Armed drones, allegedly dispatched by Yemeni rebels, struck two oil-pumping stations in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, spiking tensions in the region and potentially disrupting international efforts to end the civil war in Yemen.
In a statement carried by the state-run Saudi news agency, the kingdom’s energy minister said the attack unfolded early Tuesday morning and targeted the oil facilities of state-owned oil giant Aramco. It came two days after four oil tankers, including two Saudi-owned ones, were damaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in what Emirati officials described as acts of sabotage.
Shortly before Tuesday’s attacks, Yemen’s Houthi rebels declared on their television station that they had launched at least seven drone attacks on significant targets into neighboring Saudi Arabia. But the rebels did not identify their targets or the time of the attacks.
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih condemned the Yemeni rebels and described the attack as “cowardly.” He added that “this act of terrorism and sabotage in addition to recent acts in the Arabian Gulf do not only target the kingdom but also the security of world oil supplies and the global economy.”
Tuesday’s attack was the latest addition to growing tensions in a region vital to global energy production, where strategic shipping lanes carry oil and gas to the West and to Asia.
The conflict in Yemen is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies are increasingly at odds with Iran following the Americans’ withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and subsequent tightening of U.S. sanctions against Iran. In retaliation, Tehran declared last week that it would restart enriching uranium at higher levels if the international powers do not negotiate fresh terms for the deal.
In Tuesday’s attack, Falih was quick to cite a possible Iranian role. “These attacks prove again that it is important for us to face terrorist entities, including the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed by Iran,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, leads a regional coalition of Sunni Muslim nations fighting the northern Shiite Houthi rebels who are aligned with Iran’s Shiite theocracy. The coalition’s stated goal is to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government to power, but the four-year conflict is as much an attempt by the kingdom and its allies to prevent the spread of Iranian influence.
The United States is backing the Saudi coalition with intelligence and logistical support, as well as billions of dollars in weapon sales. The United Nations has described the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where millions are on the brink of starvation and tens of thousands of civilians have died, as the world’s most severe. The U.S. Congress voted to withdraw American support to the coalition earlier this year, but President Trump vetoed the measure.
Tuesday’s attack also came amid unconfirmed reports that Houthi rebels were starting to unilaterally withdraw from the strategic Yemeni port of Hodeidah, a key condition of a December cease-fire that the United Nations and international community see as a first step toward ending the war. It’s unclear what impact Tuesday’s attacks and any possible retaliation by the coalition will have on the withdrawal.
The oil pumping stations targeted Tuesday are more than 500 miles from Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen, in the greater region of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The attack caused fire and minor damage to one of the pumping stations, Falih said. The blaze was contained, he added. The stations are connected to a pipeline that runs from the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province to the Red Sea port of Yanbu.
Satellite images obtained by the Associated Press showed black marks on the facility but it otherwise appeared intact.
As a precaution, Aramco temporarily shut down the pipeline to evaluate its condition and was working on restoring the oil pumping stations before resuming operations, Falih said. He added that kingdom’s oil production has not been affected by the attack.
This was not the first time the Houthis have targeted Saudi Arabia with drones and missiles. The rebels have also claimed to have launched drone attacks inside the United Arab Emirates.
In a tweet, the rebel-owned television station, Al Masirah, quoted a Houthi official describing Tuesday’s drone assault as: “This large military operation is in response to the continued aggression and blockade of our people, and we are prepared to carry out more unique and harsh strikes.”