On Monday, 14 February 2022, around the
topic ““Drones and Canons: Changing Balance of Power in and around the Middle
East”, ROLES (RCAST Open Laboratory for Emergence Strategies) located in Tokyo,
launched the RCAST Security Webinar series as a continuation of RCAST Security
Seminar held during the academic years of 2021-2022. This was in cooperation
with IGSDA (Institute For Global Security And Defense Affairs) located in Abu

The seminar was divided into two parts, this paper is of the first part titled “Part#01: “Beware the Non-State Actors: Houthi Threats on the Gulf Countries“. The speaker was Sayed Ghoneim, PhD in Political Science, Major General (Ret) of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Senior Strategist and Chairman of IGSDA.

1 – Introduction:

UAE announced that it had responded to a ballistic missile launched by the Houthis from Yemen on the capital, Abu Dhabi, as the third attack of its kind this year. The first attack was with drones which caused losses, while the rest of the attacks were intercepted by the UAE air defence capabilities.

This indicates that the UAE air defense was not activated with its full capabilities against the first attack due to the miscalculation of a such attack with drones, while the third attack pattern changed to keep pace with the visit of Israeli President Isaac Hertzog to Abu Dhabi on 30 January 2022; the UAE Ministry of Defense added that the interception took place outside the populated areas where the missile fragments fell. The Houthis spokesman confirmed the news of the attack, which they called “Yemen’s third cyclone”, as he indicated that this attack was carried out with Zulfiqar ballistic missiles, in addition to targeting Dubai with a number of Samad-3 drones

These attacks come while UAE owns U.S. Patriot air defense batteries that were received between 2012 and 2014 , and they are capable of addressing all air threats from combat aircraft, cruise missiles and drones, with the possibility of addressing both, short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles, coming with its stockpile of missiles in two successive deals in 2014 and 2017, for 316 PAC-2 missiles and 352 newer PAC-3 missiles, in addition to two THAAD anti-missile air defense systems that were contracted in 2015 with its stockpile of (96) missiles , and it’s worth to be mentioned that the US’s THHAD missiles were used for the first time in the history to intercept a ballistic missile was on the 24th od February by the UAE air defense against the Houthis’ missiles. It is a system that has the ability to intercept all ballistic missiles at all ranges, whether inside or outside the atmosphere 

While the Houthis announced the use of a variety of drones and ballistic missiles, there is a conflict in some of the information announced by them, as the Houthis’ statement to use Zulfiqar missiles to attack the UAE, which is about 1500 km from Houthis controlled areas in Yemen, while all specialized sources monitor the range of this type of “Zulfiqar” missile with a range not exceeding (1500) km, which puts a big question mark on the accuracy of the Houthi statements or their issuance of false information in order to disguise the fact that their weapons have become sophisticated.

2 – Goals of the parties:

  1. As for Iran’s goal, it is “To deter and intimidate the Gulf states, mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, enforcing them to take Iranian interests into account in exchange for not endangering the security and stability of their countries, especially with the developments of military cooperation with Israel and the possibilities of targeting Iran as a response against any possible success of the running nuclear agreement negotiations in Geneva”.
  2. The main goal of the coalition in their latest operation during the last few months against Houthis in Yemen is “To reset the rules of engagement in Yemen, by sending military forces to open fronts after the Hodeidah front was frozen as a result of the Stockholm Agreement. The main objective of this operation was to stop the Houthis’ military advance in Shabwa and Marib, especially after their control of several districts in the two governorates during the past three months”. This progress occurred due to the failure of the negotiations hosted by Oman between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, and in turn, an agreement between Saudi Arabia and the UAE to implement these operations in Shabwa and Marib at the beginning of January, with the support of the UAE, which withdrew from the war in Yemen since mid-2019.
  3. The attack launched by Ansar Allah movement (Houthis) on UAE on January 17, 2022, aimed “To neutralize the Emirati role that has emerged in the recent military operations in the governorates of Shabwa and Ma’rib,” where forces affiliated with the Saudi-led coalition carried out against The Houthis in November 2022 redeployed from areas in Hodeidah Governorate to Shabwa Governorate. These forces included the UAE-backed Giants Brigades, which are more organized than other coalition-backed military units. It also aims to “remind Emirati leaders that the Houthis will include their country on their list of targets unless they stop escalation.” The attack was preceded by the Houthis’ seizure of the Emirati ship “Rawabi” off the coast of Hodeidah in the Red Sea, a ship that was transporting medical and military equipment belonging to the Saudi forces from the Yemeni island of “Socotra”, but Houthis declared that Emirati ship “Rawabi” carried Saudi weapons on it.

