Saudi, Yemen and a Game of Drones: Why the Middle East's Proxy Wars Will Target Energy Infrastructure

Published September 16th, 2019 - 12:22 GMT
Soldiers display an alleged Houthi drone in Yemen in August /Source Unknown
Soldiers display an alleged Houthi drone in Yemen in August /Source Unknown


In February 2006, Al-Qaeda launched an attack on the world’s largest oil refinery, the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia. As part of the attack, three vehicles were loaded with explosives and attempted to breach the fenced perimeter of the refinery.

The attacks were thwarted at the last minute as security services from Aramco, the Kingdom’s largest oil company, intercepted and killed the vehicles drivers, but caused significant instability in the global energy market. The attempt set an important benchmark for groups seeking to disrupt the regional and global status quo.


 

Though attacks on energy infrastructure have long been a tactic of extremist groups in oil rich states, from Boko Haram and the MEND in Nigeria, to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, interrupting the international energy supply and upending the regional economic order requires striking at the heart of global energy production, Saudi Arabia’s oil rich Eastern provinces.

Whilst Al-Qaeda failed in its targeting of Saudi energy infrastructure, Yemen’s Ansarullah movement, often referred to as the Houthis, has proved remarkably successful in a similar campaign recent months.

In May, drone attacks claimed by the Houthi movement, temporarily destabilised the Kingdom’s East-West pipeline and oil transportation facilities in the port city of Yanbu. A more audacious attack in August targeted the Shaybah oil field in Saudi Arabia’s remote South East.
 

In May, drone attacks claimed by the Houthi movement, temporarily destabilised the Kingdom’s East-West pipeline and oil transportation facilities in the port city of Yanbu.

Yet drone attacks on the Abqaiq oil refinery and Khurais oil field over the weekend, claimed by the Houthis, are significantly bolder than previous efforts. Reports emerged from Saudi Arabia’s press agency on Saturday that 10 Houthi drones were detonated at Abqaiq and Khurais east of Riyadh, hitting important refining and stabilising facilities. Satellite images released this morning reveal at least 19 points of impact. The Abqaiq facility is of particular importance to Aramco operations and, in turn, global oil supplies.

Saudi Arabia’s press agency on Saturday that 10 Houthi drones were detonated at Abqaiq and Khurais east of Riyadh, hitting important refining and stabilising facilities. Satellite images released this morning reveal at least 19 points of impact.

The Abqaiq compound contains key infrastructure for the stabilisation of crude oil, a process which involves removing hydrogen sulphide from crude oil and reducing vapour pressure, allowing it to be safely shipped and transported. Saudi Arabia’s recently appointed energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, confirmed on Sunday that attacks led to the interruption in the processing of 5.7 million barrels of crude, about 50% of Aramco’s total production, and 5% of daily global production.

Additionally, explosions stopped the production of an estimated 2 billion cubic feet of petrochemical compounds, used to produce 700,000 barrels of natural gas liquids.

Though Saudi officials claimed that normal production capacity would be achieved by Tuesday, energy experts suggest that the damage may take weeks not days to repair. The interruption of production has seen Brent Crude oil prices surge by almost 20%, forcing the United States’ government to release strategic oil reserves to stabilise prices and causing panic among the world’s leading net importers of oil. Increasing doubts over Saudi Arabia’s ability to protect vital energy infrastructure may have significant long-term effects on oil investment and global prices.
 

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, confirmed on Sunday that attacks led to the interruption in the processing of 5.7 million barrels of crude, about 50% of Aramco’s total production, and 5% of daily global production

Late on Saturday, the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attacks. Brigadier General Yahya Saree released a public statement on Al-Masirah, a Houthi operated Yemeni news agency. Reports on the Al-Masirah website argued that the attacks constituted the second stage of ‘Operation Balanced Deterrence’, a campaign to ‘consecrate the equation of an eye for an eye in response to the ongoing aggression and unjust siege on Yemen’.

Mr Saree warned that the number of similar attacks against the Kingdom would rise if Saudi led coalition campaigns in Yemen continued and concluded, ‘the only option for the Saudi government is to stop attacking us.’ Though Saturday’s events suggest the increasing ambition of Houthi operations in Saudi Arabia, they will come as little surprise to Yemen watchers - a video posted on Al Masirah in August claimed that ‘attacks will be stepped up to target the backbone of the Saudi economy or what has become known as the “Saudi Milking Cow for the US”’, and analysts point to a significant recent increase in Houthi aerial and rocket capabilities.
 

Attacks on Abqaiq, around 800 miles from the nearest Houthi held territory, reveal the increased range of Houthi drone technology. Estimates that Houthi drones may have a range of up to 1000 miles will increase security fears in the Kingdom - the national capital Riyadh, as well as the holy cities of Medina and Mecca are well within this range.


Attacks on Abqaiq, around 800 miles from the nearest Houthi held territory, reveal the increased range of Houthi drone technology. Estimates that Houthi drones may have a range of up to 1000 miles will increase security fears in the Kingdom - the national capital Riyadh, as well as the holy cities of Medina and Mecca are well within this range.

Among Saudi Arabia’s regional allies, most notably in the United Arab Emirates. Security officials in Saudi Arabia will be especially concerned by suggestions by Mr Saree that attacks followed ‘an accurate intelligence operation and advanced monitoring and cooperation of honorable people inside the kingdom’.
 

