Local, Regional and International Actors Drawn Deeper into War
The Houthis launched a barrage of drones and missiles on an oil facility and the airport in Abu Dhabi on January 17, killing three civilians. The attack came amid an Emirati-backed ground offensive led by the Southern Giants Brigades that pushed Houthi forces out of Shabwa and parts of Marib governorate. It also marked the first time the Houthis targeted the UAE since 2018, contributing to an escalation between Yemen’s warring parties and their regional and international backers. Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdel Salam met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi the day of the attacks, and before the day was over, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed had asked the US to redesignate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) during a phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The Houthis followed up the strikes with further drone and missile attacks targeting the UAE on January 24 and January 31; the latter occurred during Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s inaugural visit to Abu Dhabi. The attacks triggered Emirati and U.S. air defenses and forced American troops at Al-Dhafra air base outside Abu Dhabi to briefly take shelter. The Pentagon responded by deploying the USS Cole guided missile destroyer to the UAE, along with F-22 fighter jets to the air base. It also pledged to help restore the UAE’s missile defenses, which include US-made THAAD and Patriot systems.
On January 19, following the first round of Houthi attacks, President Joe Biden told reporters that FTO re-designation was “under consideration.” Axios later reported that during an interagency meeting on the topic at the White House, the National Security Council was more open to redesignating the Houthis as a group, while the State Department supported targeted sanctions, such as those announced by the US Treasury Department in the last week of February.
On January 22, dozens of protesters in the Gaza Strip led by the pro-Iran Palestinian Islamic Jihad group chanted “Death to the House of Saud” and held posters of Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi. The demonstrations followed a surge in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes across Yemen, which caused a nationwide internet outage and killed dozens of people, including at least 91 people in a Houthi-run detention facility in Sa’ada city that held pre-trial detainees and African migrants (see: ‘Coalition Airstrikes Knock Out Internet, Hit Detention Center’). The day after the protests, “#Palestinians Support the Houthis” trended on social media, and the Palestinian Hamas movement, which authorizes public gatherings in the Gaza Strip, attempted to distance itself from the protests. Hamas has tried to balance relations with Iran on the one hand and its Arab neighbors on the other, and released a statement asserting that Palestinians’ chants against Gulf Arab countries “do not reflect the movement’s well-known and firm stance and policies of non-interference in the internal affairs of countries.”
On January 23, in response to the UAE attacks, the Arab League convened an emergency session and issued a resolution calling for the Houthis to be designated “a terrorist organization”. The same day, the Iran-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah launched a fundraising campaign to help the Houthis acquire more drones. The largest pledge came from Abu Ali al-Askari, a Kataib Hezbollah official who committed to donating US$685,000.
On February 2, a Kataib Hezbollah-affiliated Iraqi group, Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq (True Pledge Brigades), claimed responsibility for launching four drones targeting critical infrastructure in Abu Dhabi. In a statement, the group said attacks would continue until the UAE stopped interfering in neighboring countries like Yemen and Iraq. In January 2021, the same group had claimed responsibility for a drone strike on Saudi Arabia and posted images threatening a drone attack on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Developments in Government-Controlled Territory
Tensions Rise in Al-Mahra After Houthi Strikes on UAE
On January 15, Al-Mahra governorate’s local authorities, led by Governor Mohammad Ali Yasser, called for a consultative meeting to discuss the security situation in the governorate. The local branch of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Al-Mahra refused to participate unless the local authorities condemned the recent Houthi missile and drone attacks on the UAE. Abdullah Issa bin al-Afrar, an STC-aligned politician and son of the last Sultan of Al-Mahra and Socotra, also boycotted the meeting and criticized Yasser on Twitter for not condemning the Houthi strikes. In a speech during the January 19 meeting, Yasser said, “I look at Yemen from Al-Mahra to Sa’ada as a united country, not as one divided between north and south.”
