A Houthi cruise missile hit the arrivals hall of Saudi Arabia’s Abha International Airport on June 12, 2019, injuring 26 civilians and causing damage to the building. The wounded are of different nationalities, among them three women who are Yemeni, Saudi and Indian, and two Saudi children.
Abha, the capital of Asir province, is located about 200 km north of the border with Yemen. The Saudi mountain resort city is a popular getaway for Saudis seeking escape from the searing summer heat of Riyadh or Jeddah and the airport serves domestic and regional routes and is used by thousands of passengers a day.
Houthi-run Masirah TV reported that the militias targeted the airport with a cruise missile. It was the second time the Houthis had fired a cruise missile. The first reportedly targeted a nuclear power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi in 2017. The UAE’s al-Barakah site is about 1,100 km from the closest possible launch site in Yemen.
On June 14, 2019, Saudi forces, intercepted five drones launched by the Houthis, targeting the Abha airport and Khamis Mushait. The next day, Saudi air defense forces intercepted another drone launched by the Houthi militias targeting the city of Abha, marking the third targeting of the Abha airport in four days.
The latest attacks came amid spiraling regional tensions after Washington accused Iran of carrying out attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the second such incident in a month in the strategic sea-lane.
The Iranian Soumar Cruise Missile
The Houthi-affiliated television channel Al Masirah, in December 2017, showed footage of a cigar-shaped missile with a strap-on jet engine and booster rocket launched from what seemed to be a mobile platform. The missile bore the shape of a Soumar cruise missile, Tehran’s copy of the Russian Kh-55.
In 2005, senior officials in Kyiv confirmed that Ukraine had sold a dozen Kh-55 missiles to Iran in 2001. Ukraine held the missiles after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Since the missiles were delivered, the Iranians have been trying to reverse-engineer the Kh-55 to produce a local version. The Kh-55 from which the Soumar is copied has a maximum range of 2,500 km and can travel at speeds up to 860 km/h. The missile can be launched from ships, aircraft, and submarines.
The missile’s first field test was conducted in January 2015, during which it flew 600 km. Iran’s defense minister inaugurated the Soumar production line in spring 2015.
The Saudi Response
Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation said after the attacks that Abha airport traffic is operating as normal.
On June 15, 2019, the Arab Coalition backing the Yemeni legitimate government struck Houthi military targets in the capital Sanaa, including air-defense systems.
Egypt condemned the attack and said that it stands with Saudi Arabia against any targeting of its security and stability. The statement added that targeting airports is a violation of international laws.
“Targeting international airports is a flagrant violation of all international laws and norms,” the Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement published on its official Facebook page.
The ministry called for an immediate halt of any targeting of Saudi territories, stressing that “Egypt stands by the government and people of Saudi Arabia in the face of any attempt targeting its security and stability.” The ministry also called on the international community to work to combat all terrorist acts that undermine stability in the region.
Bahrain called for a clear and firm international stance on “Houthi terrorism and Iranian support for it.” Bahrain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, said that the attack is “a serious escalation using Iranian weapons.”
Kuwait considered the attack a “dangerous escalation” and a “criminal attack on innocent people.”
The UAE said that it stands with Saudi Arabia against the Houthis’ “extremism and terrorism.”
The Yemeni government said that the Houthi militia does not understand dialogue and diplomacy and that it only understands violence.
The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the attack, demanding that “everyone condemns it too.”
The Jordanian Foreign Ministry also condemned the attack.
The strike on a civilian target inside Saudi Arabia came at a time of elevated tensions in the region between Iran and Gulf Arab allies of the United States. On June 10, 2019, Saudi air defense forces intercepted two drones launched by Houthi militia to target Khamis Mushait in the kingdom’s south. Last month, the Houthis claimed responsibility for an armed drone strike on two oil-pumping stations in Saudi Arabia.
Following an investigation, the Arab Coalition said that evidence points to Iranian revolutionary guards supplying Houthis with the weapon which was used to hit the airport. The Saudi security forces are working to determine the type of projectile used in the attack. If confirmed that the missile was a Soumar than it has been the first time that the Houthis used this weapon against Saudi target.
The Saudi air defense forces succeeded to intercept hundreds of ballistic missiles launched by the Houthis. The cruise missile could be a new challenge that demands both technological and operational response.
[Sources: Al-Arabiya, Policy Alert, Haaretz, Ahram Online]