DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The wars in the wider Middle East that have long surrounded the United Arab Emirates have now encroached on the daily life of this nation allied with the United States, threatening to drag America further into a region inflamed by tensions with Iran.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels have launched missile and drone attacks since January targeting the Emirates, a federation of seven emirates home to oil-rich Abu Dhabi and the skyscrapers and beaches of Dubai. US forces at Al-Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi, home to some 2,000 US troops, opened fire twice with their own Patriot missiles to help intercept air assaults by the Iran-backed Houthis .
Both incidents represent the first time since 2003 that the United States has fired the Patriot into combat – a span of nearly 20 years. It also comes after the chaotic withdrawal of the Biden administration from Afghanistan and the declared end of the US combat mission in Iraq.
Although overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis, the United States now says it is sending more advanced fighter jets to the Emirates, as well as sending the USS Cole on a mission there. This spillover of Yemen’s years-long war into the UAE puts US troops in the crosshairs of Houthi attacks – and raises the risk of a regional escalation at a crucial time in talks in Vienna to potentially restore the deal Iran’s nuclear with world powers.
Since its founding in 1971, the Emirates have been an otherwise safe corner of the Middle East. During the bloody 1980s war between Iran and Iraq, Dubai’s sprawling Jebel Ali Port repaired ships damaged in the so-called Tanker War. The 1991 Gulf War saw Kuwaitis flee to the Emirates and gave rise to the close military ties America has with the country today.
The subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq again saw Dubai absorb the money and families of wealthy emigrants. But the Emirates still seemed to remain out of bounds amid its neighbours’ wars. Part of this stemmed from the centrist foreign policy of its founders whose oil wealth built cities out of sand, part from its economic importance. Dubai, for example, has been a major trade outlet for Iran even as it faced rounds of international sanctions.
Under Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and the country’s de facto ruler since 2014, the Emirates have taken a much tougher approach. Nowhere is this more evident than in Yemen, where he joined a Saudi-led coalition in 2015 to back the country’s government-in-exile against the Houthis.
It largely withdrew its ground forces from the conflict in 2019 as the war stalled and the coalition faced widespread international criticism for airstrikes killing civilians. But in recent weeks, Emirati-backed Yemeni militias have made major strides in the war, sparking Houthi counterattacks deep in the Emirates.
Now, caught between sunny commodity reporting and morning banter, Dubai Public Radio opens newscasts with the latest attacks. A new message in some commercial segments urges the public not to share “rumors” – a reminder of how this autocratic nation that already tightly restricts speech has criminalized the sharing of videos showing a missile attack or interception.
The US State Department has urged Americans to “reconsider travel due to the threat of missile or drone attacks”. The UK Foreign Office sternly warned on Wednesday that “further attacks are very likely”. France will send Rafale fighter jets based in the United Arab Emirates for “surveillance, detection and interception missions if necessary”, said French Ambassador Xavier Chatel.
Yet Dubai’s bars and hotels remain busy as the city-state welcomes travelers and businesses after waging a major vaccination drive amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But for business to continue, the United Arab Emirates must remain safe for all. State-linked media have praised the country’s armed forces and air defense corps. And the Emirates have invested a lot in this defense. It uses both the Patriot missile and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which it acquired at a cost of over $1 billion.
The Emirates used THAAD in two interceptions, the first time the system was used in combat, said General Frank McKenzie, chief of US Army Central Command. The United States announced on Thursday a possible sale of $65 million worth of parts for the HAWK, Patriot and THAAD missile systems to the United Arab Emirates.
However, the Patriot missiles visible on the outskirts of Dubai have simply been pointing north for years at Iran, seen by Sheikh Mohammed as its greatest threat. The Houthi attacks came from the southwest. And on Wednesday, the UAE military admitted intercepting drones allegedly launched by a shadowy group that had previously carried out an attack targeting a palace in Saudi Arabia from Iraq.
This expands the area that must be protected by air defenses, placing an additional burden on them and risking a complex attack breaking through.
Such an attack could be catastrophic, like a 2019 assault that saw cruise missiles and drones successfully penetrate Saudi Arabia and strike at the heart of its oil industry in Abqaiq. The attack temporarily halved the kingdom’s production and drove up global energy prices by the highest percentage since the 1991 Gulf War.
While the Houthis claimed responsibility for the Abqaiq attack, the United States, Saudi Arabia and analysts blamed Iran. UN experts also said it was “unlikely” the Houthis carried out the assault, although Tehran denied involvement.
Already, the Houthis have described Al-Dhafra airbase, which hosts a large US presence, as a legitimate target. Any attack injuring US troops would likely draw a response from Washington, although President Joe Biden hopes to refocus on China and Russia. And a promised deployment of the Cole and advanced fighter jets means more US equipment will soon be in the Emirates.
“They will demonstrate (…) our commitment to our Emirati partners, but also be ready to deal with very real threats that the Emiratis are subject to,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Wednesday. “And frankly, it’s not just the Emiratis, it’s also our people there in Al-Dhafra.”
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