Fighting escalated in Yemen this week in the aftermath of an attack claimed by Houthi forces on UAE capital Abu Dhabi on 17 January. The attack left three people dead and six wounded.
The Saudi-led Arab Coalition for Supporting Legitimacy in Yemen then intensified its air strikes on the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran, targeting the port of Hodeida, the capital Sanaa, and the Houthi stronghold of Saada.
Though the fighting has been heating up in the south of the country, driving the Houthi rebels out of Shabwa and the energy rich Marib province, the air strikes appeared to be in retaliation for the Houthi attack on the UAE.
Forces loyal to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi have been suffering setbacks in trying to stop Houthi advances in Marib, and the forces of the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Amaleqa (Giants) Brigades led by Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, son of late Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been the main authors of military successes against the Houthis.
Although the UAE withdrew its forces from Yemen in 2019, it has maintained its involvement in the coalition by supporting the Southern forces. Observers say that the Houthi attack on the UAE was a result of the battles in Shabwa and around Marib.
“The escalation is mainly an indication that the Houthi rebels are feeling the pain of their losses in Shabwa and Marib,” Saudi commentator Abdel-Aziz Alkhames told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“It could be a last flare-up, leading to the rebels backtracking and accepting the Saudi and international initiatives to end the war and start a political process for a settlement in Yemen.”
Iran might also want this to happen, as it fears the collapse of the ongoing talks on a nuclear agreement in Vienna, Alkhames added.
The escalation in the fighting could also suggest that strategic manoeuvering is taking place in order to determine ground positions as a negotiating card in any upcoming talks about a political solution in Yemen.
While both the US and Saudi Arabia agree on a vision to end the war that would recognise the Houthis, the UAE wants to end the influence of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Al-Islah Party in Shabwa. The STC also wants to regain control of Shabwa, said Gulf expert and Oxford University academic Andrew Hammond.
“All parties agree on the need for talks, but the difference is about what comes first to start a political process: a ceasefire or ending the blockade of the Houthis,” Hammond told the Weekly.
The Houthis might accept the Saudi demand that a ceasefire precede lifting the blockade if they lose the conflict in Marib, he said. Military advances by Amaleqa and STC forces could make the Houthis more open to accepting peace initiatives.
The escalation in the Yemen conflict coincides with the anticipated end of the eighth round of talks in the Austrian capital Vienna between Iran and the major powers to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
The previous deal faltered in 2018 when former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was meant to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting international sanctions on Tehran.
The talks in Vienna focus on what sanctions will be lifted if Iran starts to recommit to the JCPOA and the US rejoins.
There has been talk about an interim agreement to replace the JCPOA that might include provisions beyond Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Arab Gulf countries have been raising concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its interference in the region through proxies like the Houthis in Yemen and Hizbullah in Lebanon. It is not clear how far the US will adopt the Gulf interests, but the Vienna talks are now entering a critical juncture.
This might explain why the UAE said it reserved the right to respond to the attack on Abu Dhabi by the Houthi rebels and did not immediately retaliate.
Professor at Exeter University in the UK and former BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus suggested this week that the Emirati response might come in the form of increasing its support for forces fighting the Houthis in Yemen.
“So how will the UAE now react? Stability is crucial to the state’s self-image… One obvious response might be to step up support for its allies on the ground,” Marcus wrote on the BBC website this week.
“While Iran remains a clear ally of the Houthis (and much of the weaponry used in these recent attacks may well be of Iranian origin), the fact remains that this is not a simple client-proxy relationship. The Houthis make their own strategic decisions, and it is unclear the extent to which this attack will be viewed positively in Tehran,” he added.
The next few weeks may be decisive in the Yemen conflict, as all the parties involved agree that there can be no military solution.
A political settlement is the ultimate goal, and Houthi stubbornness in snubbing Saudi, UN, and US calls for talks used to be fuelled by the weakness of Hadi government forces. With the Southerners and Brigades now making advances on the ground, the Houthis might become less stubborn.
The fighting in Yemen and the attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE might come to an end if the Houthis suffer more losses in the fighting around Marib. Some observers, including Hammond, say it will be a week or two before things become clearer.
The US is keen to reach an outcome to the Vienna talks by the end of this month, and whatever that outcome is, it will be reflected in the Yemeni situation, with either the fighting heating up or there being a move towards a ceasefire and talks on a political settlement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.