The United Arab Emirates has said that three armed drones have been intercepted in its airspace shortly after the US announced it will deploy a warship and advanced fighter planes to protect its Gulf ally from Yemeni Houthi attacks.
The Emirati defence ministry said the drones were intercepted over unpopulated territory, and said that “all necessary measures” are being taken to secure the country, which is a highly vulnerable east-west transit, business and tourism hub.
This was the fourth attack this month and the second this week. On Sunday night three ballistic missiles were destroyed in the air by US troops based in Abu Dhabi as Israeli president Yitzak Herzog was visiting.
The drone flights and the US commitment coincided with the first US-led naval exercise in the Gulf involving the Emirates, Bahrain and Israel, following normalisation of relations.
The Houthis have warned they will strike the Emirates, which withdrew its own troops from Yemen in 2019, as long as Emirati-sponsored local militias participate in fighting in central Yemen. Their recent deployment has halted a Houthi advance in oil-rich Marib province, depriving the rebels of a strategic objective and major advantage in future UN-brokered peace talks.
Wednesday's drone attack was not claimed by the Houthis but by an Iraqi group called the True Promise Brigades, which previously took credit for a January 2021 drone attack on Saudi Arabia.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates launched a war against the Houthis, who had seized Yemeni territory and driven president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hani into exile in Riyadh. The US initially provided targeting aid, logistical support, aerial refuelling and weaponry for the campaign. Although its participation has been scaled down, the US continues to service Saudi war planes and sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Washington has also supplied Riyadh with anti-missile batteries to prevent Houthi missiles and drones from striking Saudi oil facilities and airports in retaliation for extensive Saudi bombing of Yemen.
US rival Iran has supplied drones and ballistic missiles which the Houthis have used to strike at Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
The US extension of protection to the Emirates could boost its determination to carry on with the war just as US involvement has enabled Saudi Arabia to continue the $100 billion-plus conflict.
Ex-CIA counter-terrorism analyst Bruce Riedel argued in an article published by the Brookings think tank that "the Houthis are in no hurry to end a war they have already won", while the Biden administration "painted peace in Yemen as a top priority but continues the policy of its two predecessors".
The UN reports 377,000 people have been killed in Yemen, most not by combat but, Riedel said, by the Saudi blockade which “is a principal cause of the humanitarian catastrophe by denying food and medicine to the country”.