At least 20 killed in Saudi-led air strikes on rebels in Yemen

Attack seen as response to Monday’s Houthi drone attack on UAE capital Abu Dhabi

Air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition on the Houthi-held Yemeni capital Sana’a killed at least 20 people on Tuesday, rebel Houthi media and residents said. Fourteen of those killed were in a single residential block.

The bombings, the deadliest on the city in three years, were seen as retaliation for Monday's Houthi drone attack on the Emirates' capital Abu Dhabi, when three drivers were killed when oil tanker lorries were destroyed and a fire was ignited at the international airport. Two of the drivers were Indians and one was Pakistani.

London-based academic and analyst Andreas Krieg told al-Jazeera that the Abu Dhabi strike exposed the Emirates' "vulnerabilities" and jeopardised its claim to be a safe business and tourism hub.

Houthi spokesman Nasraddin Amer said Monday’s attack was a response to the participation of Emirati-affiliated Yemeni militias in a recent Saudi-led offensive to wrest from the rebels the provinces of Shabwa and Bayda.

They border on oil rich Marib province where Houthis have battled government forces for nearly a year. Before joining this operation, Emirati-backed militias avoided direct engagement with Houthi fighters.

While the Houthis have frequently fired rockets and ballistic missiles and launched explosive-laden drones into neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the strikes on Abu Dhabi 1,600km away seemed to signal a shift in strategy. They were the first Houthi attacks since 2019, when the Emirates withdrew its own military forces from Yemen.

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh launched a war in March 2015 to reinstate Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who had been driven into Saudi exile by the Houthis.

Proxy war

The Houthi strikes were condemned by the UN, EU, US, France, and the Gulf states while pro-Iran Shia militias in Iraq threatened to reinforce the Houthis.

From the outset, the US and Britain have armed and backed the Saudis and Emiratis while Tehran has given limited political and military support to the Houthis.

The involvement of outside powers has transformed Yemen’s civil conflict into a regional and international proxy war which has killed 377,000 and devastated the country.

Iraqi militia intervention could expand external involvement, widen the war, and scupper efforts to cool regional tensions by reconciling Saudi Arabia and allies with Iran.

Last weekend Iran returned its representatives to the headquarters in Jeddah of the Saudi-dominated Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, as a first step in reviving diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, which were cut since Riyadh executed a dissident Saudi Shia cleric in 2016.

In December, Tahnoon bin Zayed, Emirati security chief and brother of Mohammed bin Zayed, Emirati president and de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, visited Tehran to strengthen bilateral ties and the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit gave priority to mending relations with Iran.

Since April, Saudis and Iranians have held four meetings in Baghdad and one at the UN with the aim of reconciling but the Yemen war could put an end to this process.