KT explains: Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking Abu Dhabi?

Houthis are a largely Zaydi Shia movement that has been fighting Yemen’s government since 2004


Anjana Sankar

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Published: Tue 25 Jan 2022, 5:10 PM

Last updated: Tue 25 Jan 2022, 10:30 PM

The UAE Capital came under drone and missile attack from Yemen-based Houthi rebels a second time in a week on Monday. The Ministry of Defence said it intercepted two ballistic missiles fired over Abu Dhabi targeting the Al Dhafra military base and destroyed the missile launchers located in Yemen.

Earlier, on January 17, the Houthis claimed responsibility for suspected drone attacks on Adnoc fuel depots that killed three civilians and injured six. Explosions caused fires in the new construction area of the Abu Dhabi airport.

The direct assault on the UAE is a clear indication that after a seven-year war in Yemen, the Houthis are willing to drag the fight beyond the country’s borders. The protracted conflict in one of the poorest countries in the world has already killed thousands and pushed millions of Yemenis into hunger.

Who are the Houthis?

Houthis are a largely Zaydi Shia movement that has been fighting Yemen’s government since 2004. Zaydi Houthis, mainly centred around Northern Yemen, are different from the Shias in Iran or Iraq both in doctrine and beliefs.

Ever since the fall of a Zaydi imamate that ruled Yemen for 1,000 years, the tribe has been fighting to regain their political and military prominence in the country.

The Houthis, formerly known as Ansar Allah, became a significant political movement in the 1990s under its founder Hussein Badreddin Al Houthi.

The Arab Spring and the anti-establishment revolutions strengthened Yemen’s insurgency, resulting in the stepping down of long-time president and Saudi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In 2014, Houthis realigned with Saleh and seized the capital Sana’a by overthrowing the new president, Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, that led to the current Yemen war.

Hadi fled south to Aden and declared himself the legitimate president of Yemen. The Saudi-led Arab coalition, which the UAE is part of, intervened in the war in 2015 to reinstate Hadi as the president and end Iranian influence in the region.

Though the coalition forces managed to drive the Houthis and their allies out of Aden, Sanaa and much of the north-west are still under the control of the rebels.

The conflict has pushed Yemen to what is dubbed as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world with over 70 per cent of its population depended on aid. Several initiatives by the UN to find a peaceful resolution to the Yemen conflict have drawn a blank.

Who is supporting the Houthis?

The coalition forces, including the UAE, have long accused Iran of arming and supporting the Houthi militia, much like the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It has been accused of destabilising the region by operating through its proxies and supplying the Houthis with sophisticated weapons like ballistic missiles, sea mines, UAVs and other weapons to attack Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Most recently, the Houthis have mounted attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia using its growing arsenal of weapons.

According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia during the first nine months of 2021 doubled when compared to the same period in 2020.

Why are they attacking the UAE?

In 2019, the UAE announced that it was pulling out its troops from Yemen, formally ending its direct involvement in the war.

However, recently, the country has intensified its support to groups fighting the Houthis that were making advances in Marib, thus turning the tide against the militia. Houthis blame UAE for its losses and the recent attacks are a retaliation.

On January 3, the rebels captured a UAE-flagged cargo ship on January 3.


Raiman Al Hamdani, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the attacks are to “provoke UAE”.

“The attack yesterday (Monday) certainly reinforces the fact that was established a few years back, which means the Houthis are capable of attacking far targets well into the Gulf region,” he told Khaleej Times. As per reports, the coalition forces retaliated by bombing military targets in Yemen that killed several people.

The escalation has brought condemnation from the international community and prompted US President Joe Biden to state that he will consider reinstating Houthis as a terrorist organisation.

All parties closely watch the escalation that can have a wider impact on regional security, and the UAE has affirmed its right to defend itself.

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