In recent months, the STC has warned of the spread of Houthi influence in Al-Mahra and has accused prominent anti-Saudi figure Ali al-Hurayzi of facilitating Houthi operations in the governorate. On January 2, Al-Afrar called for the formation of a 5,000-strong military force from Al-Mahra to drive out “northern forces,” referring to the Houthis and forces affiliated with the Islamist Islah party, which Al-Afrar and the STC accuse of facilitating the smuggling of Houthi weapons from Iran. The STC has sought to establish influence in Al-Mahra since its founding in 2017, but has met with little success.
Saudi-led Coalition Forms Saba Giants Brigade in Marib
On January 29, the Saudi-led coalition appointed Abdelhadi Abdelatef al-Qabli commander of the newly-formed 1st Saba Giants Brigade. Al-Qabli is the son of a prominent anti-Houthi tribal sheikh in Marib’s Murad tribe, whose house in Al-Jubah district was targeted by a Houthi ballistic missile in late October 2021, killing more than a dozen people. Al-Qabli was appointed to lead the new brigade following the withdrawal of the Southern Giants Brigades from Marib’s Harib district in late January and was tasked with fighting Houthi forces in southern Marib. The Saba Giants Brigades were named after the Saba federal region (consisting of the northern governorates of Marib, Al-Jawf and Al-Bayda), one of six federal regions proposed in February 2014 following the National Dialogue Conference.
UN Workers Abducted in Abyan
On February 11, five UN workers were abducted by suspected Al-Qaeda militants in Abyan governorate. Identified as four Yemeni nationals and one foreigner, the UN Department of Security and Safety staff were returning to Aden after a field mission when they were abducted. Tribal leaders involved in negotiations for the release of the UN workers said the militants have demanded a ransom and the release of some of their forces imprisoned by Yemen’s internationally recognized government. On March 6, Reuters reported that an armed group in Hadramawt governorate had kidnapped two Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) workers, a German and a Mexican. A security source told Reuters that the MSF employees were taken from their car by gunmen believed to be linked to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Developments in Houthi-Controlled Territory
Houthi Forces Seize Emirati Ship off Yemen’s Red Sea Coast
On January 2, Houthi forces seized the UAE-flagged cargo ship Rwabee off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, claiming it was carrying military supplies. After the Houthis released footage of military-style inflatable boats, trucks and rifles on the ship, the Saudi-led coalition issued a statement accusing the Houthis of “armed piracy” and claimed the ship was carrying medical equipment from a Saudi field office on the Yemeni island governorate of Socotra. Saudi state TV alleged the Houthis had transferred the rifles onto the ship. The Rwabee was seized on the second anniversary of the US drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force, which has sought to assist the Houthis through much of the war.
On January 13, the UN Mission to support the Hudaydah Agreement said its team saw the Rwabee from a distance and spoke to its crew members. A day later, the UN Security Council condemned the seizure of the ship, noting the “increasing number of incidents off the coast of Yemen, including attacks on civilian and commercial ships, which pose a significant risk to the maritime security of vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.” The Rwabee and its 11-person crew are still in Houthi custody in Ras Issa port.
Coalition Airstrikes Knock Out Internet, Hit Detention Center
On January 20, a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a TeleYemen building in Hudaydah city killed at least four people, including children, and caused a nationwide internet outage that lasted four days. On January 21, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes targeted a Houthi-run detention center in Sa’ada city, resulting in one of the deadliest airstrikes since the coalition intervened in 2015. Casualties included at least 91 dead and 236 injured, with many of the deaths coming from the collapse of an upper level of the facility, where about 1,300 pre-trial detainees and 700 African migrants were being held. Some of the injured had been shot by Houthi forces at the prison, according to the local human rights group, Mwatana. The day after the airstrikes, Saudi Arabia claimed the recently built detention center had not been reported to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross as a non-military site and was investigating the matter. On January 28, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) urged the Saudi-led coalition to ensure that their investigation was independent and transparent, adding that during an OHCHR visit to the detention center after the attacks, “we saw no signs indicating that this site, formerly a barracks, continues to have a military function.” The Hudaydah and Sa’ada airstrikes were part of a major spike in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes during January, undertaken in reaction to the Houthi missile and drone attacks on the UAE.
