Explained: Who are the Houthis and why did they attack UAE?

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A suspected drone attack on three petroleum tankers in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, left three persons — two Indians and a Pakistani national — dead on Monday. Later, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack, warning that the “UAE is an unsafe state as long as its aggressive escalation against Yemen continues.”

One of the Arab world’s poorest countries, Yemen has been devastated by a near seven-year civil war, which started after Houthis captured the capital Sana’a, following which Saudi-led forces intervened and fought the rebels with the aim of ending Iranian influence in the region and restoring the former government. The UAE joined the Saudi campaign in 2015 and has been deeply involved in the conflict ever since, despite announcing the formal withdrawal of its forces in 2019 and 2020.

Monday’s drone attack marks a shift in strategy by the Houthis, who have so far trained their guns and missiles more on Saudi Arabia — with which Yemen shares a border — than on the UAE. The last Houthi-claimed attack on the UAE was in 2018.

So, who are the Houthis?

Founded in the 1990s by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a member of Yemen’s Shia majority, the Houthi movement has a pretty straight forward slogan or sarkha: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.” After Yemeni soldiers killed Hussein in 2004, his brother Abdul Malik took over.

After Yemen’s civil war in 1962-70, the once-powerful Zaidis first started to get sidelined. They were further alienated from the 1980s onwards, when Sunni ideals were increasingly rising to prominence in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. At the time, several disgruntled Shia Yemenis, unhappy with their long-time authoritarian president and Saudi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, joined Saudi militant groups who were fighting against Riyadh.

In this satellite image provided by Planet Labs PBC, smoke rises over an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in the Mussafah neighborhood of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

Eventually after a series of protests and assassination attempts, Saleh stepped down from his post in 2012. But the Houthis’ moment of reckoning came in 2014 — they decided to ally with Saleh and were able to seize Sana’a and overthrow the then-new president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In December 2017 however, the Houthi’s killed Saleh after they realised he was going to switch sides and ally with the Saudi-led coalition.

During his brief career as president, Hadi was unable to restore order in the country, which was fraught with corruption, widespread hunger, unemployment, attacks by jihadists, and a growing separatist movement in the south. It was Hadi’s weakness that allowed the Houthis to swoop in and capture much of northern Yemen, which remains under their control even today.

How did Saudi Arabia get involved?

The rise of the Houthis sent alarm bells ringing across Sunni Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition — backed by the US, UK and France — then launched an air campaign in Yemen, with the aim of defeating the rebel group. What the coalition thought would take only a few weeks has stretched on for seven years, growing into a full-blown civil war.

The coalition troops were able to drive out the Houthis from the south of Yemen, but have failed to remove them from most of the north-west region. Tens of thousands have been killed in the process, in what is widely considered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Both sides have been accused of committing countless war crimes and targeting civilians.

In retaliation, the Houthis have also targeted several locations across Saudi Arabia, including airports and oil facilities.

Over the last year, the two sides have been engaged in a tense battle to capture the Marib province, which is the government’s only remaining stronghold in Northern Yemen and houses vast oil and gas infrastructure.

How did the UAE get involved?

UAE has been a member of the Saudi-led coalition since March 2015. But for the most part UAE-backed forces like the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), and the Joint Forces led by Saleh’s nephew, haven’t really borne the brunt of the Houthi’s wrath as much as Saudi has.

In 2019, the UAE announced that it was slowly withdrawing from Yemen, announcing a “strategic redeployment” from the port city of Hodeidah as part of a UN-led peace process.

In recent weeks however, the UAE-backed southern Yemeni Giants Brigades launched an aggressive attack in the oil-rich southeastern province of Shabwah and advanced towards Marib. Earlier this month, Houthis claimed that they had seized a UAE ship, the Rwabee, off the Yemen coast, which was carrying “weapons for extremists”. Abu Dhabi denied the allegations, calling it a “dangerous escalation”.

Abdul Ilah Hajar, adviser to the president of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council in Sanaa, said the recent attack was a warning. “We sent them a clear warning message by hitting places that are not of great strategic importance,” he told AFP.

The last time the Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack in the UAE was in 2018, when UAE-backed forces made advances on the Red Sea coast and nearly seized Hodeidah, before the UN intervention.

Following Monday’s drone attack, the Saudi coalition announced that it had launched air strikes targeting the rebel-held capital Sanaa. “In response to the threat and (out of) military necessity, air strikes have begun in Sanaa,” the official Saudi Press Agency said on Twitter.

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