The Attacks on UAE: Actor-Case Analysis

Hurşit Dingil Researcher

The attacks on UAE set a clear example of emerging asymmetric threats, while the issues of the functionality of air defense systems have once again been raised.

On January 17, 2022, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that explosions had occurred near Abu Dhabi Airport and three oil tankers located in the industrial area of Musaffah. Then Ansar Allah claimed responsibility for the explosions that occurred in the UAE and announced that the UAE would be the target of these attacks unless it withdrew from Yemen. Subsequently, a total of 30 air threats, including 20 kamikaze drones and 10 ballistic missiles, violated UAE airspace and hit these targets, it said. But no clear results have yet emerged on the accuracy rate regarding missiles and drones used in the attack. In this sense, the attack on UAE is read as a different level of reaction, especially at the number of ammunitions used and the number of deaths because of the attack. It has been reported that three people of Pakistani and Indian nationality were killed and six people were injured as a result of the attack. However, the targets of the attack have critical sensitivity for the UAE. Because the targeted Musaffah region is one of the most important industrial regions of the UAE and is located very close to the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company ADNOC, one of the country's primary sources of income. For this reason, this attack is very concerning for the UAE. Because the image of the UAE as a safe haven for international investments has been dramatically damaged after this attack.

The Pre-Attack Process

There have been five concrete developments in the region recently. The first of these is that Iran has successfully tested the solid-fuel engine used for space rockets. Because solid fuel engines are more often used in the making of ballistic missiles. With the latest test, Iran is demonstrating a profile that can reach a range of 5,000 km within ballistic missiles. Ballistic missiles capable of reaching 5,000 km in this direction are of particular concern to Europe. The second development occurred within the framework of the Yemeni civil war. On January 3, 2022, the Houthis announced that they had seized a cargo ship called the Rwabee carrying military and medical supplies said to belong to the UAE. It is reported that the ship in question was transporting supplies to the newly established field hospital on Yemen's strategic Socotra Island and was confiscated when it was about to return to Saudi Arabia. The third development is observed on the Marib tension line in Yemen. Although the UAE announced the withdrawal of its military presence in Yemen in 2020, it has recently continued its military policies, especially on the control of strategic islands in Yemen. On the other hand, the UAE supports the elements of the Southern Transitional Council against the Houthis in a military and political sense. This process has recently led to an aggravation of the conflict in Yemen, and with the capture of the Shabwa region by UAE-backed mercenaries, the UAE has made a significant gain against the Houthis on the Marib tension line. This defeat and the progress made in Marib in favor of the UAE also caused different reactions. The fourth development is the explosions, the cause of which is not yet known, which occurred in Iran just before the attack on the UAE. Several explosions were reported to have been heard in the Iranian districts of Kermanshah, Hamadan and Sanandaj on January 16, 2022, the day before the attack on the UAE. At this time, there were also reports that the explosions were an air defense activity, but no footage of air defense activity was released. Official statements about the sounds of explosions did not provide a reasonable justification for the cause of the sounds.

However, it was stated by Iranian military sources that no military exercises were held on the day of the explosions and in the relevant areas. On the other hand, official statements were also made that the explosion sounds were caused by thunderstorms due to weather conditions. However, the lack of weather conditions supporting those statements reinforced suspicions about the sounds of explosions. In addition, the UAE-backed Arab Weekly published an assessment article that these explosions may have a connection to the attack on UAE. Because according to some unconfirmed claims, sensitive military facilities and missile facilities were targeted in areas where there were explosions. Because of this situation, Iran also reacted within the Houthis.

Finally, the fifth significant development is South Korean Leader Moon Jae-in's visit to the UAE the day before the attack, during which the UAE and South Korea reached an agreement to sell $3.5 billion in medium-altitude air defense systems to the UAE. This development is essentially one of the tangible indications that the UAE had concerns before the attack that it could face such a threat.

The Analysis of Attacks

In response to the attack, the UAE bombed some Houthi areas in Yemen within the air force of the Arab coalition. Immediately after the attack, Ansar Allah's military spokesman announced that the attack was carried out by Ansar Allah under the code name Operation Yemen Hurricane. He also provided information on the ballistic missile and kamikaze drones used in the attack. In this context, it was stated that Quds-2 and Zulfiqar ballistic missiles and Sammad-3 kamikaze drones were used in the attack. Moreover, after the attack, Ansar Allah resorted to threatening rhetoric, especially on social media, that the UAE would be targeted again, that “international investors should leave the insecure UAE”. In these discourses, it is seen that the UAE's safe investment harbor profile and economic stability are directly targeted. The implication that Expo, one of the important investment summits, will be targeted in the recent statements of Ansar Allah's military spokesman Yahya Saree is an important example of this rhetoric. In general, it seems that Ansar Allah, or the Houthis by any other name, often threatens the UAE with rhetoric aimed at the energy, investment and tourism sectors, which are its primary sources of income.

