By Md. Muddassir Quamar
On February 2, 2022, the Joe Biden administration decided to deploy missile destroyer USS Cole in the Persian Gulf and send fighter jets to help the UAE against security threats emanating from Yemen. Besides, the US and UAE will collaborate through early warning intelligence and air defense. The announcement came after a telephonic conversation between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and US Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin on February 1. Earlier, the UAE had sought US support to strengthen its defense after a slew of drone, rocket and missile attacks were carried out on January 22 by Yemen’s Houthis.
The first attack was carried out on January 17 when two targets, including an ADNOC oil facility and an under construction portion of the international airport in Abu Dhabi, were hit by drones and missiles leading to three casualties, a few injuries and some damage to property. The second attack was reported on January 24, when UAE and US forces intercepted and destroyed two ballistic missiles meant to target the Al-Dhafra air base which houses a contingent of US air force. A similar attack was again intercepted by the UAE forces on January 31 when Israeli President Isaac Herzog, the first by an Israeli head of state, was visiting the UAE.
The US decision to deploy a warship and fighter jets in the region underline the gravity of threats emanating from Yemen and the deteriorating regional security situation. The US and UAE are allies and the two have strong defense partnership. The UAE, like other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), depends heavily on the US for security and defense and the US decision reinforces the commitment by the US to help Emirates shore up its defense. Further, the US announcement signifies the continuity of the regional security architecture wherein the US acts as guarantor and regional hegemon. This should also bring a semblance of rationality to the international anxieties about a power vacuum in the Persian Gulf.
Nonetheless, the conflict situation in Yemen continues to rage with the coalition forces intensifying attacks against Houthi targets in capital Sana’a and other locations under Houthi control. On the other hand, the Houthis are desperately trying to expand the conflict to Saudi Arabia, which has witnessed a number of drone, rocket and missile attacks on civilian and economic infrastructures since 2019. By targeting Saudi Arabia and UAE, the Houthis hope to further widen the conflict, attract international attention and increase the cost of war for them.
Iran is another important factor that might have contributed to the recent escalation by the Houthis. It is the main external benefactor and supporter of the Houthi rebels and it is likely that the attacks in Saudi Arabia and UAE have been carried out with Iranian knowledge, if not collusion. And, the attacks in the UAE could be an indirect warning from Iran of its options to destabilize the regional security situation. At the same time, Iran has kept the doors of negotiations with its neighbors open to reduce regional tensions.
For Iran, the most pressing issue is the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Facing serious economic challenges due to US sanctions re-imposed by the Donald Trump administration after withdrawing from the nuclear deal in 2018, Iran has gradually been ramping up uranium enrichment. The Biden administration has entered into talks with EU3, China and Russia, and indirectly with Iran to negotiate the terms and conditions for reviving the nuclear deal. While Iran is demanding an immediate end of sanctions, the US and the EU3 (the UK, Germany and France) want it to first halt uranium enrichment and comply with the JCPOA commitments. The talks in Vienna which began in April 2021 have after eight rounds failed to make a breakthrough, but hopes have been raised that the latest round of ongoing talks can help reach an understanding.
For India, the news about the US decision to shore up UAE’s defense should come as a relief. India has vital interests in the Gulf region and has strong bilateral relations with the UAE as well as the US. An estimated 3 million Indians live and work in the UAE while the region is the main source of India’s energy imports. In recent years India’s economic and commercial engagements with the UAE has witnessed manifold increase with plans for a quadrilateral cooperation among the US, UAE, Israel and India in the economic, environmental and energy matters. India also has vital interest in maritime safety and security in the Gulf, Arabian Sea and western Indian Ocean.
The Yemen conflict continues to rage and threaten regional security which remains vulnerable. Any improvement in the conflict situation in Yemen and Gulf regional security are unlikely until there is a significant reduction in tensions between the US and Iran as well as Iran and its neighbors over its nuclear program and regional activities of arming and supporting proxies against regional rivals.
(The author is Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses. Views expressed are of the author and not of the Government of India or MP-IDSA. Also, do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).