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The drone attack on Abu Dhabi on Monday (January 17) by the Houthi rebels marks a major escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf region. It struck a key oil facility of the state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, resulting in the death of three persons, including two Indian nationals, and injuries to several others.

Initial reports indicate that three petroleum tankers were hit and caused a secondary fire. The complex of the state-owned oil company with 36 storage tankers is located 22 kilometres from the centre of the Emirati capital.

The attack took place close to the busy airport, the home base of Etihad Airways, and not far from the Al Dhafra Air Base operated by the US and French forces. There was a brief disruption of flights in Abu Dhabi airport over the incident.

Above all, the Emirati capital is around 1,800 km northeast of Sana’a, the stronghold of the Houthi rebels. Though the damage was limited, the drone attack indicated a new and escalating phase of the Yemeni civil war. Ever since the Houthis took over the capital Sana’a in September 2014, they have brought swaths of Yemeni territories under their control.

After the Saudi-led multilateral alliance entered the conflict in March 2015, the situation worsened, but facing military casualties, the UAE, the prime member of the coalition, pulled out its troops in July 2019 but continued airstrikes on suspected Houthi strongholds.

The rebels, backed by Iran, have been responding by attacking targets inside Saudi Arabia in response to the latter’s military campaign in support of the officially recognised beleaguered government under President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Peace efforts by the UN, Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council and other international bodies proved futile.

Thus, the Yemen crisis has become one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern times; the number of people killed at the end of 2021 is estimated at over 3,70,000. At least 10% of the country’s 30 million population is internally displaced, with the vast majority of the rest suffering from acute shortage of water, basic medical facilities or food.

Strategically, the Yemeni crisis offers Iran another opportunity to expand its regional influence. The Houthis are predominantly Zaidi Shias as against the Twelver Jafari Shia faith adhered to by most Iranians. Yet, their larger Shia affinity and opposition to the Saudis are exploited by Iran, which sees similar rebellious groups and communities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain as its allies.

Through these groups, Iran seeks to influence the domestic developments of several Arab countries and even take control of their foreign policy discourses. Moreover, anti-American sentiments in these Arab societies fuel Iranian interests and ambitions.

Of late, Houthis have also carried out similar attacks on Saudi oil facilities. For example, in September 2019, two Aramco facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia came under drone attacks, for which the Houthis claimed responsibility. These attacks temporarily curtailed Saudi oil production by half; from 9.8 million to 4.1 million barrels per day.

The recent Abu Dhabi drone attack is ominous and will be a setback for the smooth flow of oil and gas from the region. Abu Dhabi is about 370 kilometres from the Strait of Hormuz, a major choke point for international hydrocarbon trade that accounts for a fifth of global oil trade and a third of sea-borne commerce.

The Houthi ability to strike the port along the Persian Gulf is bound to create market uncertainties, contributing to supply disruption and price volatility. Moreover, the Houthis are already controlling the Bab al-Mandab on the Red Sea and hence, possible disruption in the Persian Gulf will hamper oil exports, especially of Qatar and Kuwait, which depend exclusively on the Strait of Hormuz.

Two, the Houthis would not have acquired such long-range drones without active technological or supply support from Iran. The Islamic Republic is either an active player in the attack or cannot control its client. Either way, the Abu Dhabi attack would be a setback for the recent reconciliatory moves between Riyadh and Tehran.

Three, by striking at the Emirati capital (and also several Saudi cities last November), the Houthis are conveying a strong message to Saudi Arabia and its allies to disengage from the Yemen crisis. Should the Saudis follow the American model in Afghanistan, the Houthis would imitate the Taliban and quickly take control of the whole of Yemen.

At the same time, angered by the attack, Saudi Arabia has increased its airstrikes on Yemen while the UAE is pressurising the Biden administration to re-designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation.

Most importantly, the Houthi drone attack will be seen as another sign of Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf region and its political desire and military willingness for domination. Hence, it will be a severe setback for the Vienna talks over the nuclear controversy. In short, the drone attack on Abu Dhabi is an ominous prelude to heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf.

Note:  This article was originally published in The New Indian Express on 19 January 2022 and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy