DUBAI – The United Arab Emirates intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Yemen's Houthi rebels early Monday as the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, was visiting the country, authorities said, the third such attack in as many weeks.
The attack only fuels ongoing tensions in the wider Persian Gulf, which has seen a series of attacks as Iran's nuclear deal with world powers unravels and Yemen's yearslong war rages on.
As negotiators in Vienna now attempt to revive the accord and Emirati-backed forces press on the Iran-backed Houthis, the rebels are launching their longest-range attacks yet — a major challenge for the Emirates, which advertises itself to international businesses as a safe corner of an otherwise-dangerous neighborhood.
The UAE's state-run WAM news agency reported Monday's interception, saying “the attack did not result in any losses, as the remnants of the ballistic missile fell outside the populated areas.”
It wasn't immediately clear where the remnants fell. The country's civilian air traffic control agency said there was no effect on air travel in the UAE, home to the long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad.
The country's top prosecutor has threatened that people who film or post images of such an incident would face criminal charges in the UAE, an autocratic federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, making reporting on such incidents even more complicated for journalists.
Instead, the Emirati Defense Ministry released black-and-white footage it described as showing the destruction of a ballistic missile launcher in Yemen's al-Jawf province some 30 minutes after the attack — just as it did after last week's attack, leading analysts to suggest the Emiratis may be receiving Western intelligence assistance for its strikes.
Al-Jawf is some 1,350 kilometers (840 miles) southwest of Abu Dhabi.
Houthi military spokesman Yehia Sarei gave a press conference later Monday, claiming that the rebels had targeted “sensitive sites” in Abu Dhabi and Dubai with both Zulfiqar ballistic missiles and drones, without offering evidence for his assertions.
He repeated the group's warnings that the headquarters of international companies will be targeted in further attacks.
“The Emirates will remain an adversary as long as the actions of the Israeli enemy continue in Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” Sarei shouted from the podium.
Herzog, Israel’s largely ceremonial president, was in the UAE on Monday for the first official visit by an Israeli head of state to the Gulf Arab nation. The day before, he held extensive talks with Abu Dhabi’s powerful Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in the capital, where he stressed Israel’s support for the UAE’s “security requirements” and condemned the recent attacks.
Herzog on Monday visited Dubai’s Expo 2020 world’s fair, which the Houthis had previously threatened to target. From the site’s centerpiece dome, he delivered a carefully worded speech extolling Israel’s innovations, its presence at the fair and growing economic cooperation with the UAE.
He arrived at the Israeli flag-raising ceremony surrounded by some dozen close protection officers in dark suits.
“Israelis and Emiratis are standing together, learning each other’s cultures and languages,” Herzog said, rattling off figures about the countries' cooperation: $1 billion in trade, the establishment of a $100 million research and development fund, 250,000 Israelis who so far have visited the UAE’s coastal cities.
“I look forward to the great accomplishments that will undoubtedly emerge from the seeds planted right here, together,” he added. “This was a decision not only to normalize ties but to shape a new tomorrow.”
He urged more nations to recognize Israel as part of the so-called Abraham Accords before being swiftly shepherded away.
The AP, along with other international media, was ordered by Dubai’s Expo 2020 not to release images or video of Herzog’s visit to the site until the afternoon. Expo officials say the order came at the request of Israeli officials.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price condemned the Houthi attack. “While Israel’s president is visiting the UAE to build bridges and promote stability across the region, the Houthis continue to launch attacks that threaten civilians,” Price wrote on Twitter.
From Tehran, Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, condemned the Israeli president’s visit to the UAE.
“Invasion, expansionism and crisis-making are part of the nature of Israel’s policy,” he told reporters, describing the normalization of relations with Israel as a source of “rift-making in the Islamic and Arab worlds.”
When asked about Monday’s Houthi missile attack on the UAE, Khatibzadeh struck a softer note, saying the “cycle of violence should come to an end."
In the hours after the attack, Syrian state-run media said an Israeli strike hit near Damascus. The Israeli military did not immediately acknowledge it.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in December made his first official visit to the UAE and held talks with Sheikh Mohammed . The visits came after the UAE and Bahrain recognized Israel and established diplomatic relations in 2020 — a move condemned by Palestinian leaders as a betrayal of their cause.
Last week, a similar attack saw both Emirati and U.S. forces fire interceptor missiles bring down a Houthi missile near Al-Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi, which hosts some 2,000 American troops. The U.S. military did not respond to requests for comment on Monday's missile interception.
The week before, a Houthi drone-and-missile attack struck an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot, killing three people and wounding six as South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited the UAE.
The attacks have helped propel benchmark Brent crude oil prices above $90 a barrel, further squeezing a global economy grappling with inflation in the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the UAE has largely withdrawn its own forces from Yemen, it still supports militias fighting the Houthis, who seized Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. A Saudi-led coalition, which the UAE is a part of, entered the conflict in March 2015.
Iran has denied arming the Houthis, though U.N. reports, independent analysts and Western nations point to evidence showing Tehran’s link to the weapons. Experts, however, debate how much direct control Tehran exercises over the Houthis.
Attacks after the first round of Houthi missiles in January saw the Saudi coalition strike a prison and kill some 90 people, as well as knock Yemen off the internet for days.
While Emirati troops have been killed over the course of the conflict, until this month the war had not affected daily life in the UAE, a country with a vast foreign workforce.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.