Drone attack on Saudi oil facilities is major escalation

The full details of the most recent attack on September 14 were not available on Saturday morning and it was not clear where the drones had come from.

September 14, 2019 17:04
3 minute read.
Drone attack on Saudi oil facilities is major escalation

A projectile and a drone launched at Saudi Arabia by YemenÕs Houthis are displayed at a Saudi military base, Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia June 21, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/STEPHEN KALIN)

The attacks began around four in the morning; video showed massive fires, billowing smoke and locals reported explosions. Iranian media implied that the attacks were carried out by Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been backed by Theran. However the facilities that were struck are in northeastern Saudi Arabia, closer to Bahrain and Qatar. A drone would have to fly 1,000 km. to reach the facilities.

Drone attacks from Yemen have usually targeted areas close to its border. Two exceptions stand out. First was a May 14 attack that also caused Aramco to stop pumping oil. That attack was later blamed, according to a US report in The Wall Street Journal, on a paramilitary group operating from Iraq. The second case was the Shaybah attack in mid-August. Allegedly, that attack was carried out by up to ten drones, according to the Houthis.

The full details of the most recent September 14 attack were not available on Saturday morning and it was not clear where the drones had come from.

Iran has frequently boasted of new drone technology over the last nine months, including longer-range drones. In early September Tehran unveiled the Kian long-range surveillance and attack drone. Iran’s Press TV is seeking to highlight the attack and blame it on a Saudi-led war in Yemen that has sought to support the Yemeni government against the Houthis.

The war has been controversial because it has been blamed for suffering in Yemen. Iran’s Press TV claims that the “Western-backed military aggression, coupled with a naval blockade, has killed tens of thousands.” Iran says this is a “quagmire” for the Saudis, and it is clear that there is a kind of proxy conflict taking place in Yemen.

Every drone and rocket strike by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia is highlighted in Iranian media, as if it was an accomplishment by Tehran. This is because the technology for drones, ballistic missiles and air defense that the Houthis have is linked to Tehran. For instance the Houthis have shot down at least two US drones over the past six months. There have been alleged splits in the Saudi-UAE coalition that has been fighting against them in Yemen. In addition, separatists in Aden have caused rifts in the alliance against the Houthis.

The last month has seen the Yemen conflict heat up. A US drone was downed in mid-August and separatists briefly controlled parts of Aden. It took several hours for Saudi Arabia to confirm the fires at its oil facilities on Saturday morning. Most of the blazes appeared under control.

But the attack was also a serious escalation. This is the third attack of this kind, a long-range strike on key oil infrastructure. It shows the ability of the drone operator to carry out precision attacks. It also shows they have improved the ordnance carried by the drones, and that the drones can fly long-distances.

Saudi Arabia, a key ally of the US, has not been able to interdict these long-distance strikes. But it has been able to bring down drones closer to the border with Yemen. Is this because its air defense can’t operate at such long distances? Radar should be able to detect these incursions into Saudi airspace and present a clear picture of where the drones came from.

The question then for Riyadh and Washington is how to interdict these drone strikes and also where to assign blame. Having drones striking facilities in key areas near Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE border is a major challenge.

It also comes amid US-Iran tensions. Tehran has been hard hit by sanctions and Washington wants to drive Iranian oil exports to near zero. Iran has said that this is economic war and has appeared to respond since May to US efforts. With discussions now about possible sanctions relief, or France or other European powers stepping in to broker something, attacks on key oil facilities by a Tehran ally can be seen as pressuring Western allies. And it can also be seen as showing off drone technology.

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