A recent drone and missile attack on Abu Dhabi has raised concerns across the Middle East about the increasing threat of Iranian drone technology. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen are alleged to be responsible for the attack, but key details remain missing from many accounts about how it was carried out.
A long article at Iran’s Tasnim News, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has laid out a blow-by-blow account of the attack; its background is likely the fullest explanation yet as to what was behind it and Iran’s next steps.
Iran backs the Houthis and reportedly had a high level IRGC officer in Yemen last year, who was undercover as a diplomat. That ambassador died of Covid, but it illustrates the close alliance between Iran and the Houthis, and the high stakes that Tehran has placed in Yemen.
Iran has used the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia and last year positioned Shahed 136 drones in Yemen. The drones have a range that can reach Israel. The distance from Yemen to the UAE is around 1,300 km. from where the rockets or drones might have been launched; the distance to Israel is around 2,000 km. Iran coordinates closely with the Houthis.
Let’s look at the Tasnim news piece that reveals the details about the attack as if it were a file laying out a case for why and how the attack happened.
It is important to keep in mind that in September 2019, the Iranians used drones and cruise missiles in a similar attack targeting Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq facility, which was initially blamed on the Houthis as well. It is also important to look at how the Iranian account reveals the regime's decision to use Yemen to threaten Saudi Arabia, Israel and US forces in the region.
The US has a base at Al Dhafra which is less than ten kilometers from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) fuel facilities that were targeted by the drones and missiles. The facilities are next to the Al-Musaffah neighborhood.
According to pro-Iran media, another fire broke out at Abu Dhabi International Airport, “though damage in that attack was not documented by media outlets,” Hezbollah’s Al-Manar has said. Emirati police described the assault as a “suspected drone attack” at the time. Three people were killed in the attacks and six wounded. Hezbollah’s media noted the presence of US and French forces at the nearby air base which is part of Central Command.
THE TANSIM report says that “the role of the United Arab Emirates as Saudi Arabia's main ally in the war in Yemen – in the destruction of the country and the killing of innocent civilians – is not hidden from anyone.” This is reason number one, in Iran’s view, that the attack was justified. “It is quite clear that in every Saudi crime against humanity in Yemen, there are traces of the UAE. For the past three years, however, Abu Dhabi has tried to deceitfully distance itself from the consequences of this devastating war.”
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015 to stop the Houthis from taking Aden. Riyadh was leading a coalition of Arab countries. It’s not the first time Saudi fought in the West Asian country. In the 1960s Riyadh and Cairo backed different sides in a conflict in Yemen; now they were on the same side.
While the UAE, which has positioned itself in recent years as an important player in the region, played a role in the Yemen conflict, over the last two years, Abu Dhabi’s policies have diverged from the Saudi’s role. The kingdom has backed forces of the Southern Transitional Council. In recent weeks, forces backed by the UAE made some impressive gains. The Houthis threatened to escalate, seized a UAE ship off the coast and ran cartoons showing Yemen targeting Dubai.
Iran’s media claims that the UAE put in place a “deception in retreat from Yemen.” This means that the Emirates had appeared to be leaving Yemen, diverging from Saudi war efforts. The Biden administration has been critical of Riyadh’s role and had taken away a Trump-era designation of the Houthis as terrorists in February 2020.
US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking was sent to sort out the conflict. Saudi Arabia seemed like it wasn’t getting enough defensive munitions to stop Yemen drone and missile attacks. Lenderking was in Saudi Arabia in November 2021. The Houthis sensed victory last year, laying siege to Marib. If Riyadh-backed forces lost Marib the Saudis would be humiliated.
“THE UAE, which has been claiming a withdrawal from the Yemeni war since mid-2019, has continued its plans to occupy the country, as evidenced by its escalating greed in southern Yemen," Iran’s Tasnim says. "In addition, the UAE is opening the Zionists to the Yemeni islands and trying to change the demographics of the southern regions of Yemen,”
This is part of an Iranian regime claim going back two years that alleges Israel has a role on the Island of Socotra or other islands. The Associated Press claimed last May that a new air base on Mayun island had been built. Many alleged the UAE was linked to it.
