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Last Sunday evening, while much of Washington was watching the NFL playoffs, Abu Dhabi came under attack from Houthi forces in Yemen for the second time in a week. Emirati air defenses intercepted the incoming missiles on Sunday, but a drone strike on Jan. 17 killed three people and caused modest damage. Several analysts have argued persuasively that the attacks on the United Arab Emirates were in response to recent battlefield setbacks for the Houthis, the result of better coordination between Saudi and Emiratis proxies on the ground in addition to the effectiveness of an Emirati-backed Yemen militia known as the Giants Brigade.
Regardless of the proximate cause for the Houthi drone and missile attacks, they pose a significant dilemma for leaders in Abu Dhabi who seem caught between their active—even aggressive—foreign and defense policies of the past decade, and their current efforts to turn inward and focus on domestic development. Houthi belligerence also raises questions about the faddish idea in Washington that local actors can manage regional deescalation, freeing up the United States to deal with bigger global problems.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis once famously—or perhaps infamously—referred to the UAE as “Little Sparta.” The remark reflected the fact that unlike other countries in the region, the UAE has developed an effective military force, especially compared to other regional armed forces. Emirati soldiers fought alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Emirati pilots participated in operations against the Islamic State, and they dealt devastating blows on al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. The Emirati military has gotten a lot of help from foreign officers among its ranks and not all its branches are top notch, but it is an important security partner to the United States, though problems still buffet U.S.-UAE bilateral relations.
While some human rights advocates and members of Congress often seem oddly fixated on the Emiratis, for example, that does not mean the Emirates does not have a human rights problem. In the State Department’s 2020 country report on Emirati human rights practice, American officials found torture in detention, arbitrary arrest, political prisoners, interference in citizen privacy, and restrictions on press freedoms, among a range of other offenses. In addition to human rights concerns, members of Congress and the Biden administration have expressed reservations over Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Beijing. Still, a questionable human rights record and growing ties with China does not distinguish the UAE from almost every other country in the Middle East. That is not an excuse, but it is objective reality.
The Emiratis have also come in for a lot of criticism for the way in which they have thrown their weight—despite the UAE’s modest size—around the region over the last decade. Emirati leaders supported Abdel Fattah el Sisi and refloated the Egyptian economy in 2013, opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, supported Khalifa Haftar in Libya, led the blockade of Qatar, normalized ties with Israel while, critics say, selling out the Palestinians (suggesting Mahmoud Abbas should dictate Emirati interests), and followed the Saudis into Yemen in 2015. The Emiratis intervened in Yemen’s civil war because they were afraid that, on their own, the Saudis would lose––and risk destabilizing the most important country in the region––and out of alarm at what they saw as an Iranian effort to establish a beachhead on the Arabian Peninsula. These calculations proved to be accurate.
Yet for all the Emirates’ efforts to shape the region through an active foreign and national security policy, they have not been as successful as leaders in Abu Dhabi had hoped. Emirati forces withdrew from Yemen in 2019, though the UAE retains influence through allied forces and militias, after concluding that the conflict was unwinnable and that the costs of remaining were too high. The same year, they began discussions with Iran after realizing that the Trump administration would not respond directly to Iranian provocation in the Persian Gulf, leaving the UAE exposed. Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed paid a visit to Ankara last November after almost a decade during which Emiratis and Turks accused each other of abetting terrorists and destabilizing the region.
The Emiratis have not given up their profound antipathy for Islamists and have not exactly buried the hatchet with the Qataris. Yet the Emiratis have noticeably dialed back their foreign policy in favor of an emphasis on domestic development and economic statecraft aimed at gaining leverage with former foes and competitors using the financial resources at their disposal. It is no coincidence that Emiratis have offered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan investment and currency swaps at a moment when the Turkish strongman is weak politically at home.
The Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi threaten to disrupt the Emirati focus on internal affairs and financial diplomacy. It also puts the Emiratis in a bind. It is impossible for them not to respond to attacks on their major cities, including the capital, but they do not want to get sucked back directly into the Yemen conflict, which is almost certainly what the Houthis want. The Emiratis got out because the war was a losing proposition and being so closely associated with the Saudis was hurting the Emirates, especially in Washington, where no one wanted anything to do with Saudi Arabia.
In response to the first attack on the Emirates, as well as ongoing drone and missile strikes on their own territory, the Saudis undertook ferocious airstrikes that, according to observers on the ground, killed and wounded scores of people in rebel strongholds. This does not seem like a road the Emiratis want to go down. Instead, an Emirati F-16 destroyed a missile launching site the Houthis used in their second attack on Abu Dhabi. It is clear that they would rather be highlighting what is happening inside the Emirates, from Expo 2020 Dubai and a raft of new business friendly to the promise of the Abraham Accords. Yet the Emiratis are not likely to continue responding modestly to future Houthi blows, meaning the war in Yemen may be entering another new stage.
The evolving conflict in Yemen challenges an assumption that has gained some traction in Washington of late. As calls for retrenchment and a deemphasis of the Middle East in American foreign policy have taken hold, analysts and commentators offer that, with local actors allegedly deescalating regional conflicts, the United States no longer needs to play a central role in regional stability. There have been talks between Saudis and Iranians, Emiratis and Iranians, Turks and Egyptians, Turks and Israelis, and the al Ula Agreement that ended the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini-Egyptian blockade of Qatar.
All this talking, however, has not produced much. Syria remains violent, Libya is still on the brink of more fighting, the conflict in Yemen seems without an end, Iran and its proxies continue to sow instability and violence around the region, Turkey occupies parts of Syria and Iraq, and there were coups in Sudan and Tunisia. It is hard to see the regional balance that is supposed to produce stability emerging from this dynamic environment. Meanwhile, in response to the attacks on Abu Dhabi, U.S. President Joe Biden dispatched his Yemen envoy back to the region.
It remains unclear what the Biden administration is prepared to do in Yemen, especially with so much of the president’s attention on the Ukraine crisis, which could become a shooting war at any moment. Still, there are policies that would help. Over the howls of humanitarian aid groups, members of Team Biden are considering relisting the Houthis as a terrorist organization. They have a point. It would make it more difficult to get aid to Yemen, but delisting was supposed to be a carrot they would use to convince the Houthis to seek an end to the conflict through negotiations. It did not work. The Houthis only seemed emboldened by it and, since they are engaged in terrorism, relisting seems a reasonable step, but it will hardly end the conflict.
If the Biden administration and members of Congress are serious about relieving the suffering of Yemenis, they must start making sure that the Iranian weapons pipeline comes to an end. Administration officials will also have to lean on the Omanis, who were supposed to be able to bring the Houthis along in negotiations, though at this point, officials in Muscat have been far too indulgent of them. Ultimately, the Houthis have to be denied cash and weapons, and should be isolated diplomatically.
If American policymakers are worried that their regional partners do not trust the United States and that Washington’s strategic position is eroding because countries are hedging with the Chinese, Yemen would be a good place to prove it otherwise.