The Balance of Power Has Changed in Yemen

Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

by Abdulaziz Kilani

In the early morning hours of September 14, Saudi Arabian oil giant Aramco was the target of two apparent attacks. “At 4 am on Saturday morning, Aramco’s industrial security teams fought two fires in two of the company’s facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais after they were targeted by drones… the two fires were controlled and contained, and the related authorities have begun investigating,” the Saudi ministry of interior said in a statement.

The Khurais oil field produces some 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. The Aramco facility at Abqaiq removes impurities from sour crude to convert it to sweet crude and at full capacity processes roughly 7 million barrels per day. Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said the combined effect of the strikes had reduced crude oil production by 5.7m barrels a day, which is over half of Saudi Arabia’s total output.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack. Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis’ political bureau, told LobeLog that these strikes “come in the context of the right of self-defense.” He pointed out that when Saudi Arabia stops its aggression against Yemen, his group will stop immediately.

The success of this operation and the great losses suffered by Saudi Arabia confirm what we have been saying in the past, that we will expand in striking the Saudi depth and target more important and sensitive facilities,” al-Bukhaiti said, stressing that Saudi Arabia has no choice but to revise its policies and incline toward peace.

The attack could be another example of the changing balance of power in Yemen. At the start of this war in 2015, it was unthinkable that the Houthis could have developed the ability to carry out attacks on the scale of those they’ve recently conducted. At this point, however, it has become apparent that not only has the Saudi-led coalition collapsed, but the Houthis have also improved their capabilities.

The timing of this attack should not be surprising. There has been a trend in the conflict that whenever the coalition conducts major strikes, the Houthis, on their side, fire back. For example, the attack on Saturday comes only two weeks after the Saudi-led coalition attacked a facility run by the Houthis, which resulted in 100 people being killed. 

Even when the Houthis were still building up their military capabilities, they still managed to launch revenge attacks. For instance, a day after the Saudi-led coalition has launched an attack on a funeral in Sana’a in October 2016, where over 140 were killed and over 500 wounded, the Houthis responded by firing a ballistic missile at King Fahd’s military base in Saudi Arabia. It would not be out of character for them to have retaliated in this case as well.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has blamed Saturday’s strikes on Iran, which Iranian officials have denied. “Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while Rouhani and Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy. Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,” Pompeo tweeted following the attacks.

“We call on all nations to publicly and unequivocally condemn Iran’s attacks. The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression,” Pompeo added in a subsequent tweet.

“U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tweet stating that Iran has carried out 100 strikes on Saudi Arabia includes Houthi drone strikes against Saudi infrastructure and oil facilities. Although the Houthis are Iran-aligned, tying every Houthi strike to Iran reinforces the proxy war narrative on Yemen that is all-too prevalent in DC,” Samuel Ramani, who is a political commentator and a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at St Antony’s College in the University of Oxford, told LobeLog. “It overlooks the fact that Houthi drone strikes are often conducted as a form of retaliation against Saudi airstrikes, rather than at Iran’s behest.”

On Sunday, the Trump administration pressed its case against Iran. U.S. administration officials said the attacks were launched from a west-northwest direction, meaning Iraq or Iran rather than Yemen. They pointed to satellite imagery showing 19 points of impact on the oil facilities. However, retired General Mark Hertling told CNN that the images “really don’t show anything, other than pretty good accuracy on the strike of the oil tanks.” Retired Admiral John Kirby echoed this point, stating “there is nothing I see in these pictures which confirms a launch from any particular location…I’m struck by the precision of the strikes. Almost pin-prick. Certainly possible with [unmanned aerial vehicles]. But again, that doesn’t really confirm anything.”

“Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!,” Donald Trump himself tweeted on Sunday, hours after speaking with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Watheq al-Hashemi, president of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, said that the attack was not from Iraq. “The U.S. administration has informed Iraq through the phone conversation that happened on Monday between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi that these drones did not come from Iraq,” al-Hashemi told LobeLog. “Iraq is trying to distance itself from the tensions but the region’s situation is difficult.”

Trump, who has made reducing the U.S. presence in the Middle East a priority, toned down his administration’s rhetoric on Monday. Although he said that Iran may be responsible for the attack, he noted that he does not want a war and seemed to put the onus for responding on the Saudis. “That wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help [the Saudis],” Trump said. Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Saudi officials said they haven’t yet reached the same conclusion that Iran was the staging ground for the attacks, and indicated that the information shared by the Americans wasn’t definitive.” Whether the Saudis believe what they allegedly said or not, it suggests they, too, are reluctant for a direct military conflict with Iran.

On Monday, the Houthis renewed their claim of responsibility. The attacks on Aramco plants in Abqaiq and Khurais in the kingdom’s eastern region were carried out by drones with normal and jet engines, Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said in a tweet, according to Reuters. He also said that the plants were still a target and could be attacked at “any moment.”

The Houthis have been more successful in reaching targets inside Saudi Arabia, including airports, over the past few months. Yet there has to be some doubt that they could have carried out these attacks at the two Saudi sites, which are more than 1,000 km (621 miles) from the Yemeni capital Sanaa. However, United Nations investigators have suggested that the rebels’ new UAV-X drone may have a range of up to 930 miles (1,500km), meaning that an operation like Saturday’s could be within their capabilities.

The Saudis have struggled to defeat the Houthis and to protect themselves against Houthi attacks despite a significant increase in their defense expenditures. In October, Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel wrote that, under President Obama, “Saudi Arabia spent well over $110 billion in U.S. weapons, including for aircraft, helicopters, and air defense missiles. These deals were the largest in American history.” In 2017, Saudi Arabia reportedly spent $69.4 billion on its military. In November 2018, the U.S. State Department has announced that Saudi Arabia will buy Lockheed Martin’s (LMT.N) $15 billion missile defense system.

Despite these huge expenditures and their apparent failure to turn the tide in Yemen, Riyadh is prolonging the war rather than acknowledging its failure to meet its military goals. It has become apparent that only a political solution can end the Yemeni conflict. “Considering that neither Coalition-backed Yemeni forces nor the Houthis had been capable to secure an outright military victory before the latter murdered ex-President [Ali Abdullah] Saleh in 2017, the question should not be whether the war in Yemen is militarily winnable,” Ibrahim Jalal, a Yemeni security, conflict, and defense researcher told LobeLog. “The question should rather be: what would a nationwide, inclusive negotiated political settlement (that would put an end to war and pave the way for national reconciliation and sustainable peace-building) look like?”

Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer. He is also the editor-in-chief of Sharq Wa Gharb Arabic electronic newspaper. He tweets as: @az_kilani.

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  1. Perks of being one dimensionally reliant on the oil and gas sector to sustain your federal budget and economy as a whole; one well-aimed hit and you take huge damage! Kudos, Saudi Arabia.

  2. Kudos to Abdulaziz Kilani for this thorough, balanced report. I take two messages away. Saudi military is not up to doing much of anything beyond bombing civilian targets in Yemen. Pompeo continues with his desire for a full scale, blast them off this earth, war on Iran. And the truth be damned.

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