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Yemen’s Houthi movement stepped up its attacks. That complicates U.S. policy in the region.

The U.S. wants to end help the war in Yemen — and secure a nuclear deal with Iran

Houthi supporters in Sana'a, Yemen, hold their guns during a gathering on Thursday to mobilize more fighters to the battlefront amid an escalating war in Yemen. (Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

On Jan. 17, the Houthi movement that controls northwestern Yemen claimed responsibility for a drone attack on Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates that killed three people. While the Iran-backed Houthis have long been attacking targets inside of Saudi Arabia, this was one of the first times they had targeted the UAE.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched reprisal airstrikes on Houthi-controlled areas — strikes that reportedly killed more than 100 civilians. On Jan. 24, the Houthis launched ballistic missiles toward Abu Dhabi that were intercepted by UAE defenses and U.S. military personnel at Al-Dhafra Air Base.

How will this affect U.S. policy in the region — and the increasingly complex alliance politics there? The escalation appears to be restoring some cohesion to a Saudi-Emirati coalition that had grown divided in recent years. But it comes at an awkward time for the United States and Iran, which are at a decisive point in negotiations over a possible return to their nuclear agreement. Thus far, it seems that the United States will support its Gulf strategic partners up to a point, while Iran is unlikely to alter its relationship with the Houthis.

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Saudi Arabia and the UAE had diverged in recent years over both their objectives and tactics in Yemen. In September 2014, the Houthis joined with loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize power. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE led Operation “Decisive Storm” to restore Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, following his ouster by the Houthis. Promises of Hadi’s rapid restoration to power quickly faded. The coalition’s bombing and blockades have instead exacerbated humanitarian suffering and further entrenched Houthi rule.

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My research finds that Saudi-Emirati intervention policies began to diverge in 2016. As the conflict continued, Saudi Arabia prioritized its northern air war, whereas the UAE began to back separatist groups in the south. By summer 2019, the divides in the coalition became difficult to paper over. The UAE scaled down its military presence in Yemen, and forces aligned with the Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) gained control over much of the southern port city of Aden. The Riyadh Agreement between the STC and Hadi that November only mildly relieved their tensions.

Houthi advances gave the coalition renewed focus

The Houthis capitalized on this coalition turmoil during 2020 and 2021 by launching an eastward assault on Marib, the oil-rich stronghold of the Hadi government that hosts millions of displaced Yemenis.

The risk of the Houthis seizing Marib jolted the coalition into action. In December 2021, a UAE-backed militia called the Giants Brigade deployed to Shabwa, which lies southeast of Marib, and repelled the Houthis this year. On Wednesday, coalition forces retook the district of Harib south of Marib city. Although tensions continue between UAE-backed forces and the Saudi-backed Hadi government, the two coalition leaders appear to see the value of a united front to keep Marib from Houthi hands.

The attacks on the UAE followed these Houthi military setbacks — and threaten to internationalize the conflict even further, as the Monday Houthi targeting of Abu Dhabi suggests.

U.S. officials will support their Gulf partners — up to a point

President Biden came into office with a promise to “step up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen,” but his administration has struggled to make much progress. The United States no longer refuels coalition aircraft and ceased to support “offensive operations” in Yemen. But the United States continues to sell defensive weaponry to the Arab Gulf nations, while Tim Lenderking, U.S. special envoy for Yemen, continues to advocate for the U.N.-led stalled peace process.

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Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain high expectations of U.S. support, despite Biden calling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in 2019. For now, the Houthi escalation appears to be prompting the United States to set its reservations aside and support the two coalition leaders.

The Biden administration will probably continue to sell missile defense platforms and rebuke Houthi behavior. However, support for the Emirati push for the United States to re-designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization may be unlikely, given the concerns that the designation would probably worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Iran’s support for the Houthis continues

Policymakers debate whether the Houthis are an Iranian “proxy” — or not. The distinction is important because the Houthis and other armed groups are often not fully beholden to the governments that back them. Iran is probably unwilling to rein in Houthi attacks, given the aligned relations between Tehran and the Houthis since at least 2009, with Iran increasingly providing the group with training and weapons.

Criticisms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — which President Donald Trump vacated in 2018 — included the lack of enforcement of Iran’s patronage of regional militias. The Houthi attacks on the UAE may be a case of Iranian muscle-flexing to strengthen its hand in the nuclear negotiations. But the escalation also seems ill-timed, given that Iran appears to be working toward reviving the nuclear deal.

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In Vienna, could the recent attacks offer more leverage for the United States? Its negotiators could stipulate that sanctions relief would occur only in exchange for Iran ordering the Houthis to cease their targeting of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This scenario might offer a provocative test of the degree of Iranian control over Houthi launches. However, Iran’s ties to the Houthis represent a low-cost way to attack its Arab Gulf rivals, so Iran is unlikely to abdicate the relationship.

These alliance politics bode badly for Yemen

The recent escalation suggests these alliance dynamics continue to drive the fighting and fracture in Yemen, contributing to famine-like conditions as the conflict enters its eighth year. For now, the Houthis continue their attacks with Iranian blessing and backing. Saudi and Emirati airstrikes in and around Sana’a add to the conflict’s humanitarian impact, but their coalition has protected Marib. And U.S. officials are left struggling to balance support for Gulf partners, the negotiations with Iran and facilitation of intra-Yemeni political dialogue.

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Tyler B. Parker is a PhD candidate in international relations at Boston College.

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