The current main goal of UAE is “To forbid any attacks targeting the Emirati depth, by scattering the Houthis efforts and concentration outside Yemen”, bearing in mind that the main reason of the UAE’s support to the Giant brigades in the Southern Yemen is the successful tactical approach by Houthis forces down to Ma’rib In the south, which is considered full of wealth in addition to advantages , specially, that Ma’rib overlooks the Red Sea, the main concern of UAE military and economically as well.

On the other hand, so far, the launch sites the “drones” have not been confirmed yet. Till now possible options might be launched by Houthis from inside Yemen, from the surrounding waters of UAE, or by sleeping cells loyal to Iran inside UAE, especially since the attack on Abu Dhabi coincided with a meeting held by Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam with the Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, after a meeting he gathered last week With Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian in Oman who believes in Force diplomacy.

3 – Impacts of Houthis attack on UAE’s relations:

First, we may have to answer an important common question, “What is reason of the quick international massive reaction against Houthis in Yemen compares with KSA?”. I think that the reasons are “first: MBZ enjoys better reputation on the international level compared with MBS who is liked by the west because of Kechiche assassination and Saudi war in Yemen – second: Houthis attacked Saudi targets inside the Saudi territory but they targeted foreign investments and vital interests inside UAE territory, also Houthis declared that the will target Al Dhafra military Air Base in Abu Dhabi which has international forces and trade centers which are occupied with companies from several foreign countries –  third: the reaction speech of Saudi to Houthis’ attack was very aggressive indicating that KSA will  continue fighting against Houthis inside Yemen till the end, but the UAE’s was more peaceful, diplomatic and well prepared, concentrating in the innocent victims inside UAE – fourth: the UAE ambassadors and defense attaches to the UN, the US, European countries and other important countries are very active and successful in persuading the international community with the UAE stance.”.