Iran believes the war shifted last year in favor of the Houthis, which it calls the “Yemen army” and “Ansar Al-Islam.” Tehran says that, “since 2019, when the peak of Yemeni drone and missile attacks deep into Saudi Arabia began, the UAE is deeply concerned about repeating this scenario for itself.”
The “scenario” here is the Abqaiq attack and other attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran put the Houthi drone program on steroids since 2017. The Houthis upped their attacks on the kingdom. In fact, in 2019, Iran also operationalized Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq to strike at Saudi Arabia using drones. The drones would then be described as coming from Yemen.
“In addition to Saudi Arabia's airports, bases and other internal positions, the Aramco oil facility is one of the most critical Saudi positions, which has never been safe from Yemeni missile and drone strikes.” In reality, it was Iran targeting the Aramco facilities, enabling the Houthis and other Iranian-backed groups to carry out attacks.
Now Iran claims the UAE is trying to “stay safe” from Houthi missiles. The Emirates has been concerned since 2018, when the Houthis first targeted them. They had already attacked Shaybah in August 2019 and threatened the UAE in September 2019.
Iran’s calculation here is clear. “The UAE, which earns most of its income through tourism and huge foreign investments and its magnificent towers, is well aware that any wrong move in Yemen will have unbearable consequences. In fact, these economic facilities and investments in the UAE are the Achilles heel of the country in the war in Yemen,” Tasnim said.
IRAN CONCLUDES that the UAE wants to continue its role in Yemen but that it is “deeply concerned about the Sanaa government's move to target the depths of the UAE.” The report says that the Emirates was concerned to publicly “participate in the Saudi coalition's aggression against Yemen, and has shifted its focus to the southern ports of the country. On this basis, it can be said that there has been an unwritten and unofficial ceasefire between Abu Dhabi and Sanaa during these years; provided, of course, that the Emirati side does not take any aggressive action against the Yemenis.”
This is the key point. The Houthis have decided that the success of UAE-backed forces in recent weeks was a violation and they believe that with one blow, they can get the Emirates to withdraw or stop its actions. “The UAE's suspicious movements in the Yemeni war have increased, and as a result, the [Houthis]…. have re-targeted the UAE.”
The Houthis call these “deterrent” operations and they likely get direct guidance from Iran. They targeted Aramco in 2021 in Saudi Arabia and they purposely targeted “sensitive” areas in the kingdom, Iran says.
Now the Houthis have said they will increase the possibility of striking at the UAE. The Iranian media calls this operation the eighth type of “deterrence” and claim that it is designed to show that “the UAE would not be immune to Ansar al-Islam strategic attacks.” The report warns the Emirates against supporting any further offensives in Yemen.
The report also notes that the Houthis seized a UAE ship off the coast. They accuse the ship of “carrying military equipment in the Red Sea, signaling the beginning of a new phase in the Yemeni war in the New Year.” The Iran-backed terrorists in Yemen place great importance on transferring the ship to Yemen after a raid. “By carrying out this operation, the Houthis, who had inflicted heavy casualties on the Saudi coalition in air and ground attacks in recent years, this time demonstrated their capability to take the enemy by sea.”
NOW COMES the justification for the “Storm of Yemen” attack on the UAE. The report claims that the attack “targeted Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports, the Abu Dhabi oil refinery in Al-Masfa (Musaffah), and a number of other important and sensitive UAE positions and facilities.
The operation was carried out successfully with five ballistic and cruise missiles and a large number of UAVs.” This is a key detail. The Houthis say “we warn foreign companies, citizens and citizens residing in the UAE to stay away from sensitive sites and facilities in order to save their lives. We declare that the UAE will be an insecure country if the attacks on Yemen continue.”
