InternationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 04

Iran behind Saudi oil facilities attack?

An attack on Saudi oil facilities has intensified tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has also exposed the vulnerability of the kingdom’s security and the efficacy of military hardware provided to it by the United States.

Now the question is: who had masterminded the attacks? Though Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for the drone strikes, yet the US and its ally Saudi Arabia, which is Iran’s archrival in the region, said Iran was behind them, while Tehran has strongly denied. Most analysts in Pakistan believe Israel had perpetrated the attacks, as it could be the biggest beneficiary in the wake of a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The US will also gain immensely if both regional countries go to war. It will fancy selling more arms to Saudi Arabia after signing the biggest weapon supply deal of human history with it. On May 20, 2017, US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz signed a series of letters of intent for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to purchase arms from the United States totaling US$110 billion immediately and $350 billion over 10 years. The purchases included tanks, combat ships, missile defense systems, as well as radar, communications and cybersecurity technology. The transfer was widely seen as a counterbalance against the influence of Iran in the region and a “significant” and “historic” expansion of United States relations with Saudi Arabia.

The exact type of weapon used in the strikes has not been confirmed, but the Soufan Center, a security think-tank, said that 10 drones had been deployed. Unidentified US officials have also told American media that cruise missiles might have been fired as well, and have suggested these came from Iran. Footage distributed by the Houthis showed models of at least 15 unmanned drones and various sizes of missiles of different ranges. The newest of these weapons were long-range cruise missiles, dubbed “Al-Quds”, and explosives-laden “Sammad 3” drones that can hit targets as far as 1,500 kilometres away, according to the Huthis. A spokesman for the Saudi coalition fighting in Yemen, Turki al-Maliki, told reporters that “all indications are that weapons used in both attacks came from Iran.”

Experts say the threat from drones will continue, changing how countries defend themselves and how insurgencies invest in weapons. Meanwhile, the US has sent more troops to Saudi Arabia after the attack and Iran has warned that foreign forces are threatening the security of the Gulf. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said foreign forces had always brought pain and misery and should not be used in an “arms race”. Tension between the US and Iran has also risen after US President Donald Trump abandoned a deal aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the easing of sanctions early this year.

According to the BBC, drones and missiles were used in the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. The crisis sparked by the attacks is being dangerously inflamed by angry rhetoric. President Trump’s knee-jerk reaction was to tell the Iranians the US was “locked and loaded”. So the region braced for a US retaliatory strike. Washington pulled back, restrained by a nervous Saudi Arabia. Instead it sent a small detachment of what are essentially military technicians to bolster Saudi Arabia’s blatantly inadequate air and missile defences. The move is defensive, and may not even be enough to prevent another “swarm” attack of explosive drones. Yet Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guards are interpreting it as an aggressive, almost invasive, act. The danger now is that one side or the other misinterprets the signals from the other side of the Gulf and does something that inadvertently propels this region into a war that nobody wants, it noted.

The offensive use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has grown significantly in recent years, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East. The strikes have also exposed how vulnerable the kingdom is to assaults using low-cost technology despite being the world’s largest importer of arms, experts say. Saudi Arabia spent an estimated $65 billion on military hardware last year alone, most of which was imported from the United States, including the latest radars, F-15 fighter jets, and Patriot missile defence systems, the Daily Mail reported. The attack, using what appears to have been explosive-laden drones, managed to pierce that defensive shield and knock out half of the kingdom’s oil output, or 5pc of global supply. The failure of Saudi Arabia and its American-made weapons to protect against such an attack even drew a mocking response from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who suggested the country should have bought Russian defence systems instead.

Officially, the attack was claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels operating out of Yemen, who have been using drones to attack Saudi oil infrastructure for months. But Saudi Arabia and the US are convinced the attack came from the north – either directly from Iran or from Iranian-backed militias operating in Iraq. As evidence they point to, among other things, the Houthis’ lack of technology as evidence the attack could not have come from them. But some experts believe it is precisely because the attack is low technology that it succeeded in passing underneath Saudi’s defences. The Houthis’ use of drones to attack Saudi Arabia has identified gaps in its air defences, Becca Wasser from the think-tank Rand Corp told AFP. Bobby Ghosh, writing for Bloomberg, also noted: “The nature of asymmetric warfare is that militias with disruptive and cheap weapons technology can catch a powerful military force by surprise.” However, he goes on to say that Saudi Arabia still has a lot of questions to answer, particularly because the threat of drones targeting its oil facilities is nothing new.

Experts say the threat from drones is constantly evolving. The fact that Saudi Arabia, which has taken serious precautions with their U.S. air defence systems with Patriot missile systems and AWACS early warning systems, could not prevent the attack on its two critical energy facilities has fueled discussions on whether other critically important oil and energy facilities worldwide are also vulnerable to similar attacks. Economic circles are now contemplating the chaos the global economy could face if attacks are carried out on facilities of other major oil-producing countries, and what happens when the world’s energy needs suddenly go unmet and oil prices spiral out of control? Moreover, with debates of “recession” in the world economy intensifying, the risk of recession can deepen with the rise in global oil and energy prices that would lead to frugal measures in both households and companies.

Experts say Saudi Arabia will not take any risk of direct confrontation with Iran as it does not have the military capability to deal decisive blows to start and end a war quickly, and would face attacks not only from Iran but also from its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. In the situation, Saudi Arabia should focus on its security and evolve a long strategy to stabilise its borders and secure its interests both at home and abroad.