  1. Possible impacts on UAE’s relations with KSA:
  • Despite the growing competition on the economic level between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the UAE’s withdrawal from the war in Yemen two years ago, the UAE’s return to support operations in Yemen (from the back) and the Houthi response to them will increase the Emirati-Saudi cooperation on the military and security levels.
  • Saudi Arabia suffers from a severe shortage of Patriot anti-missile missiles, and perhaps Saudi Arabia will resort to contacting Biden in this regard (which is what Biden wishes, who announced that the Saudi king is waiting for a call from him to increase the pumping of oil to reduce its prices). Which also pushes for military rapprochement with the UAE to jointly establish a joint air defense system.
  1. Possible impacts on UAE’s relations with Iran:
  • The UAE initiated the declared peace towards Iran by sending its envoy, the UAE National Security Chief to Tehran to negotiate the relations between the two countries, with the aim of avoiding the use of military force between the two countries, either directly or indirectly (by proxies), but what happened by Houthis more than time in few weeks indicate that peace and security are not guaranteed.
  • Iran is a country that pursues an ideological doctrine, and on the other hand, we find UAE, which pursues a pragmatic realism, and this means that Iran will not accept the UAE as a mere neighbour or friend, and certainly will not accept it as a partner or ally. We find the Iranian-Qatari relations that Iran benefits from through the shared Gas field, or the use of Qatar as a knife in the back of the Gulf countries. In return, Qatar enjoys security from Iran (not protection). We find that it is definitely different from the Iranian Emirati relations, from which Iran will not benefit much. Except for increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia, which makes me see Iran working to push the UAE to “Iranian dependence” and not for any other type of relationship such as partnership, friendship, or alliance, which is not in line with nature, culture, nor the current Emirati orientation that works for expansion and leadership, and not the other way around.
  • The main point that I can notice is that Iran should be negatively affected with the results of Houthis attacks on UAE as Iran is losing several gains that it achieved during the last few years. We find that UAE starts getting closer to KSA since its withdrawal from Yemen in 2019 and Egypt is getting closer to UAE after their disagreement in Eastern Mediterranean and in Horn of Africa, also Israel is getting much closer to UAE exploiting the direct attack on UAE.
  • In any case, the relations between UAE and Iran are still at a stage between tension, disharmony and cautious rapprochement, especially since the rapprochement between the two countries is not in the declared form in a large way compared to the Saudi Iranian rapprochement. However, I expect an increase in the role of negotiation between the two countries, considering the recent incident and its repercussions, as Iran will consider it in its favor before the Emirates, which takes a relatively strong position in connection with its roles in several spots and regions that affect Iranian interests such as Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.
  1. Possible impacts on UAE’s relations with Israel:
  • There is no doubt that the visit of the UAE National Security Chief to Iran greatly disturbed Israel, as well as any current or potential Emirati Iranian rapprochement. Therefore, the current incident was among the expected scenarios in the Israeli estimates, which are considered the most beneficial to it, and then Israel will seek to benefit from it with full force, this is in an attempt to reach a form characterized by “decisiveness” in the nature of the Emirati/Iranian and Emirati/Israeli relations. Where Israel is pushing to abort any chances of rapprochement between the UAE and Iran, and perhaps this incident and its repercussions are among the best opportunities for that.
  • Hence, I expect Israel to push for more rapprochement with the UAE in all fields, especially at the military and security levels, through military intelligence cooperation and providing the UAE with advanced weapons, especially in the field of air defense, in connection with what the Israeli Iron Dome is achieving in Israel against Hamas. As I expect the UAE to request more air defense weapons, especially against drones and ballistic missiles, which are also open opportunities for the U.S., Europe, China, Russia and Korea, as well as Israel, to supply the UAE with these weapons. This comes in light of Saudi Arabia’s suffering from a shortage of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles.
  • Israel may try to form an Israeli air defense system inside the Gulf region (in UAE and KSA) to secure both Gulf countries, making this defense system as Israel’s first air defense line against Iran.
  1. Possible impacts on UAE’s relations with Turkey:

The relations between the two countries may be further activated after the recent visit of MBZ to Turkey, due to the presence of many files that intersect between the two countries, such as the political Islam, UAE rivalry with Qatar, and the military industries relation between Turkey and UAE, which witnessed development before the cooling of relations between the two countries, so it is expected that UAE will be able to obtain great benefits from Turkey in some files such as military industrialization technologies and its influence in front of Qatar in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, and may be assisting UAE in its critical situation against Houthis with supporting with Turkish drones and other air defense weapons. If it is changed, the equation not only between the UAE and Turkey will be different, but it will be between Turkey and the entire region.

  1. Possible impacts on UAE’s relations with Egypt:

The visit of the Egyptian President on 26 January 2022, two days following the Houthi attack in the Emirati depth, seems (as mentioned in the Arabian media) that it is an affirmation of linking the national security of the two countries, and an increase in the requirements for the joint depth in more than one security and military file securing the Emirati strategic depth against threats from Houthis drones and ballistic missiles, in addition to maintain joint work on securing navigational routes and international trade in the Red Sea. But I think that the Egyptian goals include even farther than that; I believe that Egypt, most importantly, aims to secure its southern strategic depth which is in the range of Houthis armament range, whether against ballistic missiles or long-range drones, as the distance between the Houthi launch areas and Abu Dhabi is equal (or maybe less) than the distance between those areas and the Egyptian Berenice military base which is overlooking the Red Sea, in addition to threatening the Suez Canal if targeting Bab al-Mandab strait or the shipping route through it. Egypt also aims to maintain its relationship with UAE in better position after being getting sensitive and fluctuating in some specific files.

Egypt will increase its participation in joint military maritime exercises beside UAE and other countries in the region, and for the first time, it will join military maritime exercises in presence of Israel (announced); bearing in mind that there is no full military normalization from the Egyptian side toward Israel.

