Mar 2, 2022 - World

UAE abstained from UN Security Council vote due to U.S. response to Houthi attacks

Mohamed Abushahab, the permanent representative of the UAE to the UN, speaks during the UN Security Council meeting on Feb. 28. Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The UAE's decision to abstain last week from a U.S.-led resolution to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the UN Security Council was largely due to frustrations over the U.S. response to an attack on Abu Dhabi six weeks earlier, three Emirati, U.S. and Israeli sources tell me.

The big picture: The UAE on Wednesday voted at the UN General Assembly to condemn the invasion, but tensions remain between the U.S. and UAE, who cooperate closely on security, intelligence and trade issues.

Flashback: Three people were killed and six wounded in an unprecedented missile and drone attack on Abu Dhabi by Yemen's Houthi rebels on Jan. 17.

  • The Biden administration quickly condemned the attack as an act of terrorism, sent a squadron of F-22 fighter jets and the USS Cole to Abu Dhabi, and helped to intercept at least one of the subsequent attacks.
  • But the U.S. has not accepted the UAE's request to redesignate the Houthis as terrorists. Aid groups say that move would make it harder for them to operate in Yemen.

Behind the scenes: While the Biden administration saw its response as quick and robust, the Emiratis had bigger expectations and felt abandoned, the three sources say.

  • When CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie visited Abu Dhabi on Feb. 7, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ) refused to meet with him. That snub was intended to signal disappointment with the fact that it took McKenzie 22 days since the attack to visit, according to a U.S. source with direct knowledge.
  • A senior Biden administration official said McKenzie couldn’t visit sooner because he was overseeing and advising the president on the operation that killed ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. The official says U.S. officials had been in contact with their UAE counterparts several times per day after the attack.
  • MBZ did agree to see White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk a week later in Abu Dhabi, but used the meeting to air his frustration at the U.S. The senior U.S. official said the meeting was nonetheless "constructive" in terms of future cooperation over Yemen.

But when Russia invaded Ukraine, the Emiratis felt the U.S. response — including the push for sanctions and Security Council resolutions at the UN — was much stronger and faster than when they were attacked, the three sources say.

  • The U.S. lobbied UN Security Council members hard on the resolution condemning Russia, but when it came up for a vote on Friday, the Emiratis abstained.
  • That was intended as a signal of frustration with the U.S., all three sources say, and it deeply disappointed the U.S. side.

State of play: The frustrations are still alive on both sides.

  • The Emiratis want more access to U.S. intelligence and targeting capabilities to prevent further attacks in Yemen.
  • U.S. officials say they acted fast even with their resources stretched and the Emiratis want capabilities that don't exist, like pinpoint intelligence for targeting in Yemen.

What they're saying: Another senior Biden administration official said it was not clear whether the Emirati vote at the Security Council was completely tied to their grievances about U.S. policy on the Houthis.

  • The official stressed the issue of redesignating the Houthis is still being discussed. “In any case. there will be more steps to address the issue of the Houthi threat not only symbolically," the official said.
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