What the Houthi strike on the UAE means for Iran and Israel
On Monday, during the historic visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, they sent a strong message. The message being that, for security purposes, Tehran is a more viable option than Tel Aviv for the UAE.
Herzog arrived in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, making him the first Israeli president to travel to the UAE, but his history-making trip has now been mired with controversy following strikes on the oil-rich Gulf kingdom from the Houthi movement, which has now given Israel itself cause to prepare for similar attacks. According to the Houthis, or Ansarallah as the movement is known locally, the group successfully struck sensitive sites in Dubai with drones and important locations in Abu Dhabi with ballistic missiles early on Monday morning. The UAE, however, claimed that it intercepted one ballistic missile which fell outside populated areas, not offering any additional information about the whereabouts of the downed missile.
Following the first of three strikes launched by the Houthis on the UAE earlier this January, which resulted in the deaths of three workers and explosions near the Abu Dhabi airport, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett offered Abu Dhabi “security and intelligence support” to combat what he called “terrorist attacks” from Yemen. According to Omer Dostri, an Israeli national security expert, the threats currently posed by Ansarallah are now very real, a view taken by many Israeli political analysts since the strikes on the UAE began. Additionally, board of directors chairman for the Houthi aligned al-Thawra newspaper in Yemen, Abdul Rahman Al-Ahnoumi, claimed on Monday, following the strikes on Abu Dhabi, that the Houthis possess “weapons that have not been announced and can reach the Zionist entity [Israel].”
On top of the possible threats posed to Israel and the anti-normalization message sent by briefly interrupting the visit of Israel’s president to the UAE is that of Iran’s regional strategy. Following the first missile and drone attack launched against Abu Dhabi, a shift in strategy has clearly taken place within the Iranian alliance with Ansarallah, which was believed to have been held back from attacking the UAE due to Iran’s economic ties with the country and Tehran’s need for companies in the Emirates to sell their goods.
During the first few years of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, UAE-Iran trade ties significantly deteriorated by roughly 30%, as Abu Dhabi sought to appease Washington. However, by the end of the Iranian calendar year, in March of 2021, yearly imports from the UAE totalled roughly $9 billion, bouncing back to pre-sanction levels. Ansarallah showed that, despite Tehran's close economic ties to the Emirates, they were now willing to strike the UAE. This led to speculation over whether Tehran had a hand in the strikes which, although it is likely they at the very least had some prior knowledge, is very difficult to prove.
What is clear, however, is that Iran has not acted to stop their ally from striking the UAE since condemning the Emirates for facilitating the visit of Israel’s president and normalizing ties with Tel Aviv. Iran, at the same time, is also planning to send a large trade delegation to Abu Dhabi this month, according to the Tehran Times newspaper. What this perhaps shows is that the Iranian side is seeking to pressure the Emiratis and not cause a major deterioration in ties, which makes sense as the UAE is currently Tehran’s top import partner, above China.
However, the dangerous balancing act that Abu Dhabi is performing, between Iran and Israel, has not only drawn pressure from the Iranian side. Israeli officials also announced last year that their tightening of ties with Tehran was“not acceptable”. Israel would like to see the UAE become part of its anti-Iran axis regionally and, following the tightening of ties between Tehran and Abu Dhabi last year, Naftali Bennett decided to travel to Abu Dhabi to discuss Iran and other regional issues with UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed.
Israel would have liked its visit to the UAE to have gone smoothly, with President Herzog pledging to support Emirati security interests, but the reality is the nation which can have the largest impact on preventing missiles falling on the tourist hub of the Gulf, is Iran. This message will have been received loud and clear as the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s retaliatory strikes on Yemen have not prevented the continual launch of Houthi missiles. State-of-the-art US air defense systems are never a guarantee that a catastrophe will not unfold if Ansarallah fires enough munitions. Therefore, Israel does not have the tools at its disposal to prevent attacks on the UAE and if the president of Israel traveling to Abu Dhabi will not deter attacks, then the only other option is to engage with Tehran to negotiate a viable way forward, ensuring the Houthis and Emiratis both gain from a dialogue through Iran as an intermediary. In all, what seemed like a walk in the park for Israel and a means of sending a diplomatic message to the region, turned out to be a symbolic and perhaps even strategic victory for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.