Will pro-Iranian Houthis in Yemen escalate against UAE? - analysis

If the Houthis expand their threats to attacking the ships of the UAE or threatening the Gulf, this would be a major escalation.

Newly recruited Houthi soldiers march during the funeral of Houthi fighters killed during recent fighting against government forces, in Sanaa, Yemen, December 6, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH)
Newly recruited Houthi soldiers march during the funeral of Houthi fighters killed during recent fighting against government forces, in Sanaa, Yemen, December 6, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH)

The UAE may be in the crosshairs of Houthi escalation after the pro-Iranian group seized a UAE-flagged ship in the Red Sea. The UAE has called the incident an act of piracy but the Houthis are not backing down and have warned of escalation, according to Iranian media.  

The cargo ship called Rwebee was grabbed by the Houthis on January 3, according to reports. The Khaleej Times in the UAE said that the UAE has spoken out about the issue at the UN. “We condemn, in the strongest terms, the Houthi act of piracy against the civilian cargo vessel ‘Rwebee’ off the port of Hodeidah,” said Lana Nusseibeh, Permanent Representative of the UAE to the UN. “This is a dangerous escalation against the safety of maritime navigation in the Red Sea. It requires the adoption of a firm position by the Security Council. We thank all countries who have issued statements condemning this act of piracy.”

The UAE has condemned Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and has demanded they cease their attacks. Iran’s Tasnim media meanwhile has quoted the Houthi spokesperson as saying they are inflicting heavy losses on “mercenaries” backed by the UAE in Yemen. The Houthis claimed to have inflicted these casualties in Shabwa in central Yemen.

However, reports say that Yemen’s pro-government forces, which are backed by the UAE, have had successes in Shabwa in recent days. “The spokesman for the Yemeni [Houthi] Armed Forces stressed that more than 102 armored vehicles suffered heavy casualties and that a number of large and advanced enemy artillery pieces were destroyed,” Tasnim says in Iran.  

Meanwhile, the Houthis have accused Saudi Arabia of bombing telecommunications infrastructure in northern Yemen and accused Israel of playing a role in Yemen as well. Among the Houthis, an official slogan is “curse the Jews, death to Israel.”

 A ship seized by Yemen's Houthi rebels off the Yemen's Red Sea coast is seen in a frame grab from video handed out by the Houthi's media center on January 3, 2022 (credit: VIA REUTERS) A ship seized by Yemen's Houthi rebels off the Yemen's Red Sea coast is seen in a frame grab from video handed out by the Houthi's media center on January 3, 2022 (credit: VIA REUTERS)

The Houthis have accused Israel of playing a role on Socotra island off the coast of Yemen. This comes in the context also of Iran trafficking weapons to Yemen, including drone and missile technology and Iran sending the IRGC mother ship Saviz off the coast last year. That ship was then struck by a mine.  

“We emphasize our full readiness to defend the country and the people and to confront the Emirati enemy until we achieve a clear victory,” the Houthi spokesperson said. “The consequences of the escalation of the UAE aggression will be enormous and it must bear the consequences of these actions,” the Houthis warned.

They claimed also that they have downed UAE drones, including a Chinese-made Wing Loong 2. The Houthis admitted they seized the UAE ship but accused the ship of being a “warship.” The Houthis say “the ship, which was carrying military weapons to the Saudi coalition, was intercepted by the Yemeni [Houthi] navy near the Yemeni city of Al-Hudaidah.”

The statements and war of words between the UAE and Houthis could now lead to greater escalation.

This builds on the Houthis’ willingness to target sites deep inside Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones. Iran has increased the Houthis’ abilities with ballistic missiles since 2015. The Saudis need more air defenses and more munitions to confront these attacks.

If the Houthis expand their threats to attacking the ships of the UAE or threatening the Gulf, this would be a major escalation.

Iran’s hand is generally behind these attacks. The Houthis are not a major player in the region without Iranian guidance. Iran’s ambassador to the Houthis recently had to be evacuated from Yemen and later died. Iran claims he died of COVID-19. He may have been injured in an airstrike, according to other reports.

The overall context then is that Iran’s key diplomat, who was also linked to the IRGC, is no longer in Yemen. Iran has shown willingness to escalate attacks at sea over the last year, targeting roll-on-roll-off cargo ships and a tanker in July last year using drones and mines.