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Houthis Strike Abu Dhabi as Yemen War Drags On

A rare attack on the Emirati capital comes after the Iran-backed group suffered a strategic defeat earlier this month.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Abu Dhabi’s Musaffah industrial district, which came under Houthi aerial attack.
Abu Dhabi’s Musaffah industrial district, which came under Houthi aerial attack.
A partial view of Abu Dhabi’s Musaffah industrial district, the area that came under Houthi aerial attack, taken on Jan. 17. AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Yemen’s Houthis strike Abu Dhabi, North Korea opens to overland trade, and China’s birth rate sees historic drop.

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Houthis Launch Strike on Abu Dhabi

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Yemen’s Houthis strike Abu Dhabi, North Korea opens to overland trade, and China’s birth rate sees historic drop.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Houthis Launch Strike on Abu Dhabi

The seven-year war in Yemen took a new turn on Monday after the country’s Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack on Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, in which three people were killed.

Although Saudi Arabia has seen hundreds of Houthi aerial assaults over the years, the United Arab Emirates has largely escaped bombardment.

The Houthis claimed to have used ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and several drones in the attack, which they said was in retaliation for recent battlefield losses against Emirati-backed forces.

Those forces, the Giants Brigades, recently dealt the Iran-backed Houthis a defeat in Shabwa, an oil-rich province only captured by the Houthis in September 2021.

The attack has had the immediate effect of raising the possibility of placing the Houthis back on the U.S. list of global terrorist organizations, an option reportedly discussed by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the wake of the attacks. The Biden administration removed the Houthis from the list in early 2021 in part to ease humanitarian access to areas under the group’s control.

Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert with the International Crisis Group, said the United Arab Emirates had few good options if it wishes to mount a counterattack. “The UAE has said it reserves the right to respond. But it’s hard to see what it can do other than return directly to the frontlines of the anti-Houthi campaign or contribute to air strikes in Yemen, neither of which are really activities it wants to be associated with in Washington,” Salisbury told Foreign Policy via email.

The episode underscores the fact that one year after the Biden administration pledged to end it, the war in Yemen is heating up rather than concluding. Caught in the middle are Yemeni civilians, who are experiencing what the United Nations has deemed the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with 80 percent of the population in need of humanitarian aid and protection. Aid agencies have recorded a 60 percent increase in civilian casualties in the last quarter of 2021 compared to the three months that preceded it.

A signal from the United States that it no longer backs the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, such as halting all weapons sales to the kingdom, could speed a resolution, Annelle Sheline, a Middle East researcher at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft told Foreign Policy. The Biden administration’s decision to continue selling arms to the Saudis, Sheline said, has failed to change things on the ground.

“I think the Biden administration had a notion that perhaps if they gave Saudi Arabia this support with these latest missile sales, that that would help the Saudis perhaps have a few wins and then maybe be able to withdraw with a bit more dignity,” Sheline said. “But what we’ve seen for the past seven years of this war is when one side feels they’re winning, they want to keep going.”

As things stand, the Houthis have little incentive to consider peace talks, Salisbury wrote by email: “The Houthis think they are too close to winning the war to consider a deal to end it that isn’t overwhelmingly in their favour. And the [Yemeni] government is in such a weak position that a deal would almost certainly spell its demise.”

The latest round of fighting is unlikely to change attitudes on either side, Salisbury added. “If anything, the Houthis are likely to want to get the conflict back on their terms, and the government will be looking to gain an advantage, even if it is only tangentially involved in actual developments on the ground.”


The World This Week

Tuesday, Jan. 18: The European Parliament elects a new president following the death of David Sassoli last week.

The Bank of Japan makes its interest rate decision.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visits her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow.

Wednesday, Jan. 19: U.S. President Joe Biden holds a press conference as he prepares to mark one year in office.

Barbados holds a general election, its first as a republic.

Collective Security Treaty Organization forces are due to finish their phased withdrawal from Kazakhstan.

Thursday, Jan. 20: Turkey’s central bank makes its interest rate decision.

Friday, Jan. 21: The German Christian Democratic Union holds its annual party congress, where it is expected to select Friedrich Merz as party leader.


What We’re Following Today

ASEAN ministers meet. Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet today for a two-day retreat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The group of nations has shown increased interest in Myanmar, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this month making the first visit there by a government head since the military coup of February 2021, while Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin recently called detained democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi “indispensable” to restoring democracy to the country.

North Korea opens up. Land-based trade between North Korea and China appeared to resume on Monday, an indication that Pyongyang had opened borders for the first time since early 2020. China’s foreign ministry has yet to announce the border had reopened, although multiple news reports suggest trade has restarted in Chinese towns bordering North Korea.

Davos online. The Davos Agenda, the virtual summit hosted by the World Economic Forum, continues today, with appearances from Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The event kicked off on Monday with addresses from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who once again called on countries to “discard Cold War mentality.”


Keep an Eye On

China’s birth rate. China’s birth rate slumped to its lowest figure in more than 70 years in 2021, as the country reported a rate of 7.52 births per 1,000 people. The drop tracks with a number of high-income countries that also saw their birth rates decrease over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s decline is likely to increase pressure on policymakers to incentivize having children following recent moves to abolish the one-child policy and a crackdown on the rising cost of education.

Tonga’s disaster. International aid agencies are still struggling to assess the damage caused by an undersea volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami on the island nation of Tonga over the weekend, as communication lines remain unreliable and a 12-mile-high ash cloud obscures satellite imagery. “The full extent of the harm to lives and property is currently unknown,” Fatafehi Fakafanua, the speaker of Tonga’s Legislative Assembly, said on social media. “What we do know is that Tonga needs immediate assistance to provide its citizens with fresh drinking water and food.”

Sweden’s suspicious drones. Swedish security services are investigating after unidentified drones were seen flying over the capital, Stockholm, and a number of nuclear plants over the weekend. The sightings come as Sweden seeks to bolster its defenses, recently deploying hundreds more troops to the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.


SitRep Live: Is There a Biden Doctrine?

War looms in Ukraine. The pandemic continues its deadly spread. Tensions with China escalate. And Washington seems more dysfunctional than ever. U.S. President Joe Biden has had crises thrown his way from Kabul to Kyiv. Amid the chaos, has a coherent foreign policy emerged? On Jan. 20, FP’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer give their report card on Biden’s first year, drawing on interviews with dozens of foreign dignitaries and experts.

Register to attend here.


Odds and Ends

Turkey, the country, is set to differentiate itself with turkey, the bird, with an English-language name change, to become official with a United Nations registration in the coming weeks. The new name in English, Turkiye, is the same as its Turkish spelling and “represents and expresses the culture, civilization and values of the Turkish nation in the best way,” the Turkish government said in a statement. Government websites and state-backed media already carry the new spelling.

Unal Cevikoz, a senior member of the opposition Republican People’s Party, gave his assessment in an interview with Middle East Eye. “I think it is a waste of time,” Cevikoz said.

Only time will tell if Turkiye goes the way of other failed national rebrands like Czechia, better known as the Czech Republic, which has yet to gain widespread usage. On Wikipedia, for now at least, a search for “Turkiye” automatically redirects to “Turkey.”

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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