After almost seven years of conflict, the war in Yemen is threatening security and stability in the Red Sea and Arab Gulf zone, two areas of strategic interest to Egypt.
On Monday, Abu Dhabi Airport and the Adnoc oil refinery were the targets of a Houthi missile and drone attack that killed three foreign workers and caused a fire that was quickly extinguished. The Houthis openly claimed responsibility for the attack, which they named Yemen Hurricane, and promised further assaults on the oil-rich emirate.
Yemen Hurricane marked a significant shift in the pattern of hostilities since Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen in support of the internationally recognised government, was launched on 25 March 2015.
It is unclear where this week’s attack will take the conflict. Though UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed has promised retaliation, what this might involve, and how it will impact on the wider regional context, remains a matter of speculation.
Cairo is concerned about any escalation of hostilities in Yemen, and the possibility of a spillover in the sensitive Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab zones that could impact navigation through the Suez Canal.
Speaking off record, an Egyptian official said that Cairo hopes neither the UAE nor its allies are considering anything beyond surgical interventions. He added that Cairo had been hoping to see a political deal that could put an end to, or at least start a phase of drawing down, the war in Yemen, rather than a new phase in hostilities that have already taken a serious toll on regional security and plunged Yemen into a humanitarian crisis.
Since 2015 Egypt has confined itself to sharing intelligence, providing technical expertise, and offering a limited maritime presence but did not send troops to Yemen.
Foreign and UN diplomats say the seven-year conflict has already wreaked havoc on the already frail humanitarian situation in Yemen, has fomented political and military tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and intensified the stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to one UN diplomatic source, “there can be no political compromise in Yemen without Riyadh and Tehran agreeing to it.”
A Cairo-based European diplomat casts the net even wider, arguing that there will be no end to the war in Yemen, or to Iranian-instigated friction in Lebanon and Iraq, before a comprehensive deal between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme is reached. It is almost impossible, he added, not to link the timing of the Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi with the twists and turns of the talks in Vienna between Iran and the West.
Monday’s attack came hours after the Emirati Minister of International Cooperation Reem Al-Hashimi had told Iranian Minister of Culture Mohammad Mehdi Esmaeili that the UAE would welcome a visit by Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi. While the discussion, which took part on the sidelines of Expo 2020 Dubai, was more of a PR exercise than an official invitation, it did come just a few months after the UAE had dispatched its intelligence chief for talks in Tehran.
The UAE’s opening up to Iran has been happening in parallel with backchannel talks between the Saudis and the Iranians that have been taking place in Muscat and Baghdad. But informed diplomatic sources say that it is important to remember that despite the backchannel talks, there has been an escalation in Saudi-led attacks on Houthi targets in Shabwa and the city of Marib, led by the so-called Giant Forces and the Guardians of the Republic. Members of both groups trained at a UAE military base in Eritrea.
The same sources also say that, while the UAE pulled its regular troops from Yemen in February 2020, following an earlier July 2019 military drawdown, it has maintained a political and economic presence, largely in the south, through its association with key players, and by maintaining some special forces on the ground. Monday’s attack, they argue, could be in retaliation for the UAE’s role in the recent military pressure under which the Houthis have been placed in recent weeks.
Karim Ahmed, a Gulf-based expert on Yemen and regional security, says it is significant that this week’s “dangerous attack” followed indirect threats made on Twitter by Houthi Spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam who, in recent weeks, has twice met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahein.
“It is a worrying situation. The bottom line of Monday’s attack is that the Houthis are now warning that the UAE is no longer a safe place for foreigners and foreign businesses,” Ahmed said, and this is something the Emiratis cannot ignore.
What is at stake for the UAE is not just the security of its territory, but also the huge investments it has made over a decade to establish its presence in ports around the Red Sea.
Like the UAE, Egypt, says one Cairo official, does not want to see any further destabilisation of the Red Sea. Perhaps unlike the UAE, he adds, Egypt opposes the intervention of foreign forces, whether regional or international, in the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab zone.
“We have been encouraging de-escalation during the past year and we have been inviting representatives of Yemeni political factions for talks in the hope of supporting any possible de-escalation scenario. Now, we are worried the opposite may take place,” said the official.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri called his UAE counterpart and, according to a statement from his office, expressed Egypt’s full support for the UAE and any possible action it may take. But the message, qualifies an Egyptian official, included support for deterrent action, not anything that might expand hostilities.
The UAE received several other calls from regional and world capitals, including Riyadh and Washington.
According to an informed Emirati source, the UAE’s foreign minister told his interlocutors that the world needs to shift its approach towards the Houthis and start dealing with them as “yet another terror group”.
According to Baleegh Mekhalifi, press attaché of the Embassy of Yemen in Cairo, which is associated with the Saudi-supported and internationally recognised government of Yemen, “it is time for countries of the region and for the world to accept the need for a significant shift in strategy towards the Houthis because all compromise has failed.”
According to Cairo and other influential capitals, a change of strategy on Yemen should involve pushing a political compromise that prevents further attacks on the UAE, Saudi Arabia or other countries of the region.
Cairo-based foreign diplomats say that Monday’s attack could serve as a reminder of the need to focus more on managing the Yemen crisis which is often qualified by the international humanitarian community as “the forgotten war”, though more than 100,000 people have been killed, four million people displaced, and 24 million people are in urgent need of food, medicine, and shelter.
The same diplomats warn that managing the war in Yemen depends not only on the fate of the Vienna talks and the Saudi-Iranian standoff, but also concerns the growing power struggles between regional players over the Red Sea, trade lines, maritime facilities, and military bases.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.