Drones in the empty quarter: an important issue
On land, the insertion of the UAE-backed Giant Brigade has upended the Houthi militia’s campaign for the oil-rich Shabwah-Marib region of central Yemen. The militia was forced to withdraw from Shabwah in early January and may now be losing ground in the Marib sector.
The Houthis responded on January 3 by capturing Rwabee, a vessel flying the flag of the United Arab Emirates, in the Red Sea, alleging arms trafficking. On January 17, they launched a stunning missile and drone attack on an ADNOC facility near Abu Dhabi – over 1,400 km away, sparking a fire that killed three people and injured six others. This is the first attack on the United Arab Emirates since 2018. On January 24, two missiles were intercepted over Abu Dhabi.
Retaliation airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on towns in northern Yemen over the next four days killed nearly 90 people.
With the Gulf region already nervous about the Iranian nuclear conundrum, these escalations could spin out of control and spill over into multiple areas.
The UAE withdrew from a direct military role in the Yemen conflict in 2019 and limited itself to training and arming its proxies in southern Yemen. By attacking the ADNOC facility, the Houthis may have intended to increase the cost to the UAE to an unacceptable level, forcing them to withdraw the Giants Brigade from the Shabwah-Marib theatre.
However, this Houthi overreach can also have the opposite result – bringing the UAE closer to Saudi Arabia, which faced an attack on its oil facilities in 2019.
It may also make the UAE rely more on eco-political alliances than hard power.
The UAE could also view this event through the prism of its complex ties with Iran, which is suspected of using the Houthis as proxies.
The attack could draw more attention to the Yemeni civil war, currently the world’s worst humanitarian tragedy with more than 377,000 dead.
Saudi Arabia is keen to find a political solution to the conflict, but the Houthis have stalled, preferring first to win Shabwah-Marib to strengthen their position in the negotiations. With their landslide, they now have a choice: either negotiate from a weaker position or wage an asymmetric war – and this attack shows their preference for the latter course, at least tactically.
Unless Houthi attacks persist, Abu Dhabi may choose stealth over bravery.
A significant collateral impact of the ADNOC attack was on the oil trade.
It shredded the tightly-supplied global oil market, triggering a sharp rally.
Brent crude crossed $87 a barrel, a seven-year high, with indications of breaking the $100 level by the end of the year.
A higher risk premium is also likely for vessels using the Red Sea. Any repeat of such attacks could tarnish the UAE’s image as a safe hub for global business and tourism.
India has well-known interests in the Red Sea and Gulf regions. These were brought home in poignant terms in terms of direct human costs: seven of Rwabee’s eleven crew members held by the Houthis are Indians, as are two dead and four injured in the attack on the ship. ‘ADNOC.
For every dollar of increase in the price of crude, India loses nearly 11,000 cr per year.
In addition, almost 70% of our crude oil imports come from the Gulf and most of our maritime trade to the West passes through the Red Sea.
As our vital interests are at stake, India should work for peace and stability in this neighborhood, both regionally and through our membership in the UN Security Council. At the same time, we also need to protect ourselves from the sandstorms that gather in the Empty Quarter.
The writer has served as India’s Ambassador to Nigeria, Algeria and Norway and is the author of “UAE: A Business Manual”