After the Houthi drone strike, is the UAE safe for expats and tourists?

After the Houthi drone strike, is the UAE safe for expats and tourists?
6 min read
28 Jan, 2022
As the Yemeni conflict reaches a critical stage, Houthi missiles shot towards the UAE are likely to continue. Only time will tell how much of the UAE's business-friendly, tourism-focused nature will be impacted, writes Anthony Harwood.
High angle view of modern city skyline and cityscape at sunset in Dubai, UAE on 22 January 2022. [Getty]

"Great. I'm off to UAE on Wednesday so now as well as having the COVID police to negotiate I'm going to need to avoid incoming missiles. Still, it might keep some of those Premier League footballers out."

So said a reader of The Times commenting on a story about how two missiles fired at Abu Dhabi had been shot down over the oil capital this week, with explosions lighting up the night sky.

A week earlier one had got through and triggered a fuel tank blast at a storage facility, killing three people.

The missiles were fired by Houthi rebels who have been fighting the Yemeni government, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, for the past eight years.

The reader's comment jokily reflects the precarious nature of UAE's reputation as a safe tourist destination and secure hub for international businesses in the Middle East.

"With the Yemeni conflict reaching a critical stage the missiles are likely to keep coming and – as the Irish Republican Army used to say about bombing the UK mainland in the 1970s – the Houthis only need to get lucky once"

With the Yemeni conflict reaching a critical stage the missiles are likely to keep coming and – as the Irish Republican Army used to say about bombing the UK mainland in the 1970s – the Houthis only need to get lucky once.

The consequences of a missile getting through the Emirati air defences and slamming into one of those luxury hotels that make up its famous skyline would be catastrophic to the country's reputation as a safe and secure adult playground for the rich and famous.

Dubai is the fourth most visited city in the world hoping to attract 25 million visitors a year by 2025, as well as 100,000 companies.

Despite the threat, FIFA is insisting next month’s Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, featuring European champions, Chelsea, will go ahead. And, for the moment, those Premier League stars are showing no signs of staying away.

Perspectives

This week the UAE is a popular warm-weather destination for Manchester United players on their winter break, with Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Diogo Dalot. All pictured hitting the gym in Dubai. Down the road, skipper Harry Maguire is on the golf course with Everton and England keeper Jordan Pickford.

But the use for the first time of ballistic missiles by the Houthis, as opposed to drones previously fired at Saudi Arabia, has escalated the danger for the Emiratis, who successfully deployed a multibillion-dollar defence system on Monday to intercept the incoming threat.

Not surprisingly Abu Dhabi has asked the US for help bolstering its defences against future missile attacks in case they are sophisticated enough to get through.

The American military has 2,000 service personnel at the Al Dhafra airbase in Abu Dhabi, home to the 380th Expeditionary Wing, who were forced to shelter in bunkers during the attacks.

The Houthis have vowed to continue attacks on Abu Dhabi and are threatening to hit locations in Dubai vital to the UAE's tourism and financial sectors. They have even published threats online against multiple targets, including the iconic Burj al Arab and Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Perspectives

On Wednesday the British human rights group, Detained in Dubai, called on UK prisoners to be evacuated for their own safety.

"The unthinkable is happening right now in the UAE," said CEO Radha Stirling. "After decades as one of the few countries in the Arabian Gulf not to be targeted in terrorist attacks, the United Arab Emirates has suffered multiple drone and missile strikes over the past several days."

"We have received reports from British inmates in the UAE that explosions are literally shaking the walls of the prison. Billy Hood, who is currently incarcerated on absolutely ludicrous charges in Dubai, has communicated that prisoners can hear blasts nearby the jail, and inmates are in fear of their lives," he added. 

Despite the dangers, international companies have continued with planned projects there, including an agreement to build a green hydrogen plant for aviation fuel. Moreover, the Houthi attacks have not had any impact on the Dubai stock market. But cracks are appearing, such as the recent US State Department's travel advisory warning that urges its citizens to reconsider trips to the UAE, citing the threat of missile or drone attacks.   

Only time will tell how much the business-friendly, tourism-focused nature of the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian peninsula, will be impacted.

For years the country has marketed itself as a safe corner in a volatile region.

"You have had regional tensions going on pretty nonstop," said David Butter, a Middle East and politics and economics analyst at Chatham House. "Through most of it, they’ve thrived." 

The cruise missile attacks are designed to raise the costs for the UAE for the aggressive foreign policy it has pursued in support of a Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis.

The war in Yemen began in 2014 when the Houthis ousted the internationally recognised government from the capital, Sanaa. It has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced millions and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

"But, as Harib and Shabwa show, they have been very successful and it is for this reason that the Houthis have decided to now make the UAE a target"

There has been worldwide anger at the Saudi-led coalition whose airstrikes have indiscriminately been taking out civilians; a funeral party here, a school bus there. Last week at least 60 people at a detention centre were killed and 200 injured.

On Monday the UN-approved government there said forces led by a UAE-backed brigade had retaken from the Houthis the strategically important city of Harib. Emirati-backed militias also helped defeat the rebels earlier this month in the oil-rich province of Shabwa.

According to Amnesty International, the Emiratis have for years been recklessly arming militias with armoured vehicles, mortars and machine guns – much of it supplied by the West.

Human rights campaigners claim the groups being supplied are not accountable to any government and should be accused of war crimes.

But, as Harib and Shabwa show, they have been very successful and it is for this reason that the Houthis have decided to now make the UAE a target.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail. 

Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood  

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.