Something Evil in the Air: US F-22s Deploy to the UAE

On February 12, the US deployed a squadron of F-22 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. The guided missile destroyer USS Cole soon followed.[1] The deployments signal that the US may be embarking on a new, active role in the war in Yemen. This will prolong the war and result in countless more Yemeni deaths.

In 2015, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led a coalition of Arab states in an unprovoked attack on Yemen. Their objective was to restore President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi who had been overthrown the year before by the country’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The US has participated indirectly in the war. The US has supported the Saudi-led coalition (“SLC”) with intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, logistics assistance, arms sales, transfer of spare parts for SLC warplanes, and (until November 2018) in-flight refueling of coalition warplanes. US assistance to the coalition has continued even after President Joe Biden’s announcement on February 4, 2021 that the US was ending support for “offensive operations” in Yemen.

The recent flexing of US muscle comes in response to drone and missile attacks on the UAE in January by Yemen’s Houthi rebels (formally known as Ansar Allah: “Party of God”). Houthi cross-border drone and missile attacks have become relatively commonplace in Saudi Arabia, but not in the UAE. Before January 17, the last Houthi drone attack on the UAE occurred on July 26, 2018 when a Houthi drone struck Abu Dhabi International Airport.

The Houthi attacks are retaliation for the UAE-backed Giants Brigade retaking Yemen’s Shabwa province from the Houthis in early January. The UAE has reduced its activity in Yemen in recent years, withdrawing the last of its ground forces in 2019. The Emirates retain influence in Yemen through their support of armed militias, such as the Giants Brigade.

As yet, the Houthis’ missile and drone attacks have had little impact on the UAE.[2] Three immigrant laborers from India and Pakistan were the only fatalities in the January 17 drone attack on an oil facility. Dispatching a fighter squadron and the Cole to the UAE feels like overkill.

It’s not for a couple of reasons. The Houthis have promised to target international corporations with offices in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Another explanation for the strong US response is the al-Dhafra airbase outside Abu Dhabi where two thousand US troops are stationed. The Associated Press calls al-Dhafra “a major base of operations for everything from armed drones to F-35 stealth fighters.” The Houthi attacks have already begun. On January 24, US Patriot interceptor missiles destroyed two missiles approaching al-Dhafra.

Trouble Ahead

The third Houthi attack occurred on January 31. That same day, President Biden reemphasized the US commitment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE: “I’ve directed [Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin] to do everything he can to communicate the support of the United States for the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and throughout the Gulf region. America will have the backs of our friends in the region.”

By rushing to the UAE’s defense, the US has reduced the UAE’s incentive to make a separate peace with the Houthis. There will be a constant temptation to use the F-22s in offensive missions against the Houthis. Even if the F-22s are only used to destroy Houthi missiles and drones approaching the UAE, what happens if a Houthi missile downs a US plane and kills an American pilot?

One positive step Biden took early on was to reverse the Trump Administration’s designation of Ansar Allah as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (“FTO”) which made aid deliveries vastly more difficult. President Biden is considering restoring Trump’s FTO designation. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel[3] are pressuring the administration to restore the FTO designation.

Re-designating the Houthis as terrorists would have tragic consequences for Yemenis. The UN has called Yemen the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The country is sliding into famine. Coalition airstrikes target water treatment installations, hospitals, and the seaport cranes used to unload aid ships. A coalition land, sea, and air blockade delays deliveries of food, fuel, and medicine to desperately needy Yemenis. Increased American involvement in the war is a recipe for making Yemenis’ suffering worse.

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  1. The Cole is best known as the target of an al Qaeda suicide attack in Yemen’s port of Aden on October 12, 2000 which killed 17 US sailors.
  2. The same cannot be said of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. For instance, a September 14, 2019 Houthi drone attack on two Saudi ARAMCO oil refineries temporarily knocked out about five per cent of world oil production.
  3. The UAE is considering buying Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, something that would not have been a possibility before the US, Israel, and the UAE signed the Abraham Accords on August 13, 2020. The Abraham Accords normalized relations between Israel and the UAE in exchange for Israel removing its objections to American weapons sales to the Emirates.The first visit of an Israeli president to the Emirates coincided with the January 31 Houthi missile attack. According to the Times of Israel: “Israeli analysts are not said to believe the attack, using a relatively inaccurate missile, was directly targeting Herzog….” The Houthis’ motto is “Allah is greater. Death to the US. Death to Israel. Curse the Jews. Victory to Islam.”


Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at