Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says Yemen’s Houthi movement has completely changed the equation in its war with Saudi Arabia by taking the fight into Saudi territory in such devastating fashion.
The huge fires started by Saturday’s drone attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil production and processing facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia may have been brought under control. But big questions remain unanswered about where the ten pilotless aircraft came from and how they managed to reach their targets apparently undetected and hit them with such devastating accuracy.
These were no ordinary targets. They were among the most strategically important – and one would have assumed most closely protected — locations in the country. The two oilfields and their related plants have a capacity of more than seven million barrels of crude oil per day and process some 70% of Saudi Aramco’s petroleum output.
Saturday’s attack, which at a stroke cut the country’s oil production by more than half, was the third on Aramco facilities this year. In May seven drones targeted two pumping stations on the main east-west oil pipeline and in August the massive Shayba oilfield was attacked.
In claiming responsibility for the latest (and by far most serious) drone raid, Yemen’s Houthi Ansarullah movement offered possible partial answers to the above questions.
Houthi spokesman Yahya Sarie’ said the operation was carried out after a “careful process of intelligence surveillance” of the sites. He did not elaborate about how and by whom this surveillance was carried out, nor did he comment on this apparent breakthrough in the Houthis’ intelligence capabilities.
Neither did he explain how, if the drones were launched from Yemeni territory, they managed to make the 1,000 km-plus journey without refuelling or being detected.
He did, however, make a point of praising “honourable and freedom-loving people” inside Saudi Arabia for their contribution to the operation. This sounded like a reference to the participation of members of Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shia minority, who are concentrated in the Eastern Province in the attack, or at least in the intelligence/surveillance process that preceded it.
The drones seem unlikely to have been launched from within Saudi Arabia itself. It would have been very difficult to smuggle such large devices into the Kingdom or assemble them there. They were probably fired from a neighbouring country: Iraq is increasingly being identified as the most likely source (the drones that struck the east-west pipeline were also widely reported to have come from there).
There has also been speculation they may have been clandestinely launched from Bahrain, or from a ship sailing off the Saudi Gulf coast.
But the precise source of the missiles is immaterial. Since the start of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, the Houthis have become increasingly closely aligned with the regional “Resistance Axis” comprising Iran and Syria and their allies in Iraq, Lebanon and other Arab countries. They no longer attempt to conceal this: their envoys now visit Tehran openly and their leaders express pride about their relationship with the Islamic Republic.
Sarie’, meanwhile, warned that Ansarullah’s list of targets inside Saudi Arabia is “growing by the day,” meaning that more such attacks can be expected until Riyadh ends its war and lifts its blockade of Yemen.
This warning should be seen in the context of two other highly significant warnings that were issued in recent days: the declaration by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, that his movement has new options available for countering U.S. attempts to cripple it and its allies; and the reaffirmation by Iranian leader Ali Khamenei’s advisor Ali Akbar Velayati that if his country is prevented from exporting oil through the Persian Gulf, no other country will be allowed to do so either.
The Houthis have changed the rules of engagement. The message they delivered with the latest attacks is, in their own words, that they will continue striking targets deep inside Saudi Arabia until the country’s leadership realises that “killing more Yemenis will not force them to their knees.”
Saudi fire-fighters may have put out the flames in Abqaiq and Khurais. But the dense smoke from the fires continues to shroud the region, and to conceal, at least for now, many questions about the future of the struggle raging in the Middle East, not just in Yemen but throughout the region.
In the meantime, a question is worth asking: Who is going to buy a stake in Saudi Aramco now? The Saudi government is desperate to offer shares in the giant corporation for sale. But even if they ever go on the market, how much will they fetch? Is it as coincidence that the attacks were launched just as Riyadh was stepping up efforts to proceed with a share offering?
Those unsophisticated mountain-dwelling Yemenis are clearly not as stupid as their enemies think.