Houthi Court Shutters Esteemed Sana’a Bookstore
On February 6, a Houthi-run court in Sana’a ordered the closure of Abu Dharr al-Ghifari bookstore, which had operated in the capital for nearly 40 years. The bookstore was well known for its selection of philosophical, intellectual and political titles, and its closure was viewed as part of a broader campaign to restrict viewpoints that challenge Houthi power. Several independent and opposition newspapers also have been shut down.
Houthis Shut Down Six Radio Stations in Sana’a
On January 29, the Yemeni Journalists Union announced that Houthi authorities in Sana’a had closed six community radio stations in the capital for allegedly broadcasting without licenses and failing to pay fees. Majili al-Samadi, the head of Voice of Yemen Radio, one of the six stations shuttered, said on Facebook that 10 journalists were now out of work. “Most people know our professionalism and independence … we are not politicians,” Al-Samadi said. Journalists in Sana’a said the authorities wanted the radio stations to broadcast Houthi war songs, which some of them refused to do.
In its annual report, the Yemeni Journalists Union documented 104 violations against journalists in Yemen in 2021. The main perpetrators of the violations were the Houthis (46), the internationally recognized government (26) and the STC (18).
Houthis Detain Another Yemeni Employee of US Embassy
In mid-February, Houthi forces detained the former Yemeni press secretary of the shuttered US Embassy in Sana’a. He joined 10 Yemeni colleagues who were detained in the weeks surrounding the Houthis’ seizure of the embassy compound in October. The Houthis also have held two UN employees since early November.
Houthi Leader Backs Russian Claims in Ukraine
On February 23, senior Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi tweeted support for Russia’s recognition of two breakaway regions in Ukraine as independent republics. Al-Houthi, who is a member of the Supreme Political Council, joined only a handful of leaders around the world in backing the Russian move, which preceded a military invasion of Ukraine. “We support the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics,” Al-Houthi said in the tweet, adding “We call for restraint and to avoid slipping into a war intended to drain Russian capabilities.”
Security Council Calls Houthis ‘Terrorist Group’ in Sanctions Resolution
On February 28, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that described the Houthis as a “terrorist group” and expanded an existing arms embargo that targeted seven Houthi leaders to cover the entire Houthi organization. The practical implications of labeling the Houthis a terrorist organization were unclear, although experts described it as a “major development,” given that the Security Council has only used the label for a handful of groups, including Al-Shabab and the Islamic State. The resolution noted the importance of humanitarian assistance and commercial imports and allowed for exemptions that are necessary to facilitate humanitarian activity. The UAE lobbied for tougher language, including the implementation of asset freezes, travel bans and expanded authorities for maritime interdiction, but these did not materialize in the final text.
The resolution, which renewed and expanded Security Council sanctions on Yemeni actors for one year, received 11 votes in favor (including Russia’s) and four abstentions (Brazil, Mexico, Norway, Ireland) from the 15-member Security Council. The four explained that they had concerns about the lack of an agreed upon definition of a terrorist group and the potential impact the designation might have on political efforts and the humanitarian situation.
Observers suggested that the Russian vote was secured in exchange for UAE abstentions on Security Council resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine or requests that the General Assembly address the situation there. The resolution also featured language about the need for “a political process that includes and meets the legitimate aspirations of all Yemen’s multiple and varied parties.” Previous resolutions defined the parties to the conflict as the Houthis and the internationally recognized government. The latter reportedly lobbied against more inclusive language. The resolution also included stronger language on women’s participation, demanding the “full, equal, and meaningful participation of women in the peace process,” recalling the 30 percent minimum target for women in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference.