Will Yemen test the limits of Israel–UAE strategic synergy?

Posted originally to The Cradle on 3 February 2022.

Countering Iran’s regional influence was a major premise for Israel’s normalization with the UAE when the two states signed the Abraham Accords in 2020.

But the recent drone and missile strikes in Abu Dhabi by Yemeni resistance movement Ansarallah, and the overall Emirati response, may be a decisive factor as to whether the UAE will ultimately prove beneficial to Israel’s Iran hawks.

Eyeing Yemen for options on Iran

For years, with consecutive US administrations, Israel has jockeyed Washington to keep the door open to a possible attack on Iran via the US military presence in the Persian Gulf region. However, Tel Aviv’s campaign was always thwarted by firm vetoes from senior US military officials, as the US and Iran sought to steer clear of each other’s red-lines.

And Israel’s new, direct relations with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, such as the UAE, do not bring the option of inflicting conflict upon Iran at its Gulf doorstep any closer.

This holds especially true for the UAE, which has doubled down on its engagement with Iran over Gulf security whenever US-Iran or Iran-GCC tensions have spiked.

With the main Gulf states ruled out as a venue for Israel-UAE cooperation against Iran or its regional interests, Tel Aviv’s attention is on Yemen as a potential theater in which to test whether its leading Gulf partner can deliver the goods, at least in one conflict zone.

A vision that is not quite aligned

Israel has publicly expressed support for the UAE after Ansarallah’s airstrikes on Abu Dhabi. It also offered the Emiratis ‘security and intelligence support,’ indicating desire for a joint Israel-UAE front against the Iran-aligned Ansarallah.

Ansarallah shares Tehran’s ideologically-charged rhetoric on Israel as a prime enemy. It has taken steps to act upon this view, such as releasing Saudi prisoners of war in exchange for the kingdom releasing jailed Palestinian Hamas members, and calling on Arab and Muslim states to shun Tel Aviv.

The Yemeni resistance made its views clear on the blossoming UAE-Israel security relationship in the most unambiguous manner possible this week, by launching retaliatory strikes on Abu Dhabi just hours after Israel’s president landed in the city for an unprecedented first visit.

Ansarallah’s advance within a once pro-Saudi Yemen has significantly lessened the scope in the Arabian Peninsula-Red Sea region for Israel’s drive for normalization with Arab states. The resistance movement has controlled most of Yemen’s western coast on the Red Sea since the Saudi-UAE-led war began in 2015.

This has earned Ansarallah a high threat perception from Israel, who in January 2021, moved its Iron Dome and Patriot air defense missile batteries to its own Red Sea coast to guard against possible missile and drone attacks by Ansarallah.

Israel would like to see the UAE, which is considerably less war-weary than Saudi Arabia on account of having withdrawn most of its own military from Yemen in 2019, commit to dislodging Ansarallah from its strategic position.

In this milieu, Tel Aviv likely welcomes the severity of the UAE’s immediate response to the Abu Dhabi attacks: airstrikes upon a prison in Ansarallah-controlled territory and a major telecommunications building which caused a country-wide blackout in Yemen.

However, in both concept and action, the UAE’s Yemen policy does not quite align with Israel’s vision of a joint battlefield against Iran.

The UAE’s Yemen–Iran dichotomy

According to Gulf State Analytics CEO Giorgio Cafiero, the Ansarallah-UAE escalation will not scuttle the UAE’s diplomatic engagement with Iran which it views as vital for its own security.

Cafiero identifies the fact that Ansarallah does not take orders from Iran as allowing Tehran “plausible deniability” in any attacks on the GCC.  The UAE is therefore able to continue its diplomacy with Iran without appearing to be weak.

Indeed, Abu Dhabi can hardly declare Ansarallah’s moves against it as ‘Iranian-orchestrated’ and still sustain its talks with its Persian Gulf neighbor.

The Emirati distinction between Ansarallah and Iran contrasts starkly with Israel’s correlation of the two allies. This is a calculated discourse, intended by Tel Aviv to enlarge Ansarallah’s threat perception by other countries.