 

Picture 1: The Inventory of Houthis

 

On the other hand, examining the munitions used in the attack, it can be considered that the attack is similar to the ARAMCO attack that occurred in Saudi Arabia in 2019 and was claimed by the Houthis. At this point, comparing the ARAMCO attack and the attack on UAE, there was about 900 km between the launch site and the targets hit in the ARAMCO attack. It is understood that there was about 1,400 km between the launch site and the targets hit in the attack on UAE. In particular, the details of the ARAMCO attack in 2019 can be considered an important reference in understanding the attack on UAE since it is a relatively well-known concrete example.

 

Picture 2: On January 24, 2022, at around 4:10 a.m. Yemeni time, UAE F-16 aircraft hit the Al-Jawf missile launch site in Yemen. The attack was in retaliation for a second Houthi airstrike.

 

In this direction, the Houthis' ability to hit a target located 1,400 km away indicates that a new level has been reached in terms of cruise missiles after the previous ARAMCO attack. Iran's existing inventory of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles includes types of missiles with this capacity and capability. It is often mentioned by international reports that Iran is supporting the Houthis militarily, especially with ballistic missiles and kamikaze drones. However, given that Iran's ballistic missiles and drones are widespread throughout the region, explaining responsibility for this attack directly to Iran may cause problems based on resorting to generalization in analyzes. At this point, the main area of uncertainty that arises in the context of the attack on the UAE is the issue of whether the attack was an autonomous initiative of the Houthis or was carried out at the will of Iran.

Contrarily, it is possible that cruise missiles launched from Yemen can accurately hit targets in the UAE, given the current capacity and previous cases. In other respects, it seems that drones launched from Yemen and following a course of about 1,400 km, hitting targets in the UAE with precision, are pretty unlikely, given the current capacity of the Houthis and previous cases. Because the communication ranges of both Iranian and Houthi drones are not sufficient for such long distances due to the lack of satellite connection. Indeed, Analysts from the United States, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are focusing on the possibility of launching drones from Oman. So much so that after the attack, US-based articles accusing Oman of being a safe haven for the Houthis also began to be published.

Another development that supports this is that the UAE has banned the use of all unmanned aerial vehicles, including for hobby activities, as of January 22. These developments are being evaluated as a concrete result of the thoughts that kamikaze drones were launched from within the UAE or from a location close to the UAE. However, it is necessary to consider the possibility that drones and ballistic missiles can also be launched from the sea using civilian-looking mobile launch platforms. In this assumption, targets determined by launching kamikaze drones at a closer distance can be accurately hit, but at the same time, the source of the threat is unclear, which will give an advantage to the actor performing the action. Furthermore, the attack on UAE has once again raised the issue of the functionality of air defense systems. Because the cruise missile launched from Yemen was also able to accurately hit targets in the UAE, violating the airspace of Saudi Arabia. In this scenario, the existing air defense systems of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, although active, have not been able to perform effectively.

But yet, after the attacks, the military goals of Iran and Israel have also emerged. Israel focuses on the fact that the attack was carried out from 1,400 km, often emphasizes the nature of the threat on various media platforms. In this sense, Israel aims to increase the level of readiness in case of a similar attack on Israel while maintaining looking out to sell its air defense systems to the Gulf countries with this attitude. The coordination and integration of regional air defense against Iran are also among Israel's goals, both political and military. As a matter of fact, after the attack, the Crown Prince of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, met with the Prime Minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett. After the meeting, the issue of selling the Iron Dome air defense system to the UAE was raised.

On the Iranian side, it is especially emphasized that the attack was carried out from 1,400 km. The fact that Iran and its proxy elements are putting this distance to the fore especially points out the motivation of strengthening deterrence at the regional level. Because hitting targets accurately at 1,400 km can keep an actor in a strong position both militarily and politically. It is noteworthy to mention that, after the attack, a large-scale symbolic victory banner was hung on the Valiasr square in Tehran with the words “Yemen is Strong and Standing” depicting the attack. In this sense, the successful result achieved by the Houthis, one of Iran's proxy forces, with the attack has an effect that reinforces Iran's deterrence.

 

Picture 3: Symbolic Victory Banner Supporting the Attack on UAE by Houthis Hung in Valiasr Square

 

Finally, looking at the US side, the attack has started discussions in Washington about the US re-listing Ansar Allah to the designation of terrorist organizations. On top of that, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the USA, and the issue of holding the Houthis responsible for this attack was raised during the meeting.

Houthis, UAE, Iran, Kamikaze Drones

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