Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for drone attacks on two key oil installations deep inside Saudi Arabia on Saturday, facilities that process the vast majority of the country’s output, raising the risk of a disruption in world oil supplies.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran, which backs the Houthis, calling it “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply” and asserting, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
It was the single most audacious attack on Saudi Arabia that the Houthis have claimed since the kingdom intervened in Yemen’s war more than four years ago, devastating the impoverished country and creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The two facilities can process 8.45 million barrels of crude oil a day between them, the bulk of production in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter. It was not immediately clear how badly the facilities were damaged, but shutting them down for more than a few days would affect global oil supply.
The attacks — some 500 miles from Yemeni soil — not only exposed a Saudi vulnerability in the war against the Houthis, but demonstrated how relatively cheap it has become to stage such high-profile attacks. The drones used in Saturday’s attack may have cost $15,000 or less to build, said Wim Zwijnenburg, a senior researcher on drones at PAX, a Dutch peace organization.
The difference in resources available to the attacker and the victim could hardly have been greater, illustrating how David-and-Goliath style attacks using cheap drones are adding a new layer of volatility to the Middle East. Such attacks not only damage vital economic infrastructure, but can also increase security costs, disrupt markets and spread fear.
While the Houthis do not have significant financial resources, the drones have given them a way to hurt Saudi Arabia, which was the world’s third highest spender on military equipment in 2018, investing an estimated $67.6 billion on arms.
“This has given the Saudis a challenge they can’t confront, no matter what their financial, military or intelligence capabilities are,” said Farea Al-Muslimi, co-founder of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, which focuses on Yemen.