This is a “strategic message,” according to Iran. It shows they can strike deep inside the UAE, right under the noses of US forces in Dhafra. The Iranian media claims several successes in this recent attack. First they claim that the UAE miscalculated and did not believe that the Houthis “would not be able to carry out these threats. But yesterday's attack showed that the Yemeni army and popular committees know no borders in carrying out their threats to defend their country and [that they] have become a great power.”
The Iranians then claim that the “UAE has always made its security dependent on US support and, more recently, the Zionist regime. Even one of Abu Dhabi's biggest motivations for compromising with the occupiers [Israel] was to receive more military support than Washington [was providing], but Ansar al-Islam's recent operation showed that even the United States could not protect the security of the UAE.”
Iran says the operation is the start of a new “dangerous phase for the UAE in the Yemeni war; Emirati people must constantly be concerned about protecting their vital facilities.” The Islamic Republic is showing that it can destabilize the UAE if it wants. This is a kind of blackmail and leverage. Iran has done this before in attacks on ships off the Emirati coast in May 2019. The Islamic Republic also used a drone to attack a ship in the Gulf of Oman in July 2021, killing two people.
TEHRAN SAYS that the recent attack “poses a major threat to the economy and trade infrastructure, as well as foreign investment in the UAE. As mentioned, most of the UAE's income comes from tourism and foreign investment. But this operation could reduce the tourism and investment situation in different parts of the UAE, especially Dubai, which is the economic hub of the UAE.”
The report also says that the Houthis attacked the Emirates to reduce its operations in Yemen during their offensive on Marib. What this means is that the Houthis need their forces to take the capital of Yemen's Marib Governorate and don’t want to be concerned about UAE-backed offensives on other fronts. This is designed to be a knock-out blow.
Iran’s media says that the Houthis analyzed UAE targets and concluded that “Al-Masfa Industrial Park in Abu Dhabi, which was targeted, is the most important industrial area in the UAE. The oldest port of the UAE is located in the same town, where large companies and factories of construction and heavy industry, factories and companies of light and semi-heavy industries, large international technical and industrial engineering companies (usually American and European), and companies and industries of ‘Hi-Tech’ are located.” This was designed to be a kind of Pearl Harbor moment.
The UAE has invested heavily in these areas, the report says, “especially in the artificial intelligence [sector] in which the UAE has invested extensively and recently the Zionists are also very active. Another part of the region is home to large automotive companies such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, Porsche, Volkswagen and Beam WWW, which also hosts tens of thousands of luxury cars.”
IRAN'S REPORT concludes that the targeting of the Iranian ship by the Houthis marked a new phase of the war. Now they will strike increasingly at the UAE unless they get what they want, which is for the operations to stop on the Shabwa front, where the UAE is backing Yemen forces.
“The UAE has recently transferred large numbers of terrorists to Shabwa and Ma'rib provinces, in addition to increasing military activity in southern Yemen and the occupied island of Socotra,” the report claims. Iranian media claims that the Emirates backs “terrorists” or “mercenaries” in Yemen, whereas the UAE and Saudi Arabia say they back the government of the country and it is the Houthis who are terrorists.
The point is that the Iranian advice for the Houthis is to use the attack on the UAE to stop the battle of Shabwa so they can take Marib. It is a strategic attack for a tactical goal.
The Houthis assert that “if Abu Dhabi makes a mistake” it would be targeted, according to the report. The claim that Dubai Airport was targeted is interesting because it shows how large the planned attack was. The Iran-backed Houthis allege that follow-up attacks will be worse if the UAE doesn’t do what they want.
“Based on this, it can be said that the Yemeni war has entered a new phase in 2022, and if the Yemeni conditions for the end of the war are not met, all the member countries of the aggressor coalition will have to wait for a new surprise from Ansarullah every day,” the report claims.
This is the key point for Iran. It wants to remake the region and show that any country can be targeted with Iranian-backed weapons or Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The attack on Abu Dhabi was a message to the region and the US, as well as the UAE.