January 19, 2022

January 2022 Map Update: Al Houthi Attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The al Houthi movement attacked civilian targets in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on January 17, causing several casualties. The attack marks a shift in al Houthi target selection and signals an attempt to impose costs for recent Emirati efforts in Yemen. Iran likely encouraged the attack on Abu Dhabi.

The al Houthi movement conducted a drone and missile attack targeting oil infrastructure and the international airport in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. The barrage, including at least five Quds-2 missiles and an unspecified number of Sammad-3 drones, struck oil infrastructure in an industrial area and Abu Dhabi International Airport on January 17, killing three Abu Dhabi National Oil Company employees and wounding six other civilians. Emirati officials confirmed the al Houthis’ responsibility for the attack, which is the first al Houthi attack on the UAE since* 2018 and the first acknowledged by Emirati officials.

The al Houthi movement aims to impose costs on the UAE for its efforts to thwart al Houthi advances in Yemen. The 2019 Emirati drawdown in Yemen had begun a period of détente between the al Houthis and the UAE. This détente ended in December 2021 with the UAE’s support* for a counteroffensive that has since rolled back al Houthi gains in central Yemen. The al Houthi movement has responded to the counteroffensive by threatening* the UAE with attacks on January 12 and seizing an Emirati-flagged cargo ship in the Red Sea on January 2.

Iran likely encouraged the attack on Abu Dhabi as part of a broader effort to deter deepening Emirati-Israeli ties, which Iran perceives as a serious threat. Israeli security services said Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) helped plan the January 17 attack. Iran provides the al Houthis’ long-range weapons as well as training and advisers. An IRGC Quds Force operative based in Yemen’s capital Sana’a is responsible for developing al Houthi external operations capabilities. Iran very likely approves the al Houthis’ more sensitive or ambitious operations, such as targeting Abu Dhabi. The January 17 attack fits a pattern of rising tensions between the UAE and Iran since December 2021, when the Emirati crown prince met with the Israeli prime minister to discuss coordination on Iran and its nuclear program. An IRGC official accused* the UAE of accepting Israeli support for its operations in Yemen in January.

The al Houthis’ chief motive was enacting costs for Emirati actions in Yemen, but the Abu Dhabi attack also fits a pattern of support from Iran’s network of proxies and partners against the UAE. Iran’s Iraqi proxies accused the UAE of interfering in Iraq’s October 2021 elections. A Telegram channel affiliated with Iran’s Iraqi proxies also threatened an attack against the UAE on January 12, indicating that Iraqi groups may have received prior warning of the planned January 17 attack and suggesting broader rhetorical collaboration across Iran’s Axis of Resistance.

Map Key

Yellow pins: Attacks claimed by the al Houthis. Includes successful and attempted attacks.

Blue pins: Attacks by other actors that the al Houthis falsely claimed.

Green pins: Attacks claimed by al Houthis but denied or disputed by Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

Note: This map does not include six reported al Houthi attacks between August 16, 2020 and September 7, 2020, 15 attacks between September 8, 2020 and April 16, 2021, and six attacks between April 17, 2021 and January 18, 2022 that occurred in unspecified locations in southern or western Saudi Arabia.

Prior Updates:

April 2021

September 2020

December 2019