Egypt may also increase its involvement in the Yemeni situation by sending more advisors and trainers to Yemen against Houthis, which would be opposite Egyptian stand in Yemen in the 1960th supporting Northern Yemen. Based on these, Egypt will get more positive retaliation and concessions from the UAE in other files such as the Horn of Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

  1. Possible impacts on UAE’s relations with U.S.:

The U.S., which is under pressure from the counterpartying powers in the South China Sea and in Ukraine in Eastern Europe, is thinking carefully about controlling the security of the Arab Gulf region, especially with its two allies that it is losing over time (Saudi Arabia and the UAE), as the (distrust) on their part is intensifying towards Washington, The U.S. will have to review its positions towards the UAE and Saudi Arabia, especially in terms of military and diplomatic terms, as Biden has considered returning to designating the Houthis a terrorist movement, but Congress may maintain its position in terms of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. However, Biden and his administration will work with all force not to break Washington’s relationship with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, and Biden will increase the size of the military rapprochement with the two countries, in a way that reassures them by providing the necessary protection for them.

  1. Possible impacts on UAE’s relations with Russia:

The incidents of Houthi targeting of Abu Dhabi comes with the Russian/ Iranian military maritime exercise carried out in the region, but Russia has strongly condemned the incidents and the Houthis in their stance.

Russia will try to support increasing the mistrust appearing from UAE side toward the U.S. with more attempts to get closer to Abu Dhabi, especially at the economic, military and security level and seize the opportunity to sell more air defense systems to UAE.

  1. Possible impacts on UAE’s relations with China:

The Houthi attacks coincide with US pressure on UAE, as Washington aims to reduce the growing economic, technological, and military entanglement between China and UAE. It seems to me that the US weight is heavier compared to China in the UAE balance. Therefore, China may try to involve in more diplomatic and security spaces to play a strong role beside its (Belt and Road) initiative, which was put forward during the past decade, bearing in mind the lack of Chinese expertise in security manoeuvres compared to its American competitor and its Russian partner. However, Beijing may increase the use of some of its weight in the region through Iran to put pressure on the Houthis, which may mitigate the danger posed to the UAE, and which increases the relative weight of China compared to the US in the UAE balance. The success of these efforts will depend on the degree of weakness of the US position towards Emirati priorities at the current stage.

The U.S., which is economically, militarily, and diplomatically strong, it confronts the threats of its allies as a primary guarantor of the security of its allies, such as, willing to confront Iran and its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Russia, which lacks economic powers but enjoys an effective dynamism and smart diplomacy, it confronts the threats of its allies, but it also pursues a dual containment policy among its allies while ensuring the continuation of competition/enmity between them (as it does with Turkey, Iran and Israel) with the aim of achieving greatest interests for Russia.

But as for China, I think that it may follow different policy with the threats of its partners. China may prefer containing the threat of its partners instead of fighting against it. This may be done in this crisis through a Chinese intervention for better relations between UAE and Iran and UAE and Qatar, and urge China to come with a solid initiative to solve out the Yemeni crisis, with assistance in merging forces, integrating groups of society, and training and qualifying its cadres at various levels, which support establishing peace in the region.

4 – What’s next from Emirates side?

1- At the political, diplomatic and security levels:

If we agree that Houthis will continue targeting the Emirati depth with ballistic missiles and drones along with Saudi Arabia and keep on frightening the foreigners working and investing inside UAE, urging them to leave the country. If we also agree that it’s difficult to target more the two countries by Houthi’s missiles and drones.

Obviously, and accordingly, the UAE’s current goal would be to stop targeting its depth in any way.

To achieve this goal, it could be possible that UAE, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, will urge a larger number of countries to intervene against Houthis, whether militarily supporting the anti-Houthi troops or diplomatically through the international community and the international organizations, paying all efforts to convince the U.S., EU and other organizations and countries to proscribe Houthis as international terrorist movement, putting sanctions against its elements.

Military participation against Houthis may be carried out by deploying military advisors and trainers, proceeding military naval manoeuvres against non-governmental militias and terrorist operations or deploying Arab, Islamic and international forces in a way that narrows the noose on Houthis.

In this case, Houthis would find difficulties to use their same technique respond in the depths of more countries, and perhaps they will have to limit their military actions to be only inside Yemen, bearing in mind that proscribing Houthis as terrorist movement will also lead to a contrary effect, that possibility of negotiations with Houthis will be impossible and providing Yemeni people with humanitarian aids will be very difficult.

