Yemen – Saudi Arabia – UAE : Increased Huthi weapons’ capabilities – True or False?

Date first published: 18/10/2018

Key sectors: aviation; infrastructure; oil & gas

Key risks: business disruption; political violence

Over the last four months, Yemen’s Huthi militia have released multiple media reports claiming to have conducted both drone and missile attacks on Emirati airports and Saudi vessels. Such reports, if true, indicate a new level in Huthi capabilities to hit targets of international significance outside of the immediate Yemeni borders – Dubai airport is the third busiest in the world.

The first footage of Huthi drones dropping grenade-sized munitions on the opposition coalition around 45km south of Hodeidah was released on 2 July – strikes were not recorded. On 25 July Huthis reported an attack on two Saudi frigates, which Riyadh confirmed, prompting the closure of the strategic Bab al-Mandab straits. The straits were closed for 9 days, disrupting a 4.8m barrel a day trade of crude and oil products. On 26 July Huthi news claimed an attack on Abu Dhabi airport using a drone or an unmanned aviation vehicle (UAV). Abu Dhabi airport initially reported a disturbance, but the UAE government denied this and the tweet was removed. Officials later insisted that a supply vehicle issue had disrupted flights. Celebrations of the strike were held in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The following day Saudi and UAE forces conducted airstrikes on Huthi targets at Sanaa international airport, with al-Delmi air base north of Sana’a also targeted.

Further reports of drones attacking Dubai airport came on 28 August and 30 September. Both reports by Huthi media station Al Masirah and Iranian Tansim agency claimed that Huthi soldiers attacked Dubai airport using a home-made Sammad (Invincible)–3 drone, both refuted by Dubai’s state backed media outlet. Finally, sources claimed to have attacked Saudi border guard vessels off the port of Jizyan on 1 October. Saudi sources denied the reports, claiming no disruption to operations at Dubai airport and that the boats destroyed were booby-trapped Huthi vessels attempting to target Saudi’s port.

Such conflicting statements are the norm in Yemen’s war. The Houthi-held territory extends from the north western Yemeni border with Saudi down the coast to Hodeidah, the strategic port over which the Saudi led coalition is battling the Huthis to reclaim control. The proximity of Huthi territory to the attacks on Saudi tankers, a confirmed ability of Huthi missiles to travel such a distance, combined with the Saudi reaction and the recent offensive to retake strategically placed Hodeidah (perhaps to prevent further strikes on Saudi waters), indicates that the Huthis’ claims of attacking targets off Jizan and the Bab al-Mandab straits hold weight.

The claims of attacks on the Emirates however are a different matter for two reasons. Firstly, as the crow flies, the most easterly point in Houthi held territory from which to launch a home-made drone, is approximately 1,250km. Secondly, the UAE has an advanced anti-missile interception system – THAAD – which is designed to destroy short and intermediate-range missiles. It is therefore improbable that even if the Huthis had the technology and capabilities to make a drone and equip it with a weighty missile, it would be able to travel such a distance to the UAE, evade the THAAD system and commit an attack on UAE airports. Thus, although ships off the Saudi and Yemeni coasts are at risk, claims that Huthis have the ability to strike Emirati airports are likely nothing but hot air.