Put simply, if the UAE does not reinforce Israel’s notion of Ansarallah as an intrusive extension of Iranian strategic depth – which must be severed – an overt Israel-UAE counter-Iran alliance on Yemen cannot take shape.

Additionally, the UAE’s strategic posture in Yemen does not cater to the objective of wresting all of Yemen from Ansarallah. The Emirati interest lies primarily in the country’s southern areas and its strategic ports and waterways. After its 2019 pullback, the UAE mainly retained support in the form of air power and material backing for allied Yemeni factions seeking the restoration of an independent South Yemeni state.

Abu Dhabi has, since then, largely focused on helping these factions hold against Ansarallah’s occasional advances, without pushing for offensives to uproot Ansarallah from Yemen’s north and west.

From the Emirati perspective, an independent ‘South Yemen’ can be achieved even if the UAE and its local allies do not move against Ansarallah’s dominion in the north and west.

If anything, and especially since Ansarallah launched recent retaliatory strikes inside the UAE’s territorial depth, Abu Dhabi is arguably ‘de-incentivized’ to further challenge the Yemeni resistance on its own turf.

Moreover, a more aggressive Emirati posture toward Ansarallah could disrupt the mutual compartmentalization of the UAE and Iran’s numerous regional differences for the sake of their bilateral diplomacy.

Iran, after all, views its regional allies as guarantors of its own national security and Ansarallah are its first and only ally in the Red Sea region.

The lagging region-building efforts of the Abraham Accords

Another area where the UAE’s indirect approach to Ansarallah may be perceived by Israel as a strategic inconvenience is in the formation of a new Red Sea regional security order – a major agenda item of the new format of Israel-GCC cooperation embodied by the Abraham Accords.

Soon after the Abraham Accords were signed, Emirati companies declared plans to invest in Israeli projects aimed at turning Israel into the prime connectivity hub between the Red and Mediterranean Seas.

These included restoring operations at the old Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline and developing a new port in Haifa.

As the major Red-to-Mediterranean Seas land link, Israel would be the vital transit for a lot of Red Sea shipping. Tel Aviv’s influence over how – and against whom – to secure shipping in the Red Sea region would give it some serious international clout.

Israel thus joined Abraham Accord signatories UAE and Bahrain to start naval drills in the Red Sea in November 2021, with the US participating alongside.

However, according to Yemen expert at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies Eleonora Ardemagni, Ansarallah’s asymmetrical maritime warfare capabilities in the Red Sea challenge this new ‘Abraham equation’ and its ability to shape Red Sea security governance.

Ardemagni says that this is accentuated by the UAE’s disinterest in challenging Ansarallah’s control of Yemen’s western coast and cites the juxtaposition of the Israeli and Emirati threat perceptions of Iran and its regional network of allies as a dilemma for the Abraham equation.

Meanwhile, the Abraham Accords’ Red Sea region-crafting is also witnessing problems on the economic front.

Intra-government tussles in Tel Aviv over the environmental impact of the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline are interrupting plans to transit Gulf oil to Europe via the pipeline.

Additionally, Dubai’s DP World pulled out of its bid for the privatization of the new Haifa port in December 2021.

So, there are setbacks aplenty in the translation of the strategic dividends of the Abraham Accords and Israel-UAE ties from the planning board to the on-ground realities in West Asia.

The Iran factor endures

Iran has relatively more capacity than the UAE to keep diplomacy at the forefront of its foreign policy – as it presently does with the negotiations for the restoration of the JCPOA – whilst, at the same time, not compromising on its regional strategic depth, represented by allies such as Ansarallah.

Whether this is due to its greater size or the more time-tested nature of its regional partnerships compared to the UAE, Iran is sure to notice the gaps between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv’s respective postures on Yemen.

Accordingly, the value Ansarallah holds for Tehran as a rare but durable ally in an increasingly important part of West Asia is likely to rise further. This, in turn, may well push Israel to engage its Emirati counterparts more aggressively on the Yemen issue. Whether this would yield results or strain the Abraham Accords is open to speculation.

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