John Jenkins

Iran’s hidden hand in the Houthi drone strike on Saudi Arabia

Iran's hidden hand in the Houthi drone strike on Saudi Arabia
The Saudi-led coalition hit back against Yemen following the drone strike on Abu Dhabi (Getty images)
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Over the past six years, Saudi Arabia and its allies have – not always accurately – dropped western-built munitions worth billions of pounds on both military and civilian targets in Yemen. On Monday, the Houthis, the Zaidi militia they are fighting, hit back.

The Houthis claimed to have struck a number of targets in the UAE – including a petroleum storage facility and Abu Dhabi airport – with a mix of drones and missiles, all probably Iranian-built and therefore cheap as chips. In a stroke of nominative indeterminism, the Saudi-led campaign was initially called ‘Storm of Decisiveness’. The Houthis rather more soberly named their latest attack ‘Hurricane of Yemen’.

It’s hard to say with any confidence how many people have died as a direct result of air strikes by the Saudis and their allies – anywhere from 20,000 upwards. Three South Asian workers are reported to have died as a result of the Houthi attack. Several others were injured. The Saudis retaliated with airstrikes which they say killed a senior Houthi general.

War is hell and any death in combat (with obvious exceptions) is a misery. But the strategic balance is strikingly skewed. All the years of aerial bombardment – plus constant UN activism and international condemnation – have signally failed to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table. But a single combined drone and missile attack on minor infrastructural targets in the lower Gulf will now give us and the government of the UAE – and above all that of the richest and most powerful emirate, Abu Dhabi – a serious and deeply uncomfortable dilemma.

And this dilemma is not simply about Yemen. The UAE has been involved in the fight against the Houthis since the beginning of the Saudi-led campaign. In many ways they have been the most effective of all the coalition forces. From the beginning, they built an impressive intelligence network, with outreach to a variety of Yemeni actors. They have conducted sophisticated combined operations and shown impressive tactical adaptability. Most recently, it was a UAE-backed Yemeni force, the so-called Giants Brigade, which was summoned to take the fight to the Houthis in Shabwa, a key battleground in the protracted fight to dominate terrain and control the country’s energy resources.

It is this that may represent the immediate cause for the Houthi attack, which follows their seizure of a UAE-flagged ship in the Red Sea at the beginning of January. After all, the Houthis probably believe that it was their obduracy that forced the UAE to withdraw most of its own forces from Yemen in 2019. So why shouldn’t a strike showcasing their ability to attack the UAE’s heartland now persuade them to stop backing their domestic enemies remotely?

This attack is part of a pattern, whose common factor is Iran. The first combined use of drones and cruise missiles to strike a regional target was in 2017, when Iran hit a Kurdish Iranian opposition party in Koya, inside Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) territory in Iraq. Iran had shelled targets inside the KRG before, whenever they thought the Kurds were doing things they didn’t like. But this attack was something different: it flagged up a new capability to combine drones and missiles – a keystone of Iranian defence doctrine – with unprecedented accuracy. The same message was evident when Iran and/or its Iraqi proxies hit oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia in 2020. In neither case did Iran claim direct responsibility. Indeed, in the case of Abqaiq, the Houthis implausibly claimed it was them. Subsequent technical analysis clearly implicated the Iranians and elements within certain Iran-aligned Shia militias inside Iraq.

Israel, too, has recently been plagued with drones, this time sent by Hezbollah in Lebanon to reconnoitre targets. Hezbollah was badly hit in the 2006 conflict with Israel but has been re-equipped by Iran, which has used its control of territory in Iraq and Syria to send not just missiles and drones but new and more advanced guidance systems. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, regularly threatens that any new conflict would be qualitatively different from previous ones: Israel’s home front would become a theatre of destruction, in spite of Israel’s own advances in anti-missile defence. Iranian military officials do the same. So do the Houthis. So do Iraqi militia leaders, who also possess Iranian missiles and drones and threatened the UAE a week before the Houthi strike. 

Demonstrating a rapidly developing and semi-deniable ability to hit targets at will in the territories of the West’s allies in the region – and get away with it – sends a message that Iran and its pals think they’re winning. The UAE and Saudi Arabia probably agree. They know they are heavily exposed in Yemen and cannot on their own change the balance of power in Lebanon, Iraq or Syria. They have made clear their deep unhappiness with Washington’s coolness towards them – which predates Biden but has been exacerbated by his Administration’s wider behaviour on Middle Eastern issues and on Afghanistan. They have, of course, to put it mildly, not helped themselves much , particularly the Saudis. But they also think the Iranians have a much longer track record of malevolence.

They remain deeply suspicious and fearful of Tehran’s intentions. But because they think they no longer have the backing of their traditional security providers and are unlikely to regain it, they have gritted their teeth and made overtures to Tehran. If that continues, it is likely to lead not to a new security order in the Gulf, but to Iranian triumphalism and further instability. There is no prospect of the Chinese or Russians stepping in to replace the US. Why would either Moscow or Beijing want to put their hands in that mangle? Indeed, a degree of localised disorder may be in their interests, keeping the US and its allies on the hop and distracting attention from Russian ambitions in Ukraine, on its Baltic borders or in the Caucasus and from Chinese bellicosity over Taiwan.

And just as Putin noticed and acted upon Obama’s reluctance to use military force in Syria, so he, Xi Jinping, Khamenei and any number of the West’s enemies will have noticed the passivity of the Biden Administration, the cynical mercantilism of Germany, Macron’s empty bluster and the complete uselessness of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy when faced with real and imminent danger. 

As we have repeatedly seen with Russia’s combination of Little Green Men, Black Ops, Cyber warfare and bare-faced lies – or Turkey’s testing of drone warfare in the recent Azeri-Armenian conflict – military action is becoming both cheaper and easier to disguise. That makes it harder to respond. But every failure to hit back is just another small nail in the coffin of the post-1945 global order.

Written byJohn Jenkins

Sir John Jenkins is a Senior Policy Fellow at Policy Exchange and former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He writes for Policy Exchange’s Understanding Islamism project

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