UAE carries on in shadow of Houthi attacks

Days after Manchester United’s January 22 victory over West Ham, Cristiano Ronaldo and teammates such as Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard headed to the beaches of Dubai for their winter break.

The football stars’ visit to the United Arab Emirates underlines the pulling power of the Gulf tourism and trade hub, even as attacks by Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen threaten to damage its reputation as one of the safest states in the Middle East.

Missile attacks in recent weeks have shaken people from their beds in the capital Abu Dhabi. There were explosions and flashes of light in the sky as UAE and US forces launched interceptors. “It was very scary,” said one British expatriate in Abu Dhabi. “Not something I expected or signed up for.”

From Lebanese professionals fleeing instability to western remote workers taking advantage of the country’s openness during the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE has long been an attractive location for foreigners. This includes a steady procession of celebrities since the new year, as visitor numbers in Dubai bounce back to three-quarters of pre-pandemic levels.

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The attacks now threaten to suck the UAE back into regional geopolitical turmoil, while it tries to focus on economic recovery as it swings out of the pandemic. “What has happened raises the perceived risk and hurts the UAE’s reputation as one of the few really stable countries in the region,” said Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“At the same time these attacks don’t tear that reputation apart and are not putting it fully back into question yet because the UAE showed capabilities to intercept them,” she added.

Yemenis in Sana’a watch a report on the destruction of a missile launch site allegedly operated by the Houthis in Al-Jawf © Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Abu Dhabi had been accelerating diplomatic outreach to Tehran in recent years to de-escalate regional tensions. In a phone call between the UAE and Iranian foreign ministers on Thursday, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan reiterated “the need to stop the dangerous escalation in the region”, according to the official news agency.

The UAE took a leading role in the 2015 Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen civil war. But it withdrew most of its military forces from Yemen in 2019 after the UAE and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of supplying the rebels with increasingly sophisticated drone and missile technology.

The recent success of UAE-allied local forces in land battles with the Houthis has prompted the direct strikes on the capital, the first of which killed three and wounded six when a fuel depot was hit last month. The UAE and its allies responded with air strikes on Yemen, which the UN has said was experiencing the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster due to the civil war, with an estimated 250,000 deaths.

Houthi officials have previously claimed to have targeted Dubai with their long-range drones and even mentioned the city’s world fair, Expo 2020, as a potential target in their propaganda. UAE officials have only acknowledged the use of its interceptors in the capital.

In a country of 10mn people where foreigners outnumber nationals by nine to one, there has been muted public reaction.

Some of this can be attributed to the security-conscious state’s limited tolerance of free expression. After the second assault, UAE state prosecutors summoned people who had shared dramatic videos of the defensive measures, saying these posts threatened to spread panic.

Multinationals, many of which base themselves in the UAE as a launch pad for the oil-rich region, have expressed “measured concern”, said Nigel Lea, chief operating officer of Sicuro Group, a Dubai-based corporate intelligence and risk analysis provider.

One global firm moved two events that were to be held in the Gulf state in March to London after the attacks. “The local population is worried about it and the people in Abu Dhabi are quite worried about it. We are not accustomed to this,” said a foreign executive based in the UAE. “It is causing a lot of worry.”

The US last week urged Americans to reconsider travel to the UAE, citing the threat of missile attacks. “If you have a US travel advisory, it’s really difficult to bring people in and we live off that kind of stuff here,” the executive said.

The risk is that the UAE, which is smaller and more densely populated than Saudi Arabia, will start to face a similar level of threat as its neighbour, which is under the constant threat of assault from Houthi missiles and drones. Saudi authorities have said 59 civilians have been killed in the kingdom since Riyadh launched its war against the Houthis seven years ago.

“The UAE is facing some of the same consequences as its larger neighbour and ally, but the UAE is more vulnerable — a greater portion of its economy depends on tourism and it is a major global financial hub,” said Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at Exeter university’s Centre for Gulf Studies. “The last thing it wants is for these attacks to become a regular occurrence and damage the reputation that it has cultivated as a safe haven.”

Residents of the Gulf state have over time adapted to a higher level of risk, but before the recent attacks there were hopes these tensions were dissipating.

Ronaldo appeared to be unfazed by the Houthi threat, posting Instagram footage of himself addressing fans and sunbathing on the beach with his four children. Other Premier League footballers such as Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson and Jordan Pickford of Everton posted themselves enjoying rounds of golf with a backdrop of the Dubai skyline.

Last Monday’s salvo coincided with the first visit of Israel’s president since the UAE’s normalisation of ties with the Jewish state.

Once again, the British expatriate was woken by the sound of explosions, but the reaction from friends and colleagues was mild. “There was no discussion at all,” the expatriate said. “No one is talking about it any more — it’s as if nothing happened.”

Additional reporting by Andrew England in London

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