Houthis strike at Saudi Arabia’s throbbing heart

Drone attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels caused major fires at two of Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities, Sept 14, 2019.

A terrible beauty is born on the Middle East’s strategic landscape with the massive drone attacks Saturday on two Saudi Aramco refineries. Saudi Arabia, which has a record of sponsoring terrorist groups to destabilise foreign lands — Afghanistan, Chechnya, United States, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, etc. —   has become a victim of terrorism, finally. There is natural justice here, one may say. Saturday’s attacks trigger geopolitical convulsions. 

The Saudi defence ministry could not thwart the attacks despite the advanced weapon systems in its inventory costing hundreds of billions of dollars. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Saudi Arabia was ranked third in military spending in 2018, below the US and China, with an expenditure of $67.6 billion (alongside India — $66.5 billion). 

Evidently, the massive scale of defence expenditure did not ensure national defence, since the Kingdom’s main threat today is not one of external aggression but of blowback ensuing from flawed policies, internal or external. The Patriot missiles deployed in Saudi Arabia could not thwart Saturday’s attacks. Yemen’s Houthi movement who claimed responsibility disclosed that 10 drones were used to target the Aramco refineries at Abqaiq and Khurais. 

The Houthi military spokesman said, “This was one of the largest operations which our forces have carried out deep inside Saudi Arabia. It came after careful intelligence and cooperation with honourable and free people inside Saudi Arabia.” The two oil facilities targeted are located in Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite majority eastern province, which is a restive region.

Without doubt, the Houthis have messaged that Riyadh, having lost the war in Yemen, should cease its continuing interference and leave it to the Yemeni factions to sort out their civil war.

The ball is now in the Saudi-Emirati court. The Houthis claim to have over 200 major Saudi targets in its crosshairs. They have also separately warned the UAE that there’s going to be retribution.  

The US President Donald Trump spoke to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) on phone. The Saudi readout said Trump “reasserted” Washington’s “readiness to cooperate” with Riyadh “by all means conducive to maintain its (Saudi) security and stability, reaffirming the negative effects of the attacks (on two Aramco’s facilities) on the US economy as well as the world economy”, while MbS “underscored” on his part the Saudi “willingness and strength to thwart such a terrorist aggression and deal with its consequences.” 

Neither Trump nor MbS accused any party for staging the attacks. Similarly, a statement by the Official Spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said that “investigations are ongoing to determine the parties responsible for planning and executing these terrorist attacks.” 

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tweeted —“Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.” It must be taken as a personal opinion or a knee-jerk reaction. Clearly, utmost care is being taken in Riyadh and Washington not to create alarm in the oil market.

Saudi Arabia has promised to replace any shortfall from its existing stocks. Nonetheless, considering that the attacks have disrupted half of Saudi Arabia’s oil capacity or 5.7 million barrels a day of crude oil and gas production (equivalent to 5% of daily global oil supply), the oil market will remain jittery and the stock markets across the Gulf have plunged. 

Saturday’s attack deals a heavy blow to MbS’ plans to go public on the Aramco IPO. Aramco’s debut international bond sale in April has been a big success. In a move to give transparency, Saudis also recently commissioned an independent audit of the country’s oil reserves and have started publishing earnings. Over the past two weeks, MbS took direct control of Aramco by appointing a hand-picked as chairman who is close to him. The energy minister also has been replaced. 

In political terms, the war in Yemen and the Saudi Aramco’s ambitious restructuring are directly attributable to MbS and, therefore, any setback in these two arenas become a refection on his decision-making and leadership. This has implications for MbS’s political standing as well as the trajectory of Saudi policies. 

The Trump administration gets an opportunity to prevail upon the Saudis to end the war in Yemen, which is also what the US Congress has recommended. Washington has opened direct contacts with the Houthis. Therefore, the likelihood that Saturday’s attacks may prompt a Saudi rethink on the war in Yemen cannot be brushed aside. 

Indeed, the tide in regional politics and the regional balance has turned against the Saudis lately, given the unraveling of the US-led maximum pressure approach toward Iran and Trump’s keenness to engage with the leadership in Tehran. The politico-military defeat in Syria and Yemen, the break-up with Qatar and the marginalisation in the US-Taliban talks have exposed that Saudi Arabia’s imperial overstretch is unsustainable and in turn put serious limits to Riyadh’s regional influence.  

Over and above, the Kingdom is in historic transition at multiple levels — political, economic and social — and reforms cannot be postponed much longer. On the other hand, the steady US retrenchment in the region creates a backdrop of huge uncertainties for Saudi Arabia’s future. It’s at a tumultuous juncture that the Houthis have struck at Aramco, the throbbing heart of Saudi Arabia with a net income of $111.1 billion in 2018.