The drone attack in Abu Dhabi – Implications for Israel and the region


By Dr. Moshe Albo​​ | January, 2022

Abu Dhabi international Airport
Photo: Ralf Roletschek | CC BY 3.0


The civil war in Yemen is nearing its seventh year, and there is no end in sight. The Houthi rebels' drone attack in Abu Dhabi, and the seizure of the UAE-flagged ship in the Red Sea constitute severe developments with strategic regional repercussions. From an Israeli perspective, this strike demonstrates the growing threat posed by the Iran-backed proxies, as well as the need to promote regional security and military collaboration to curb Iranian aggression.



Regional realignment and U.S. weakness


The U.S. policy that strives to minimize American involvement in the Middle East, avoid using military tools, and focus on strengthening regional stability using diplomacy and economic sanctions is weakening U.S. deterrence and influence. This situation is allowing Iran to increase its pressure on U.S. forces as well as Washington's regional allies by activating proxy forces, launching drone attacks and using ballistic fire without fearing that Iran itself would be exposed to incurring any direct prices.


The Pro-American Sunni camp that is deterred by Iran is now pursuing understandings and direct dialogue with Tehran. The Gulf interests in this context are clear: fear of escalation with Iran in the absence of American support, and the desire to maintain security stability instead of getting dragged into dangerous adventures during a global health and financial crisis.


Thus, the UAE is getting closer to Iran. Its National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met with his Iranian counterpart as well as President Raisi (1 December) to discuss improving their bilateral relations and strengthening their strategic partnership. The visit was presented by Sheikh Tahnoun as a turning point in the relations between the two countries, and, when their meeting had ended, President Raisi was invited to make an official visit to the UAE. Furthermore, commercial relations between the UAE and Iran are on an impressive rise, and it is currently estimated that trade between them would amount to 1.5 billion USD.


At the same time, the Saudi-Iranian axis is also coming out of the deep-freeze, and in recent months there have been four rounds of talks between the two countries with Iraqi mediation. Another manifestation of the thawing relations can be found in the participation of an official Iranian delegation in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation's meeting in Jeddah for the first time since 2016. Moreover, the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Minister has noted that Iran is willing to reopen its embassy in Saudi Arabia.


The regional dynamics demonstrate the embedded paradox within the political interaction between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Iran. While Iranian representatives are discussing how to improve bilateral relations with their Saudi counterparts, and Tehran's relations with the UAE show progress on the economic and political fronts, Iran-backed proxies carry out a strategic attack against Abu Dhabi, and seize an Emirati ship on an international commercial naval route in the Red Sea.


The strike in Abu Dhabi should therefore be understood within two key contexts: A manifestation of the exacerbating escalation in Yemen between the Coalition forces and Houthi rebels, and the levers operated by Iran via its proxies against the United States and its regional allies to bolster its deterrence, and weaken the U.S. as a source of support in the region.



Saudi Arabia's dilemma and the Yemenite quicksand


Upon entering office, the Biden Administration had reversed the resolution reached by President Trump whereby the Houthis were considered a terrorist organization. According to President Biden, this definition was detrimental to the efforts of humanitarian aid, and ineffective in the promotion of a ceasefire. This American step did not lead to greater calm in this arena, however; on the contrary. The Houthi rebels escalated their rocket launching against Saudi Arabia, leading to the scope of their ballistic firing from Yemen against civilian Saudi targets to double during 2021, with the help of the Quds Force and Lebanese Hizballah.


In response to the ongoing ballistic attacks against Saudi Arabi in recent months, the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia has launched an extensive offensive in the eastern districts of Yemen, while expanding strikes against Houthi targets in Sana'. The Arab Coalition Spokesperson has accused the Houthi rebels of turning Sana' International Airport into a military zone from which ballistic missiles and suicide drones are regularly launched against Saudi Arabia.


Yet, Saudi Arabia faces a dilemma in view of the fact that the military escalation designed to compromise the Houthis' firing capabilities is enhancing the humanitarian crisis and, subsequently, leading to international criticism of it. UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, has also recently noted that the current escalation in Yemen is the worst in years. He claims 2021 "is ending on a tragic note for Yemenis, millions of whom are struggling with poverty, hunger and severe restrictions on their freedom of movement". Saudi Arabia is perceived as the one responsible for the humanitarian situation in Yemen, leading to concrete implications for its operational freedom of action.


