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Houthis attacked UAE in retaliation for Arab Coalition gains in Yemen: Analysts

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The Iran-backed Houthis attacked the UAE on Monday to retaliate against the gains the Arab Coalition has been making in recent weeks in Yemen, analysts told Al Arabiya English.

What happened?

The UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi was rocked on Monday with a fire that broke out and resulted in the explosion of three petroleum tankers, killing three people and wounding six others, police said.

There was also a “minor” fire that broke out in the area of the new construction site of Abu Dhabi International Airport, which was quickly contained.

“Preliminary investigations indicated that small flying objects were detected, possibly drones, that fell in the two areas, which may have caused the explosion and fire,” police said, adding that investigations were still underway.

Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, said: “The concerned authorities in the UAE deal transparently and responsibly with regard to the sinful Houthi attack on some civilian facilities in Abu Dhabi. Terrorist militias’ tampering with the stability of the region is too weak to affect the security and safety in which we live, and the fate of this recklessness and absurdity is decline and defeat.”

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain quickly condemned what they described as a “terrorist act” against the UAE, and blamed Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis for the attack.

“The Kingdom affirms its full support with the brotherly UAE in the face of all threats to its security and stability. The Kingdom also points out that this terrorist attack, which the Houthis are responsible for, reaffirms the danger of this terrorist group and its threat to security, peace, and stability in the region and the world,” Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

The Houthis also claimed responsibility for the attack on the UAE, with the group’s spokesman Yahya Sare'e saying they conducted a “special military operation in the depth of UAE”.

Why did it happen?

Analysts believe the Houthis needed to send a message to the UAE in retaliation for the gains the Arab Coalition – of which the UAE is an essential member – has been making in Yemen, reclaiming provinces from under the control of the Houthis.

“The Houthis blame the UAE for recent setbacks in Yemen,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Yemen's Giants Brigade forces, which is supported by the UAE, announced last week taking full control of Shabwa province from the Iran-backed Houthis, after taking control of Ain district. The Coalition has also made gains in Marib province.

“In recent weeks, the UAE has stepped up its engagement in Shabwa, which in turn has threatened the Houthi position in Marib. The Houthis had hoped to control Marib and use that as leverage to negotiate a settlement that leaves them in control of most of Yemen,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at CSIS.

The entire 17 districts of Shabwa are now under the control of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, after the Houthis withdrew towards the neighbouring province al-Bayda.

Shabwa is the third largest province in terms of area in Yemen, and it is a pivotal province of particular importance to the south due to its geographical location in the middle of the country.

Its importance lies in its natural resources, as it includes oil fields and facilities, and two strategic ports for the export of gas and oil.

It is also a strategic province in the south because it borders Marib, the largest oil province in Yemen, from the north, and from the west, al-Bayda province, which is the heart of Yemeni geography.

Daniel Byman, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy said: “The Houthis are seeking to retaliate for successful military operations by… groups backed by the UAE in Shabwa province. They seek to show the UAE there is a price for continued military operations and, by inflicting that price, deter the UAE from increasing support.”

What is Iran’s role in this?

Gulf countries have long accused of Iran fanning the flames of violence in the Middle East through financial and military support to its network of Shia proxies in the region, specifically in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

However, it is not yet clear if Iran sanctioned the attack, or if it was completely a Houthi singular decision. Tehran has yet to comment on the attack.

“I would not over-interpret Iranian silence… The UAE attack could be part of a regional effort, or it could be Houthi freelancing,” Alterman said.

Byman said: “Iran often pretends that it is not working closely with the Houthis. Tehran probably seeks to avoid complicating relations with the UAE while ensuring its local proxies can operate effectively.”

Meanwhile, Henderson said: “Perhaps [it is] premature to say Iran is being silent. But it doesn’t need to say anything. The UAE knows that the Houthis have been given this capability by Iran.”

In recent months, Iran had begun engaging in what it described as “constructive” talks with its neighbours, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

UAE's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai met with Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, on the sidelines of a summit in Baghdad last August.

After the meeting Sheikh Mohammed said he wished for “the development of positive relations with neighbouring countries and consolidating relations based on the principles of wisdom and the interests of nations.”

And days after the meeting, Amirabdollahian said Iran and the UAE could take “big steps” in cooperation and realizing diplomacy and expressed the willingness of the Iranian regime to build bridges with its neighbours.

Alterman said: “In my judgment, Iran wants to stay engaged in talks with its neighbors while reminding them of its ability to cause damage. This strategy is an effort to boost Iranian leverage in the talks and create a sense of urgency. Iran views the difficulty conclusively connecting actions to Iran as furthering this strategy.”

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Read more:

Three dead, six injured in Abu Dhabi tanker fire; Iran-backed Houthis claim attack

Saudi Arabia condemns Houthi attack on UAE

Iran port emerges as key point in smuggling weapons to Yemen: UN report

Yemen’s forces take control of Shabwa province from Iran-backed Houthis

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