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Middle East on edge after US and UK attacks on Iran-backed Houthi militants, as group vows to retaliate

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As the Israel-Hamas war triggers attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels against vessels in the Red Sea, Arab Gulf states that for years were embroiled in a deadly war with the Houthis are now on high alert.

Saudi Arabia on Thursday called for restraint after the United States and the United Kingdom launched strikes against multiple Houthi targets in Yemen, killing five people and wounding six others, according to a Houthi official.

In a statement, Riyadh on Thursday expressed concern over the strikes in Yemen and called for “restraint and avoiding escalation in light of the events the region is witnessing.”

The oil-rich monarchy, along with neighboring United Arab Emirates, may be caught in a difficult position. Both states were once the targets of attacks in 2019 and 2022, respectively, blamed on either Iran or its Houthi proxy in Yemen.

In 2019, roughly 5% of world oil supply was briefly knocked offline in a large-scale drone attack on Saudi oil facilities. In 2022, the UAE called the Houthi attack on its capital Abu Dhabi its own “9/11.”

The Yemen conflict had however begun to ease last year, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE embarked on a journey toward peace with Iran, and consequently the Houthis in Yemen. In April, the Saudi-Houthi peace talks brought about a de-facto ceasefire after eight years of hostilities.

Mohammed Abdulsalam, chief negotiator for Yemen’s Houthis in the Saudi-Houthi peace talks, told Reuters on Thursday that the group’s attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea do not threaten its peace talks with Saudi Arabia.

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While neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE have publicly joined the US and its allies in their Red Sea military actions, the escalating conflict in the waterway is likely sounding alarm bells at home. American security guarantees against potential Iranian or Houthi aggression have long been paramount to both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The issue has even led to painful rifts in Gulf-US relations when the American security presence was perceived to be waning in the region.

In May, the UAE said that as a result of evaluating its security cooperation with its partners, Abu Dhabi was no longer taking part in a US-led coalition protecting Gulf shipping.

It is unclear how Gulf Arab states will respond to ongoing Houthi aggression in the Red Sea, especially as both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi continue to oppose Israeli strikes on Gaza.


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