Houthis’ Iran-enabled ascent in the Gulf raises security risks

In June, the Houthi rebels initiated 90 attacks on various parts of Saudi Arabia after acquiring new weapons, some of which Houthis were shown brandishing online.
Saturday 27/07/2019
Reason to worry. Saudi-led coalition officials show US Central Command chief US Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie weapons used in Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh,  July 18. (Reuters)
Reason to worry. Saudi-led coalition officials show US Central Command chief US Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie weapons used in Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, July 18. (Reuters)

LONDON - Military capabilities amassed by Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement — with substantial help from Iran — pose a rising threat in the Gulf, analysts warned.

From deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to ballistic missiles, the Iran-backed Houthis are proving difficult to deal with. Attacks against key Saudi installations have grown more frequent as indicated in July when a missile targeting the southern Saudi province of Asir was intercepted.

“We have witnessed a massive increase in capability on the side of the Houthis in recent years, particularly relating to ballistic missiles and drone technology,” Andreas Krieg, a professor at King’s College London, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

In June, the Houthi rebels initiated 90 attacks on various parts of Saudi Arabia after acquiring new weapons, some of which Houthis were shown brandishing online. The Iran-backed rebels have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition backing the forces of

Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi since 2015.

The technologically superior Saudi defences have mostly been able to thwart Houthi attacks and missiles, although a missile struck Abha Airport in June, killing one person and injuring 26.

The threat of destabilisation in the Gulf is further compounded by the range of weapons that enable Houthis to attack with medium-range missiles.

Houthi rebels have proudly discussed procurement of new weaponry. During a news conference broadcast on the Houthis’ Al Masirah in June, weapons displayed included drones Sammad-1 and Sammad-3 drones and missiles, some of which have a range of 2,700km. As many as 15 UAVs in an assortment of models were shown.

Cameras focused on “Made in Yemen” scrawled on the aircraft. Houthi-published videos revealed use of Iranian military UAVs and re-engineered commercial Chinese-made drones but AFP said it could not corroborate claims that the aircraft had been manufactured in Yemen.

Houthi spokesman Yaha Saraei said that newly acquired weapons had been used in operations he described as “successful” on airports in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi officials said that, with Iran’s help, Houthi technology has made a “significant leap from propeller-powered surveillance drones to a larger plane-shaped model” called UAV-X, International Policy Digest reported.

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told AFP that Iran has had a hand in developing the Houthis’ armaments. Ibish and other analysts point to explosive-laden drones as evidence of the Houthis and Tehran are linked.

Military capabilities Houthis displayed in the last two years point to the force’s transformation and acquisition of considerable strength, “more advanced than anything the Yemeni armed forces had before” Yemen’s civil war began, Krieg said.

Attacks on Saudi Arabia compound the risk of further political instability in Yemen and indicate the conflict does not seem likely to end soon.

The United States is pressuring the Houthis by working with the Arab coalition to sever the support Iran offers to the rebels, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said in June.

Despite warnings from the international community, Iran’s position relies on the status of its proxies whose military strength is needed because of sharpened tensions between Tehran and Washington.

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