Moreover, having reduced its involvement in ground warfare in Yemen two years ago, the UAE, which had also avoided any direct attacks against the Houthi rebels, has now altered its operational strategy, and played a key role in the battles in the eastern districts of Yemen. The UAE's military involvement has changed the equilibrium on the battlefield, leading to victories on the ground. Thus, the Houthi rebels have publicly threatened that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would pay a hefty price for their actions, delivering on their promise by seizing the Emirati ship, and carrying out the drone attack in Abu Dhabi.


Map - Yemen
Photo: NormanEinstein | CC BY-SA 3.0


On 3 January, the Houthi Rebels took over the UAE-flagged sea vessel "Rawabi" in the Red Sea. The Arab Coalition claims the ship was carrying medical equipment and was not part of the military campaign, whereas the Houthi rebels are arguing that it had military equipment on board, and had entered Yemeni territorial waters with no approval. The ship was seized opposite Hudaydah Port on an international commercial route. The UN Security Council has vehemently condemned the seizing of the Emirati sea vessel, albeit extremely belatedly (15 January), calling for the immediate release of the crew. The statement it had issued underscored the need to protect freedom of navigation in the Aden Gulf and Red Sea, but did not speak of any practical measures against the Houthi rebels.


On 17 January, the Houthi rebels carried out a drone attack against the international airport and industrial zone in Abu Dhabi. Their spokesperson noted that the strike included the firing of ballistic missiles as well as the launching of suicide drones, and reiterated that these attacks will continue until Emirati "aggression" in Yemen desisted. The international community has vehemently condemned the attack, but provided no practical levers by which to punish the Houthi rebels. The Arab Coalition had retorted by striking targets in Sana.


However, the military actions taken by the Arab Coalition in Yemen will not change the current equation, and are more likely to lead to further sinking in the "Yemeni quicksand" with no ability to actualize any political horizon that would correspond with the strategic interests of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, or the international community's rising criticism of collateral damage and bystander casualties. Saudi Arabia is between a rock and a hard place in view of the absence of international legitimization for use of force that would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and its inability to collect the toll directly from Iran due to weakened American support, as well as the fear of slipping down the slippery slope of direct escalation.





  1. The seizing of the UAE-flagged sea vessel on an international commercial naval route in the Red Sea, and the drone attack against Abu Dhabi demonstrate American weakness and its inability to promote effective steps that would curb Iranian military activity in the Middle East.

  2. Washington is focusing on the evolving crisis with Russia in the Ukraine, and actively pursuing the return to the JCPOA with Iran in the Vienna talks, and is therefore avoiding any involvement that could drag it to yet another military conflict in the Middle East. This weakness is enabling Iran to aggravate its sub-war actions vis-à-vis the Gulf states and U.S. forces in the region without paying any price for doing so.

  3. Iranian deterrence vis-à-vis the Gulf states is effective, and Tehran is seeking to use it to expand its influence, strengthen its stability, and render the Abraham Accords obsolete. Saudi Arabia and the UAE will probably seek to hedge the escalation in Yemen, while obtaining international legitimization for their actions in this arena as they define the Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization. Thus, an arrangement with Iran will continue to be promoted in view of the need to ease the tension and avoid direct escalation.

  4. The seizure of the Emirati ship on an international commercial naval route in the Red Sea and drone attack against the Abu Dhabi airport are a display of operative capabilities that could also be directed at Israel. Thus, a possible drone attack against Israel, or hostile takeover of an Israeli commercial sea vessel in the Red Sea by Iran-backed proxies are scenarios increasingly more likely to turn into reality.

  5. The potential of establishing regional collaboration that focuses on the joint effort of addressing the UAV threat and risk to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea is increasing in view of the aggravated Iranian threat, and Israel's growing security and military valuableness. The public message conveyed by Prime Minister Bennett to the UAE Crown Prince, in which he had strongly condemned the drone attack, and offered intelligence and security assistance to help curb the threat posed by Iranian proxies is an important step toward promoting a strategic partnership between the two countries.




Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.


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