This situation is not considered a solution to the Yemeni issue, but it is a significant increasing pressure on Houthis with the aim of winning the military position against them.

2 – At the military level:

UAE may turn to international alternatives to import various systems that enable it to abort any similar attacks, as UAE has good capabilities to intercept Houthi missiles, and possesses multiple early warning systems through which it can detect any threats from long-ranges, but it may enhance its capabilities to deal with drones that fly, approach and attack at very low/low altitudes, by using fire means or electronic means, as follows:

  • Means of fire:

Although UAE possesses a large number of American Patriot systems relative to the size of the country, the still in need to more air defense able to deal with targets at a low/ very low altitude, specially with the presence of short-range Russian Pantsir Systems, which don’t enjoy good technical and tactical reputaion compared with other air defense systems owned by UAE. On the other hand the number of the air defense possible is not sufficient geographically compared with the wide spread of UAE strategic and vital targets. Therefore, it is expected that the UAE will turn to European alternatives such as ASTER air defense systems, Israeli alternatives such as Spyder air defense systems, Russian systems such as the Tor M2 air defense system or the Israeli Iron Dome system, all of which are capable of dealing with targets that fly at very low altitudes, in addition to its not needing to an infrastructure to connect with the UAE air defense network, and all of them are distinguished by the ease of moving from one site to another in very few times. Recently, UAE contracted with Republic of Korea with very good air defense systems, but they will take years till they reach their combat positions inside UAE.

Russian made Tor – M2 Missile System

  • Electronic means:

Such as electronic obstruction systems that mainly work to neutralize any drones. They operate in one of two types, the first is by cutting off the drone’s communication with the GPS satellite network, which these drones use to complete its path towards the target if it is programmed and not controlled from a station The second is to cut the continuous guidance signal between the aircraft and the ground guidance station that controls the aircraft throughout its path. Russia and China are the most important and powerful exporters of this type of system.

5 – “Drones and Canons: Changing Balance of Power in and around the Middle East”

There is a concept that generations of wars are mainly related to the development of weapons and related “the revolution in military affairs”, which I don’t agree much with it.

For example, the atomic and hydrogen bombs are considered the most powerful lethal unconventional weapons, even though they were invented several decades ago.

According to the definition of “Generation” mentioned by LtCol. William S. Lind, it’s “A delicately qualitative shift”, which is basically a “shift” in the nature of combat in relation to the goals of the belligerents; accordingly, the type of weapon is to be decided or selected, not the other way around, then usually (not always) the type of weapons and ammunition is determined according to the generation and not the other way around, bearing in mind that victory should be achieved by imposing the will by one of the warring sides on the other.

Hence, the development of weapons does not make the new generation of wars, but the nature of the combat and the fighters have a primary role in determining it. The weapon may be a nuclear bomb or conventional land, sea and air weapons by state actor forces, and it may be a human booby-trapped or Drones booby-trapped by armed non-state actor (militia members or armed terrorist elements) fighting a huge army equipped with conventional weapons with enormous capabilities and advanced technology; this type of war is so called “Asymmetric Warfare”, and the aggression of the non-actor state here is classified as “physical violence” in the Fourth Generation of Wars (4GW), in the time that revolutions and peaceful rebellion is so called “mental violence”. In this case, the state actor may have to using light special forces carrying light weapons to confront this type of enemy and threat, as there is no value here for advanced weapons. But also, the state actor may need a very modern and developed air defense systems able to intercept the drones for example. However, generations of wars are also not conflicting with the development of weapons, generations of wars may benefit from the development in weapons and means of fire, or being forced to work to confront them, as happened in part in the second and third generations, but within the framework of the nature of war and the objectives of the belligerents, and aircraft and land and sea weapons are still in the development and production of which does not stop.

In brief, using drones by non-state actor against conventional weapons of governmental forces is considered within 4GW and I agree that drones and canons are changing the balance of power in and around the Middle East, but not a new generation of war.

Sayed Ghonim, Major General (Ret) of the Egyptian Armed Forces
PhD in Political Science, Port Said university – Fellow, Nasser’s Higher Military Academy
Chairman, IGSDA


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