Republicans urge Joe Biden to step up pressure on Houthis after Abu Dhabi terror attack

Members of Congress call for range of penalties, including Iran sanctions, arms sales and redesignating Yemeni rebels as terrorist group

A partial view of the Msaffah industrial district in Abu Dhabi on January 17, 2022. AFP

Republicans are calling on US President Joe Biden to escalate pressure on Yemen’s Houthi rebels following an attack on a UAE oil facility and airport this week in which three civilians were killed.

The attack has fuelled Republican calls both for additional sanctions on Iran — even as the Biden administration continues negotiations to revive the nuclear deal — while shoring up support for arms sales in the Gulf and redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist organisation.

Todd Young, the top Republican on the Senate Middle East panel, told The National that the Iran-backed Houthis expanding their attacks beyond Saudi Arabia and into the UAE “clearly demonstrates that they are determined to continue the conflict and exacerbate the world’s worst man-made humanitarian catastrophe".

“The United States must respond forcefully with sanctions on Iran to cut off its support to the Houthis, while also ensuring that our partners in the region have the weapons necessary to defend themselves in the face of these attacks,” said Mr Young.

Notably, Mr Young was one of the most prominent congressional critics of US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis under former president Donald Trump.

But repeated Houthi missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia — and now the UAE — coupled with the rebels’ refusal to engage in peace negotiations, have prompted previous congressional critics such as Mr Young to line up behind pressure on the Iran-backed group.

“In recent months, they have stormed the US embassy compound and imprisoned our local staff, seized an Emirati ship and continued their cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia,” said Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The Biden administration must take real steps to respond to this dangerous behaviour.”

James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also condemned the attack as “an act of a dangerous Iran-backed terrorist proxy".

And James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, reiterated his condemnation of Mr Biden’s decision to rescind the Houthis’ terrorist designation last year.

He called on the Biden administration to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist group, following similar calls from Yemen’s UN-recognised government.

The Biden administration delisted the Houthis as a terrorist group mere weeks after taking office, saying it was a necessary move to restore US humanitarian aid to war-torn Yemen.

The terrorist designation had put extra pressure on the Houthis to negotiate and change their behaviour but legally blocked the US government from delivering aid to Houthi-controlled areas.

The US designation had only been in place for less than a month, as Mr Trump waited until a few days before he left office to label the Houthis a terrorist group.

Because Iran sanctions could throw another spanner in the delicate talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna and as a Houthi terrorist designation could inhibit humanitarian aid to Yemen, the Biden administration may find arms sales to Gulf countries to be a particularly enticing response.

Defence Department spokesman John Kirby hinted at the prospect of arms sales during a press briefing on Tuesday.

“We have a very robust defence partnership with the UAE, which does include foreign military sales of various different types of weapons and platforms,” said Mr Kirby.

“Obviously, we’re in constant discussion and dialogue with our Emirati partners about ways we can strengthen that defence partnership.”

His comments came after US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin joined the chorus of condemnation against the Houthis, noting that the US remains “committed to the UAE’s security and ability to defend itself".

The UAE in December halted negations with the US to purchase 50 F-35 stealth fighter jets as part of a $23 billion arms package.

Mr Trump approved the sale in 2020, but the UAE suspended negotiations over certain restrictions that the Biden administration insisted on as part of the arms transfer.

Still, the UAE has left open the possibility of resuming negotiations in the future.

And while Mr Biden suspended two major arms sales to Saudi Arabia agreed to under Mr Trump, the Democratic administration has also approved a $650 million arms sale to replenish the kingdom's s stock of air-to-air missiles depleted against Houthi drone attacks.

The Biden administration has also approved a separate $500m deal to service and maintain attack helicopters that Saudi Arabia already has in its possession.

Following the UAE attack, Saudi Arabia launched a series of air strikes in Sanaa that reportedly killed 14 people.

The UAE left the Saudi-led aerial coalition in 2019, but that has not mollified the Houthis, who launched the attack on the country after a series of significant defeats in southern Yemen’s oil-rich Shabwa province.

Updated: January 19, 2022, 5:52 AM
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