Missile attack on Saudi oil facilities: Game of drones

The drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities by Houthi fighters in Yemen spoil U.S. attempts to initiate talks with Iran, which denied any hand in the attacks and threatened “all-out war” in the event of retaliatory attacks.

Published : Oct 19, 2019 07:00 IST

Saudi Aramco’s Khurais oil field plant, which was damaged following a drone attack.

Saudi Aramco’s Khurais oil field plant, which was damaged following a drone attack.

Even as there was talk of a possible meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and United States President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meet, a key Saudi Arabian oil refining facility was targeted by a drone and missile attack on September 14.

The Houthis in Yemen claimed credit for the attack, which they insisted was launched from well within the territory they control in Yemen. But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wasted no time in declaring that Iran had launched the attack that destroyed the Saudi oil installations in Abqaiq and Khurais.

The facilities were engaged in processing around 6 per cent of the world’s oil supplies. Abqaiq is the world’s biggest oil refining facility. Half of Saudi Arabia’s oil output was affected by the attack, which led to an immediate 20 per cent surge in global oil prices.

Pompeo described the attack as an “act of war” committed by Iran and vowed retribution. The Saudi authorities followed suit the following day, accusing Iran of being responsible for the attack. But neither the U.S. nor Saudi Arabia has been able to provide any proof to back up its claims. The Saudis promised tough action against Iran but had to backtrack. Now the call is for “collective action” against Iran, given the Trump administration’s reluctance to go into battle against Tehran on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Saudi crown prince had earlier boasted that the battle would be taken to Iran and that it would not be fought on Saudi territory. Iran continues to strongly deny that it was behind the attack. The Iranian leadership also issued a very strong warning of “an all-out war” in the region if there were retaliatory attacks either by the U.S. or the Saudis.

A senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, warned the U.S. that “playing with lion’s tail carries serious dangers”.

Trump said that the U.S. military forces were “all locked and loaded” to launch attacks on Iran. He had threatened missile strikes on Iran previously after the shooting down of a U.S. drone. Better sense seems to have prevailed so far in Washington. Even while despatching additional troops to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Trump administration has kept the door open for diplomacy with Iran.

Senior Trump administration officials had expressed the hope of a meeting between the U.S. and Iranian Presidents in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meet in September. But the Iranians did not take the bait. Rouhani indicated to the media that he was initially inclined to meet Trump on the condition that Trump officially abandon his “maximum pressure on Iran” policy.

Stiffer sanctions

After the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, the Trump administration imposed even more sanctions on Iran, intended to further hamper the functioning of the country’s central bank and sovereign wealth bank.

The Iranians described the unilaterally imposed U.S. sanctions as a form of “economic warfare”. The Iranian leadership warned at the outset that its rivals in the Gulf could not continue to prosper at its expense and that there would be a price to pay.

Before the attack on Saudi Arabia, senior Trump administration officials were sending signals that many of the draconian sanctions on Iran would be relaxed if Rouhani agreed to a meeting with Trump.

Before leaving New York, Rouhani said that Iran was still prepared for talks if the Trump administration “drops all the sanctions”. At the same time, Rouhani said that Iran was opposed to exclusive bilateral talks with the U.S. and would only engage with it in the company of the other signatories of the 2015 nuclear agreement, namely Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia. Rouhani also said that the French, German and British leaders who were in New York to attend the General Assembly meet had requested him to agree to a meeting with Trump. The European leaders assured him that the U.S. had informally agreed to the lifting of “all sanctions” after a meeting between the two Presidents.

Rouhani said that he did not agree to a meeting “as the optics of this were not the kind of optics that would be acceptable to us”. U.S. official and media spin would have characterised such a meeting as a triumph for Trump’s hardball diplomacy and a victory for his policy of “maximum pressure and sanctions”. Even as the U.S. was offering talks, the Trump administration attached the “terror” label to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the country’s central bank.

Rouhani was also unhappy with France, Germany and the U.K. for parroting the U.S. and Saudi line that Iran was responsible for the attack on the Saudi oil installation. He demanded evidence to back up the claims.

The Houthi fighters in Yemen, who control the capital Sana’a and a large part of the country’s territory, have been successfully targeting Saudi military targets since last year with drone and missile attacks in response to the relentless bombing of the Yemeni civilian population for the last four years by a Saudi-led military alliance. With the tide of war now shifting in favour of the Houthis and the Saudi-backed Yemeni forces in retreat, the Houthis have upped the ante.

A week after the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, the Houthi political leadership held out an olive branch of sorts to the Saudis by announcing that it had stopped all missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia but warned that the continuation of war in Yemen could lead to more dangerous developments.

“We declare the ceasing to target Saudi Arabian territory with military drones, ballistic missiles and all other forms of weapons, and we wait for a reciprocal move from them,” said the Supreme Houthi Council in a statement. The continuation of the Yemen war “will not benefit any side”, the statement added. The Saudis have not bothered to respond to the offer.

Reiterating that the Houthis were behind the attack on the Saudi facilities, Rouhani said the Saudis should view it as a signal to withdraw from its devastating war in Yemen. “They attacked an industrial centre to warn you. Learn the lesson from the warning,” he added. Rouhani also said that the Yemenis in their retaliatory attacks had never hit schools, bazaars or other civilian targets, unlike the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. According to the U.N., Yemen is today experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Iran has not shied away from admitting that it supplied the Yemeni resistance with the blueprint for the production of drones and missile systems. Iran, according to many military analysts, has now emerged as “a drone superpower”.

UAE withdraws

The UAE, which until recently played a key role in bolstering the anti-Houthi rebel forces in South Yemen, announced that it was withdrawing its forces from the country, although it continues to support the separatist rebels in the South.

The UAE has spent considerable wealth and sacrificed many of its soldiers to arm and train the Yemeni secessionist forces. In late August, the UAE Air Force bombed Yemeni forces allied to the Saudis to force them out of the port city of Aden. The strategic Red Sea port city is now under the control of secessionists.

The resistance to the Houthi forces is now split wide open, with the Saudis and the Emiratis backing opposing factions in Yemen’s civil war. The Houthis have warned the Emiratis that they have shortlisted targets on their territory for attacks similar to the ones carried out in Saudi Arabia if they do not cease participation in the war in Yemen.

“If you want peace and security for your facilities, and towers made of glass that cannot withstand one drone, then leave Yemen alone,” a senior Houthi military commander said in a warning to the Emiratis.

The success of the Houthi missile and drone attacks has come as surprise to military analysts. The billions of dollars the Saudis spent on state-of-the-art U.S.-made weapons to safeguard their borders have not prevented drones and missiles from destroying one of their prime economic assets. The much-vaunted U.S. missile defence systems proved completely inadequate against slow-flying drones and low-flying cruise missiles.

Saudi Arabia spent $67 billion on defence last year. U.S. troops and weaponry are stationed in the Gulf but they still proved woefully inadequate against preventing an attack on one of its biggest clients.

Anthony Cordesman, a Washington-based military expert, said “that the strikes on Saudi Arabia provide a clear strategic warning that the U.S. era of air supremacy in the Gulf is over and the near U.S. monopoly of precision strike capability is also fading rapidly”.

Also, the U.S now does not seem to be keen on fighting a war on behalf of a traditionally oil-rich state. On the campaign trail, Trump had said that countries such as Saudi Arabia “should fight their own wars” and not depend on American sweat and blood. With an election looming, the last thing Trump wants is another war on his hands.

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