AFPTV screen grab from a video made on September 14, 2019, shows smoke billowing from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq about 60km (37 miles) southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia's eastern province /AFP


Following Al-Qaeda’s attempted attack in 2006 and Iranian posturing in recent years, Saudi Arabia has significantly stepped up efforts to secure energy security. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates that up to 40,000 troops protect the Kingdom’s energy infrastructure at any given time and that roughly 10% of the national security budget is devoted to domestic energy security.

Anti-missile defence systems, provided by the United States, regular helicopter and F15 patrols are designed to thwart aerial attacks, yet they have proved redundant in the face of low-tech Houthi drone attacks.
 

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates that up to 40,000 troops protect the Kingdom’s energy infrastructure at any given time and that roughly 10% of the national security budget is devoted to domestic energy security.


Dr Ali Bakeer, an Ankara based political analyst and researcher notes the strategic value of drones for the Houthi movement: ‘drones are relatively cheap, hard to detect and can be launched from virtually anywhere’. Conventionally outgunned by virtue of Saudi Arabia’s astronomical 60 billion JOD in annual arms spending, experts estimate that Houthi drone attacks likely cost no more than 12,000 JOD. Dr Bakeer argues that the ‘Houthis can’t stand the war if they are going to fight a regular army in a traditional way.

Their main advantage is to use asymmetric tools boosted by the hard geography of Yemen in order to drag the other party into a long, costly war’. According to Houthi spokesmen, the group has conducted over 60 unmanned vehicle attacks into Saudi Arabia between May and August this year and has plans to continue to target strategic economic and military facilities in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia which mainly transports oil through 20,000 km of pipelines that criss-cross the Kingdom is particularly vulnerable to such attacks.
 

Conventionally outgunned by virtue of Saudi Arabia’s astronomical 60 billion JOD in annual arms spending, experts estimate that Houthi drone attacks likely cost no more than 12,000 JOD. Dr Bakeer argues that the ‘Houthis can’t stand the war if they are going to fight a regular army in a traditional way.

Significant questions remain about the source of Houthi drone technology. The Houthi movement reportedly used UAVs for the first time in December 2015, when they flew a DJI Phantom series quadcopter - a commercially available system for hobbyists which it allegedly stole from a local TV station. By early 2016, the movement was allegedly deploying UAVs in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capacities.

The movement claims that it runs an indigenous program of research and development to create more advanced weapons systems and that significant advances have been made through reverse engineering and rehabilitating foreign drones shot down over Houthi territory. However, many of the component elements of drone systems, particularly advanced guidance systems require a degree of technical capability likely beyond that of the Houthis. Many analysts argue that Iran is likely augmenting the aerial capacities of the movement.

As Nick Waters, a senior investigator at Bellingcat, an open source investigator notes ‘multiple experts I’ve spoken to believe that the Houthis do have the capability to manufacture and assemble their own drones. That said, I would be surprised if materials and the more advanced technological parts did not come from Iran’. This sentiment is shared by Dr Bakeer: ‘there is no way this primitive militia group would create such drones and equip them and drive them to target without help from a major player in this field, a state actor.’

 

many of the component elements of drone systems, particularly advanced guidance systems require a degree of technical capability likely beyond that of the Houthis. Many analysts argue that Iran is likely augmenting the aerial capacities of the movement.


Others suggest that the Houthis have imported UAVs wholesale from Iran. The UAE’s Presidential Guard claimed to have seized a truck containing unassembled Iranian drones travelling into Yemen in November 2016, whilst a January 2018 report by a United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen reported that Houthi done systems were ‘virtually identical in design’ to Iranian systems. The panel concluded that Iran likely produced drones using Indian made satellite compasses and Chinese electronics before exporting them to their Houthi allies.
 

Who is Responsible?


Many in Washington and Riyadh argue that Saturday’s attacks were not launched by Houthi forces at all. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued on Twitter on Sunday that ‘Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia, while Rouhani and Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy’.

Certain officials in Washington claim that the points of impact on the west and northwest sides of the Abqaiq facility are inconsistent with attacks from Yemen to the South and claim that it is more likely that the strikes were carried out by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq or directly by the foreign arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds force.

Though Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif claims that US officials are engaging in a campaign of ‘maximum falsification’, an uptick in spill over violence from the Yemen conflict is likely to see relations between the Gulf and its Western partners and Tehran deteriorate further.
 

Certain officials in Washington claim that the points of impact on the west and northwest sides of the Abqaiq facility are inconsistent with attacks from Yemen to the South and claim that it is more likely that the strikes were carried out by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq or directly by the foreign arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps


Though the Houthi movement is banking on the prospect that destabilisation in Saudi Arabia and flow on effects for global energy markets may encourage the Kingdom to the negotiating table and to ease its lethal campaign in Yemen due to pressure from international oil importers, it may have precisely the opposite effect.

President Donald Trump has already suggested that US forces are ‘locked and loaded’ to deal with any Iranian presence in Yemen and protect Saudi Arabia, whilst Al Riyadh and Al Yaum, two of the Kingdom’s leading daily newspapers called for a strong Arab and international reaction to Houthi attacks.

Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Yemen stated that he was ‘extremely concerned’ following the latest developments and urged all parties to ‘prevent such further incidents, which pose a serious threat to regional security and complicate the already fragile situation.’

Though more information continues to emerge on the extent of Houthi capabilities and the nature of Saturday’s attacks, time will tell whether or not an escalation of strikes in Saudi Arabia will prove an unprecedented boon to anti-coalition forces in Yemen, or catalyse severe reprisals that plunge an already beleaguered state into an even direr predicament.

 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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