What's In Blue

Posted Thu 20 Jan 2022

Consultations on Houthi-claimed attack on the UAE 

Tomorrow (21 January), Security Council members will hold closed consultations under the agenda item “Threats to international peace and security” on the 17 January Houthi-claimed attack against the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which killed three civilians and injured six others in Abu Dhabi. The UAE requested the meeting and has circulated a draft press statement to Council members condemning the attack. No briefer is expected at the meeting.

According to the UAE, the attack involved a combination of ballistic and cruise missiles and drones, hitting an industrial district near Abu Dhabi’s port and a construction site at Abu Dhabi International Airport, killing two Indian civilians and one Pakistani national. The attack caused three petroleum tanker explosions near storage facilities of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and sparked a fire in a construction zone at the airport.

The Houthi rebel group in Yemen claimed responsibility. Houthi Deputy Minister of Information Nasraddin Amer said that the attack was in response to the “UAE escalation” in Shabwa and Marib governorates. Last week, the UAE-backed Giants Brigades, which deployed in early January to Shabwa, pushed the Houthis out of the governorate and from areas of southern Marib—a rare reversal for the Houthis in their campaign to take the Yemeni government stronghold of Marib governorate and its oil and gas resources. The Giants Brigades is one of several armed groups that form the Emirati-supported Joint Forces, which withdrew from positions in and around the strategic port city of Hodeidah in November 2021 to reinforce anti-Houthi forces in other fronts amid the rebel group’s gains in its Marib offensive.

In response to the attack on the UAE, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition—which supports the internationally-recognised Yemeni government—carried out airstrikes that evening targeting Sana’a. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) cited preliminary information indicating that at least five civilians, including two women and a child, were killed when their house was hit. Media reports citing residents and Houthi officials said that at least 20 people were killed, including approximately 14 people in a strike on the home of Houthi military official Abdullah Qassim al-Junaid, who died along with his wife and adult son. Reports of heavy airstrikes over Sana’a have continued.

In an 18 January letter to the president of the Security Council requesting a Council meeting on the Houthi-claimed attack, the UAE, which began its two-year Council term in January, called on the Security Council to “speak with one voice and join in firmly and unequivocally condemning these terrorist attacks, which were launched in complete disregard of international law”.

Many Council members, including the five permanent members, issued national statements condemning the Houthi attack. The US and the UK called it a “terrorist attack”, echoing the UAE. Some members might repeat this characterisation at tomorrow’s meeting. Following a request by the UAE, US President Joe Biden said yesterday (19 January) that the US is considering reinstating the designation of the Houthis as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization”. In January 2021, the outgoing Donald Trump administration announced such a designation, but the Biden administration rescinded the decision one month later because of concerns, including of the UN, about its potential effects on aid operations and the humanitarian situation in Yemen. At tomorrow’s session, Council members are likely to express concern about the escalation in fighting during the past month and the risk of the war’s further regional spillover.

Members may be interested in discussing the origin of the attack. The Houthis regularly conduct drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, mostly targeting the south of the country. If Monday’s attack was launched from Houthi-held territory, it would have required the missiles and drones to travel at least 800 miles. (When the Houthis claimed responsibility for the 14 September 2019 drone and missile attack on oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia, the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries claimed that it was unlikely to have been launched from Yemen, in part, due to the distance involved.)

Monday’s attack was the second high-profile incident this month between the Houthis and the UAE. On 2 January, the Houthis seized the Emirati-flagged ship RWABEE in the Red Sea off Yemen’s western coast. The Houthis claimed that the vessel was transporting military equipment and later aired video images that appeared to show armoured vehicles and military patrol boats on the ship. A statement by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition said that the ship was carrying medical equipment from a Saudi field hospital on the Yemeni island of Socotra and called its seizure “an act of piracy” that represents a threat to the “freedom of navigation and international trade in the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the southern Red Sea”.

On 13 January, a patrol team from the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) visited the Salif port in Hodeidah, where it observed the RWABEE and spoke to its crew members, according to a tweet by the mission. UNMHA added that “[n]o indication of militarization was observed in the areas patrolled”, amid the coalition’s recent assertion that Hodeidah ports, in particular Salif, were being used to import and assemble missiles and the explosive-laden boats used for staging attacks in the Red Sea. Council members issued a press statement on 14 January condemning the Houthi seizure and detention of the RWABEE and demanding the immediate release of the ship and its crew.

Last week, on 12 January, the Council held its monthly briefing on Yemen. At that meeting, Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg asserted that “the parties are doubling down on military options” and that “the prevailing belief of all warring sides seems to be that inflicting sufficient harm on the other will force them into submission”. Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ramesh Rajasingham reported that 358 civilian casualties were recorded as a direct result of fighting in December 2021, equalling the highest number of casualties in any single month in the last three years. Members might highlight during tomorrow’s consultations that Monday’s attack further demonstrates the urgency of a political process, which Grundberg is seeking to create through a new, inclusive framework that he is developing.

In addition to the consultations, the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee will meet tomorrow afternoon with the Yemen Panel of Experts to consider its annual report.

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