The Iranian-backed Houthi militia launched Sunday a combined missile and drone attack (four drones and six ballistic missiles) against targets in Saudi Arabia in a span of 24 hours.
The attack comes one week after Houthi rebels launched a drone attack against a Saudi gas plant and oil field near the border with the UAE.
In recent months, the group carried out a spate of cross-border missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi airports, bases, and the oil and gas industry. The terror attacks came against the backdrop of escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf amid a crisis between Washington and Tehran following the US pullout last year from the nuclear deal with Iran and new American sanctions on Iran.
Riyadh has accused Tehran of supplying the Houthis with missiles and drones used in the attacks on Saudi cities, a charge both Iran and the group reject. The Houthis also say they manufacture their own weapons system.
A Combined Attack
On August 25, 2019, the Houthis fired several ballistic missiles at an airport in the city of Jizan in the kingdom’s southwest. The Saudi-led coalition said that it had intercepted and destroyed at least six ballistic missiles. The Houthi group’s military spokesperson said in a statement that the rebels fired ten Badr-1 ballistic missiles at Jizan airport, killing and wounding dozens.
Also on Sunday, the Arab coalition shot down a Houthi drone targeting the Saudi city of Khamis Mushayt. On Monday, two more drones launched by Houthis from Sanaa toward Saudi Arabia were shot down in Yemeni airspace. Later on Monday, the coalition intercepted and downed another Houthi drone in Yemen, which was launched from the al-Jawf governorate and was heading toward Saudi Arabia.
The Attack on the Shaybah Natural Gas Liquefaction Plant
On August 18, 2019, the Iran-backed Houthis launched a drone attack in an attempt to destroy a Saudi gas plant and oil field near the border with UAE. The attack, carried out by ten armed drones, caused a small fire.
The attack reflects a significant upgrade in the Houthi operational capabilities regarding the distance of the target (about 1000 kilometers) and the number of drones that took part in the operation (ten drones).
A Houthi military spokesman confirmed that the group targeted the Shaybah natural gas liquefaction plant and oil field with ten drones, in what he said was the “biggest attack in the depths” of the kingdom. The Houthis claimed that the “massive” attack was also “a warning to the UAE.”
The Houthi-run TV station Almasirah vowed “fiercer and larger attacks” against Saudi Arabia should it retaliate. “We promise the Saudi regime and the powers of aggression bigger and wider operations if the aggression continues,” said the Houthi military spokesman, according to tweets by Almasirah TV.
The Shaybah Natural Gas Liquefaction Plant
Shaybah field in Rub’ al-Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, is located 30 kilometers from the border with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Shaybah, operated by state oil company Saudi Aramco and the plant produces about 1.3 million bpd of the Arabian Extra Light crude oil grade that is transported by a 645 km pipeline to export facilities at Ras Tanura.
The oil field has attracted a steady flow of investment and has continued to expand through the years and the Saudi Aramco refers to the field on its website as “the most remote treasure on Earth,” home to 14.3 billion barrels of oil reserves.
The Saudi Response
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said: “This terrorist sabotage follows a series of actions, including attacks against oil tankers, aimed at disrupting international oil supplies. These acts are not only aimed at Saudi Arabia but also against the global economy.”
The Saudi coalition has responded to the Houthi attacks with airstrikes on the group’s targets in Sanaa and other areas.
The Badr Threat
In October 2018, the Houthis unveiled a guided version of their Badr-1 artillery rocket. According to the group, the Badr-1P has a range of more than 130 km and an accuracy of 3 m. On April 16, 2019, the Houthis unveiled the latest version in the Badr family – the Badr-F, which is said to have the same specifications as the Russian Tochka.
The group said the Badr-F has a warhead that detonates before hitting the ground, thereby spreading fragmentation over a larger area. According to the group, the missile has a range of 160 km and detonates 20 m above the ground, spraying 1,400 fragments across a 350 m diameter area.
In a briefing, the Houthis’ military spokesman Yahya Sari showed aerial surveillance footage of Badr-Fs being used to carry out four attacks against coalition or allied Yemeni forces on unspecified dates. All the strikes appear to have been accurate.
On April 20, 2019, according to the official media wing of the Houthi forces, the group launched its first attack with the new Badr-F ballistic missile. The missile scored a direct hit on the Al-Istiqbal Camp in the Tawal area along the Yemeni border. The Houthi forces alleged that their ballistic missile attack managed to kill at least nine Saudi military officers and more than 40 Coalition fighters. The Yemeni group’s attack was the deadliest missile strike against the Saudi Coalition forces in 2019.
On July 31, 2019, Houthi spokesman Yahya Sari said the group launched a Badr-F missile on the gatherings of the Saudi army and the weapons stores in al-Da’er district in the western province of Asir. Dozens of the Saudi army were killed and wounded.
The US strategy of “maximum pressure” is increasing Iranian isolation and the economic pressure on Tehran. The United States and Saudi Arabia have blamed Iran for multiple attacks on tankers in the Arab Gulf.
The escalating violence in Yemen could complicate UN-led efforts to implement the Stockholm agreement and a troop withdrawal in Hodeida, the main entry point for Yemen’s commercial and aid imports. The implementation of the agreement in Hodeida is an essential step to pave the way for political talks to end the war amid mistrust among all parties and competing agendas of Yemen’s fractious groups.
The Shaybah field is located more than 1,000 kilometers from Houthi-controlled territory in northwestern Yemen and about 30 kilometers from the border between Saudi Arabia and UAE. By striking an oil infrastructure, a message was communicated that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in fact vulnerable to attacks and therefore the US and its regional allies should reconsider their strategic calculus.
The latest Houthi attacks are also a message that since Iran is the main sponsor of the Houthi rebels, any political solution in Yemen will be connected to the regional tension between Iran and the US and its regional allies including Saudi Arabia and UAE.
[Sources: Al Jazeera, Asharq al Awsat, Arab News, The New Arab, Jane’s, Mint Press News, South Front, Al Masdar News, Yemen Press]