Attacks on Saudi oil facilities do not necessarily represent a ‘game changer’ in the Yemen conflict but add to ongoing tensions between Riyadh and Iran.
Saudi Arabia has pledged to confront Yemen’s Houthis after a drone attack deep inside its territory targeted two oil pumping stations and a pipeline, temporarily bringing production to a halt.
The country’s oil minister said the attacks caused a ‘small fire’, which was contained by Saudi firefighters, adding that the attacks were aimed at harming global energy supplies.
Riyadh blamed Tehran and Yemen’s Houthi rebels for the attack and has vowed to “confront terrorist entities” they claim are backed by Tehran.
A Houthi rebel spokesman later said the group was responsible, and that the attack was a warning to the Saudis to stop their aggression.
The drone attacks came shortly after four commercial shipping vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, were sabotaged while sailing in the Persian Gulf, heightening tensions between Tehran on one side, and Gulf states backed by the US, on the other.
Washington has suggested that Iran was behind the acts of sabotage, but Tehran says that it is being framed.
‘Not necessarily a game changer’
While unique in terms of the method used, the attack on will not change the course of the Yemen conflict, according to King’s College London academic, Andreas Krieg.
“I think it is not necessarily a game changer as the Houthis have just acquired another means, next to ballistic missiles, to strike deeply in Saudi territory,” he told TRT World, explaining further that the episode exposed a “weakness” in Saudi air defences, which would need to be invested in.
“While Saudi air defences have been relatively successful in shooting down Houthi missiles, the new drone threat appears to be one that will take the Saudis time to adapt to,” Krieg said.
But while the attack will come as a shock to the Saudis, it will not necessarily diminish their commitment to their campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“My guess is that while the pressure is now mounting on Saudi and the UAE to find ways out of a stalemate that is increasingly mutually hurting, the coalition might now be more inclined to double down in Yemen,” Krieg added.
Saudi Arabia launched its intervention in Yemen in March 2015, with regional ally the United Arab Emirates, to restore the rule of Yemen’s exiled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi after Houthi fighters swept across the country.
The Saudi-UAE alliance succeeded in taking back the southern port city of Aden but their successes have been limited since then. In four years of conflict, Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa, and much of the north, remain under Houthi control.
In February a truce agreement over the port city of Hudaida, saw Houthi fighters agree to withdraw from the port area to allow humanitarian aid to enter the country, but the ceasefire agreement has been frequently delated.
Krieg said that given that the initial conditions for war continued to persist, it was possible Riyadh would seek to double down in Yemen.
“We should not forget that the Yemen war was started by Riyadh to diminish a limited Houthi threat to Saudi territory at the time – a threat that in the course of the war has increased to a pressing national security threat for the kingdom,” he said.
The timing of the Houthi drone attacks inside Saudi Arabia have come as regional tensions between Riyadh and Tehran are at highest they have been in years.
Hawks within the US administration have been pining for regime change in Iran for more than a decade but have ratcheted up the rhetoric since the Trump administration took power in 2016.
Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and reinstated sanctions, which were initially lifted in exchange for Iran reducing its nuclear arms production capability.
The tensions could send ripples across the globe, according to University of Birmingham academic, Professor Scott Lucas.
“Let’s be blunt here, the US campaign to pursue regime change in Iran - a campaign by the Trump administration - is ratcheting up, “ he said.
Lucas explained that Iran knows that it cannot take on US military might without risking certain defeat and that US hawks, such as John Bolton were not seeking an outright military confrontation at the moment.
“The question is really how far the US and Iran want to take this. I don’t expect there will be an overt declaration of war by either side,” he added, cautioning that the risk remained if US hardliners did not get their way by other means.