to foreign companies and investors to leave the UAE “since it has become an unsafe country that will be targeted regularly as long as it continues its aggression and siege of the Yemeni people”. The UAE prides itself as being a safe haven for investments and is a tourism and transportation hub. A ship bearing the UAE flag was captured in Yemeni waters by the Houthis in December. The government in Sana claims that the ship was carrying weapons in contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are once again demanding that the U.S. put the Houthis back on the terror list. The Trump administration had labelled the Houthi-led government a terrorist outfit at the end of its term in 2020. It was one of the many concessions given to the Gulf monarchies for signing the Abraham accords. Biden has said that he is considering the option.
The U.S. had lifted the terror tag only last year to make life a little easier for the average Yemeni after seven years of intense civil strife and foreign military intervention. The main Houthi condition for starting peace talks is the lifting of the Saudi blockade, which prevents food and medical aid from entering Yemen. Putting the Houthi-led government in Sana on the State Department’s terror list would further exacerbate the already desperate humanitarian situation in the country.