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Who are the Houthis and why did they attack Abu Dhabi?

Pro-Houthi troops hold up banners depicting slain Houthi fighters during a mass funeral on Jan. 10 in Sanaa, Yemen. (Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for an attack on the United Arab Emirates on Monday in what could mark a major escalation in the region as international mediators continue efforts to put an end to Yemen’s lengthy civil war.

State-run media in the UAE reported that two Indian citizens and one Pakistani were killed when three oil tanker trucks exploded and a fire broke out at the airport in Abu Dhabi, where remnants of what police said might be drones were found.

Three killed in UAE capital in suspected drone attack claimed by Yemen rebels

The Houthis, a rebel movement that now controls the vast majority of Yemen’s north, have regularly launched missiles and drones toward neighboring Saudi Arabia and at times claimed attacks on the UAE.

Here is more background to the conflict.

Who are the Houthis?

The rebel movement, which formally calls itself Ansar Allah, or partisans of God, took over the Yemeni capital in 2014. The rebels’ beliefs are rooted in the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, and they had long clashed with Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

After an uprising forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power in 2012, the group continued to vie for influence and grew in prominence. Saleh’s replacement, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, fled south in early 2015 after being placed under house arrest in Sanaa.

A Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognized government shortly after, and the war that has engulfed the country in the years since has sparked what U.N. officials have at times described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Houthis, who are backed by Iran, now control the vast majority of Yemen’s north. For the past year they have been engaged in escalated fighting in Marib province, the government’s last crucial stronghold in the north and home to key oil and gas infrastructure.

Both sides have been accused of war crimes, including targeting civilians.

Why are they attacking targets in the Gulf?

The Houthis have been battling the Saudi-led coalition since 2015 and have often struck targets inside Saudi Arabia, framing the attacks as retaliation for a relentless campaign of deadly Saudi airstrikes. They have also targeted the UAE, which has been deeply involved in the war despite formally withdrawing its forces in 2019 and 2020.

Early last year, the Houthis ramped up their missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, targeting locations including airports and Aramco oil facilities. The attacks Monday on Abu Dhabi came after UAE-backed forces in Yemen announced they had reclaimed the strategic Shabwa province from the Houthis earlier this month.

Nasraddin Amer, deputy minister of information in Houthi-controlled Sanaa, said that the attack was in response to “the UAE’s escalation in Yemen in Shabwa and Marib” provinces.

The Houthis have long boasted of their drone capabilities, using them domestically and abroad. In Marib, Yemeni military officials have described Houthi drones used on the front line as one of the biggest challenges to government forces. The Saudi-led coalition will probably respond quickly with ramped-up airstrikes on Sanaa, said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. But he said the true test of the Emirati response is more likely to be seen in how UAE-backed forces react on the ground in coming days.

Yemen’s seven-year civil war could turn on fierce fighting in remote Marib province

What is the U.S. stance on the Houthis?

The United States backed the Saudi-led coalition for years, providing intelligence, weapons and other support, but more recently has tried to distance itself from the conflict because of increasing reports of human rights violations and anger in Congress at Saudi war efforts.

Just before President Donald Trump left office, Washington moved to declare the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization — a designation that humanitarians warned would hinder their ability to deliver aid to civilians in the war-torn country. The Biden administration soon reversed the 11th-hour decision.

In his first major foreign policy speech after taking office last year, Biden vowed to end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales.”

He also appointed special envoy Tim Lenderking to help reinvigorate the peace process in Yemen. Lenderking, who has pushed for a cease-fire, has acknowledged that the fighting in Marib has served as a “stumbling block” to negotiations.

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Yemen’s seven-year civil war could turn on fierce fighting in remote Marib province