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UAE and U.S. intercept Houthi missile attack targeting Abu Dhabi

Satellite image of damaged fuel depot after alleged missile attack
Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for a missile attack last week on an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in the United Arab Emirates.
(Planet Labs PBC)
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The United Arab Emirates and the U.S. military intercepted two ballistic missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the skies over Abu Dhabi early Monday, authorities said, the second attack in a week that targeted the Emirati capital.

The missile fire further escalates tensions across the Persian Gulf, which previously had seen a series of assaults near — but never indisputably on — Emirati soil. It comes during Yemen’s years-long war and the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. U.S. troops at Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi took shelter in bunkers during the attack and fired back with their own Patriot missiles.

The assaults threaten the business-friendly, tourism-focused efforts of the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. For years, the country has marketed itself as a safe corner of an otherwise dangerous neighborhood.

Videos on social media showed the sky over Abu Dhabi lighting up before dawn Monday with what appeared to be interceptor missiles racing into the clouds to target the incoming fire. Two explosions later thundered through the city. The footage in the videos corresponded to known features of Abu Dhabi.

The state-run WAM news agency said that missile fragments fell harmlessly over Abu Dhabi.

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The UAE is “ready to deal with any threats” and to take “all necessary measures to protect the state from all attacks,” WAM quoted the Emirati Defense Ministry as saying.

Navy Capt. Bill Urban, spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, in a statement acknowledged that the assistance of American Patriot missile batteries prevented the Houthi missiles from striking targets in Abu Dhabi. Videos on social media suggested outgoing interceptor fire came from the base.

“The combined efforts successfully prevented both missiles from impacting the base,” Urban said.

The missile fire disrupted traffic into Abu Dhabi International Airport, home to the long-haul carrier Etihad, for about an hour after the attack.

Houthi military spokesman Yehia Sarei claimed the attack in a televised statement, saying the rebels targeted the UAE with both Zulfiqar ballistic missiles and drones, including Al Dhafra Air Base. He warned that the UAE would continue to be a target “as long as attacks on the Yemeni people continue.”

“We warn foreign companies and investors to leave the Emirates!” Sarei shouted from a podium. “This has become an unsafe country!”

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The Dubai Financial Market closed down nearly 2% after the attack, with nearly every company trading down. The Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange also fell slightly.

Al Dhafra, which hosts both American and British forces, is home to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing and has had armed drones and F-35 stealth fighters stationed there.

The U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi later issued a security alert to Americans living in the UAE, warning them to “maintain a high level of security awareness.” The alert included instructions on how to cope with missile attacks, something previously unheard of in the UAE, a tourist destination home to skyscraper-studded Dubai and its long-haul carrier, Emirates.

“If these types of attacks end up occurring on a weekly basis as they do in Saudi Arabia … that will shift the perception of the threat landscape in the UAE,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst with risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “The concern is now the contagion is going to be broader if we start to see attacks against civilian infrastructure.”

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The Emirati Defense Ministry later tweeted a black-and-white video that it said showed an F-16 striking the ballistic missile launcher used in the Abu Dhabi attack. The ministry identified the site as being near Jawaf, a Yemeni province around 870 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi.

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The state-linked National newspaper in Abu Dhabi identified the F-16 as an Emirati jetfighter, raising the question of how directly involved the UAE is in the fight in Yemen after withdrawing most of its ground forces in 2019. The Emiratis continue to back militias on the ground, including the Giants Brigade, which has made advances against the Houthis in recent weeks.

The Zulfiqar ballistic missile, believed to have a range of about 930 miles, is modeled after the Iranian Qiam missile, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran denies directly arming the Houthis, though United Nations experts, Western nations and analysts have linked weapons in the rebels’ arsenal to Tehran.

“It’s got the classic elements of the coercive strategy,” said Tim Wright, a research analyst at IISS. “In this case, it’s to make them back down on their support” of the Giants Brigade.

The attack came a week after Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed an attack on the Emirati capital targeting the airport and an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in the Mussafah neighborhood with drones and cruise missiles. That attack on the fuel depot killed three people and wounded six others.

New high-resolution satellite photographs obtained by the Associated Press from Planet Labs PBC showed repair work still ongoing at the fuel depot Saturday. Emirati officials have not released images of the attacked sites, nor allowed journalists to see them.

In recent days, a Saudi-led coalition that the UAE backs unleashed punishing airstrikes targeting Yemen, knocking the Arab world’s poorest country off the internet and killing more than 80 people at a detention center.

The Houthis threatened revenge against the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. On Sunday, the Saudi-led coalition said a Houthi-launched ballistic missile landed in an industrial area in Jizan, Saudi Arabia. The missile tore a deep crater in the ground, television video showed, and slightly wounded two foreigners of Bangladeshi and Sudanese nationality.

The hard-line Iranian daily newspaper Kayhan, whose editor in chief was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, published a front-page article Sunday quoting Houthi officials as saying that the UAE would be attacked again. The story’s headline said: “Evacuate Emirati commercial towers.”

In 2017, the newspaper faced a two-day publication ban after it ran a headline saying Dubai was the “next target” for the Houthis.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington; Isabel DeBre, Malak Harb and Lujain Jo in Dubai; Amir Vahdat in Tehran; and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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