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Attacks on UAE shows its strengths more than vulnerabilities: Analysts


Abu Dhabi skyline. United Arab Emirates.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The recent volley of missile and drone attacks on UAE capital Abu Dhabi shook the Gulf and rattled local markets. These events aren’t uncommon in Middle East but they did strike home in Abu Dhabi, a nation known for stability and safety in turbulent regions.  

Houthis is a militant Yemeni Shiite organization backed Iran. They claimed to be responsible for the destruction of what UAE officials called a “drone”. missile attack on Abu Dhabi on Jan. 17Three people were killed at ADNOC’s facilities for state oil company ADNOC. The subsequent weeks saw three more attacks by missiles or drones that UAE forces say they intercepted — the most recent of which, on Feb. 3, was claimed by an Iraqi militia group. Airstrikes were launched against targets in Yemen where the UAE belongs to a Saudi-led alliance at war with Houthis. 

The U.S. U.K. have issued safety advisoriesFor the UAE. 

Houthi spokespersons were quick to praise and threaten their attacks, vowing they would make majority-expat UAE “unsafe” as a retaliation against its participation in the bloody Yemen War, now in its seventh anniversary.

However, how convincing could this threat seem? Defense and regional analysts agree that this threat is not convincing.

It’s unlikely to be possible. Although the Houthis do possess ballistic missiles from Iran and can cause serious harm to the UAE, their potential to cause such damage is very unlikely,” Hussein Ibish told CNBC.

“Missile defenses are likely to be more effective and will be bolstered.” Every attack increases the cost to Iran’s backers and the Houthis in terms of retaliation.  

Satellite images obtained Tuesday by the Associated Press showed the effects of a terrorist attack on an oil facility at the capital of United Arab Emirates. Planet Labs PBC images show smoke rising above an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel station in Abu Dhabi’s Mussafah neighbourhood on Monday, January 17, 2022.

Planet Labs via AP

Dave DesRoches from the U.S. National Defense University was an associate professor and senior fellow in the military. He spoke to CNBC over the phone.

“It really is one of the best-defended countries … even Washington D.C. doesn’t have active missile defenses.”   

General Kenneth F. McKenzie (head of U.S. Central Command) pledged his support to the UAE’s development of anti-drone defenses. He also announced that F-22 fighter planes would be deployed to the area. Already, the USS Cole guided-missile destroyer has been deployed to protect UAE waters. 

McKenzie stated, “We believe this is one friend helping another during a time when they are in crisis.” 

Air defense systems versus drones 

THAAD and Patriot PAC-3 are the best and most costly missile defense systems in the region. However, drones pose a greater threat than those that are already in place. They can be detected far more easily and faster than any missiles. 

John Krzyzaniak (an arms control analyst and technology analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies) stated that “I would most be concerned about low-flying and highly precise cruise missiles, and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]” They are “Much more important than the Houthi missiles ballistic.”  

Drones are difficult to detect by radar. This is the first line defense against any type of air defense system.  

DesRoches stated that “the first problem is taking a picture of the drone” using radar systems. DesRoches stated that many drones are so small, “even though you pick them up you may not be able to see what you’re seeing.” Their cross-sections are closer to that of a duck than to an F-15. We don’t really know. This is the real challenge. 

Officials from Emirati reject the notion that stability in their region is at risk. Anwar Gargash (ex-Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the UAE) wrote in January that terrorist militias were too weak to interfere with stability in the region. 

CNBC’s requests for comment from the UAE Ministry of Defense (MOD) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFFA) were not answered. 

Strong ‘passive defenses’ 

Security experts agree that passive defenses are the best option. This includes making critical infrastructure more resilient and strengthening emergency response services.  

DesRoches said the UAE’s defences were “in very good shape” in this regard. He has been advising Gulf military for many years. One example is the quick response to the attack on the ADNOC oil plant by missiles and drones, Jan. 17, and the continuation of operations there.    

He added, “It is more than buying expensive crap.” They have some impressive capabilities.”

Damage repaired quickly

Air defense scenarios are not without risks. However, it is possible for a few attack munitions or “leakers” to pass through. Sidharth Kaushal (a Royal United Services Institute researcher in military sciences) said that the UAE was relatively safe. 

“So long the UAE is able to limit the harm done and quickly repair it, it will probably be able to sustain some pressure from the Houthis, without long-term costs to its image as a secure country.” 

Yemenis look at the rubble of buildings that were damaged by airstrikes from the Saudi-led Coalition in Sanaa on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. After a devastating attack on an Oil Facility in Yemen claimed by the Houthi rebels, the coalition in Yemen declared that they had begun a bombing campaign to target Houthi locations.

Hani Mohammed | AP

The UAE was part of the Saudi-led alliance that launched an air attack on Yemen in 2015. It has since reduced its presence there in 2019 but still supports proxy groups which have been critical in dealing blows to Houthis over the past months.  

The Saudi-led coalition first invaded Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis pushed out its internationally-recognized government, and the country has since become one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, with tens of thousands dead and millions facing famine. Houthis claim that their strike on Abu Dhabi is in revenge for the country’s involvement in war which has claimed so many Yemenis lives.  

Can escalation be continued? 

DesRoches stated that “you don’t win in a war on missiles if you just shoot down any missiles being thrown at your head.” DesRoches said, “You must take out the men who are firing the missiles.” 

At a Sanaa, Yemen rally commemorating the 4th anniversary Saudi-led military action in Yemen, supporters of Houthi shout slogans.

Khaled Abdullah | Reuters

The issue of escalation is now in question. Already, the Saudi-led alliance has conducted several airstrikes on Houthi territory, Yemen. killed scores of civilians and temporarily knocked out Yemen’s internet.

The issue also arises of Iran’s relationship with the Houthis. However, Iran is currently in talks with GCC neighbor, possibly ironically, regarding how to decrease regional tensions.  

The UAE is a powerful ally and analysts think it won’t become an unsafe country for its citizens to live. The conflict is not likely to end, and escalation seems set to continue.