Iran-backed Yemeni fighters said they launched drone strikes on the United Arab Emirates that caused explosions and a fire on the outskirts of the capital Abu Dhabi and left three people dead, ratcheting up tensions in the critical oil-exporting region.
One of the biggest attacks to date on UAE soil ignited a fire at Abu Dhabi’s main international airport and set fuel tanker tanks ablaze in a nearby industrial area. Initial information suggested there was little or no impact on departing or arriving flights, according to a search of the tracking website FlightRadar24.
Iran’s longtime support of the Houthis means the incidents could roil diplomatic efforts to ease tensions in the Persian Gulf, and separate talks to restore Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
A preliminary investigation indicates small flying objects, likely drones, fell in both areas and may have triggered the blasts, the UAE’s state-run WAM news agency said. Three people — two Indians and one Pakistani — were killed and six others injured in the fuel-tank fire close to the storage facilities of state-run oil group ADNOC, Abu Dhabi police said in a statement.
The Persian Gulf has seen a series of attacks on shipping and oil facilities since the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018. Washington has blamed the attacks on Iranian-backed militias, including Houthi fighters in Yemen, where a Saudi-led military coalition is battling the group.
“The suspected drone attack in Abu Dhabi underscores the ongoing threat against civilian and energy infrastructure in the region amid heightened regional tensions,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.
“Reports of damage to fuel trucks and storage will concern oil market watchers who are also keeping a close eye on the trajectory of ongoing nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran,” Soltvedt said. “With negotiators running out of time, the risk of a deterioration in the region’s security climate is rising.”
The Houthis regularly attack the UAE’s neighbor Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones. Though the attacks rarely cause casualties, a strike on a major Saudi oil facility in 2019 shook global markets and raised fears of a new conflict in the Middle East. The latest incident follows an uptick in maritime attacks in recent weeks as talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal enter a critical stage and fighting escalates in Yemen.
Stock markets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi reversed gains made before the attacks.
“Following an incident in the construction area of Abu Dhabi Airport earlier this morning, precautionary measures resulted in a short disruption for a small number of flights. However, normal airport operations were quickly resumed,” an Etihad Airways spokesperson said.
The latest attacks come days after the Houthis warned Abu Dhabi against increased military involvement in Yemen’s energy-rich province of Shabwa. Forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government drove the Houthis out of three districts of the province in a 10-day offensive in recent weeks, helped by intense Saudi and UAE air strikes.
The spike in hostilities came despite attempts by diplomats from the two Gulf states and Iran to ease regional tensions.
“In the past year, we’ve seen a fierce escalation on multiple fronts in Yemen,” said Fawaz Gerges, Middle Eastern politics professor at the London School of Economics.
“The talks by the UAE and Saudi with Iran, whether secret or public have not been enough to obscure the geopolitical and strategic rivalries that are continuing to unfold.”
The UAE joined a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 after the Houthis swept through the north of the country. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and helped create one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The Houthis claimed attacks on the UAE in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, they said they had fired a ballistic missile at a nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi, but the UAE at the time denied the show of force ever happened. The following year the fighters said they had fired drones at Dubai’s main airport.
The UAE began withdrawing from Yemen in late 2019, partly to avert attracting attacks on its own soil, but maintained links to separatist groups and has increased airstrikes in recent weeks.
Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s de facto ruler, canceled a planned meeting with visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday due to an “unforeseen matter of state,” South Korea’s presidential office said, without elaborating. It wasn’t clear if the cancellation was linked to the attack.
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