Riyadh spends billions of dollars every year on procuring high-tech weaponry but was not able to protect one of its most obvious high-profile targets.
The explosions were loud and the blaze lit the night sky when Saudi Arabia’s energy installations were hit at two separate locations on September 14.
The air attack on an oil processing plant and a crude producing field in the country’s east has raised questions about Riyadh’s defence preparedness despite being among the world's top four military spenders for years.
Experts say cruise missiles based on Iranian technology were most probably used but it’s too early to say who pulled the trigger.
The United States, Saudi Arabia’s key ally and largest arms supplier, says the attacks were launched from Iran, which denies its involvement.
“A lot of what Saudi Arabia buys doesn’t provide defence against these sort of attacks. It has a lot of battle tanks, helicopters and jets. But they are not effective against such incoming missiles,” says Dr Mauro Gilli, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich.
The American-made Patriot defence system used by Saudi Arabia to protect its borders and key installations hasn’t been effective in shooting down terrain-hugging cruise missiles.
That’s because the surface-to-air Patriots were essentially designed to intercept ballistic missiles, which rocket into the Earth’s atmosphere before coming down to hit the intended target with an explosive payload.
“Cruise missiles can fly at a very low altitude and they are small, making them difficult to be detected,” says Gilli.
In the past couple of months, Houthi rebels in Yemen have succeeded in evading radars and hitting Saudi airports and oil pumping stations multiple times using drones and radar-evading cruise missiles.
The Houthis, who have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since 2015, receive support from Iran. Many of their weapons such as the Al Quds missile is a rip-off of Iranian variants.
The recent attack has raised concern since it targeted the Abqaiq oil processing plant, the largest such facility in the world. A fire there had disrupted half of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports, unnerving the international oil market as the country alone meets more than five percent of the world’s demand.
Pitfalls of an asymmetric warfare
Can any air defence system stop all incoming rockets and drones? The answer is probably no, says Omar Lamrani, a weapons expert at Stratfor, a Texas-based think tank.
“Saudi Arabia has shot down many drones and missiles. But there are only so many of them that it can intercept with its air defence batteries,” he says, adding that the kingdom is a large country with a lot of airspace to safeguard.
There’s also an element of cost - even Saudi petrodollars can not afford to counter a significantly large number of indigenously developed low-cost drones. One Patriot missile costs at least a million dollars.
“Generally they fire two Patriot missiles to intercept a target. If let’s say, there are twenty incoming missiles (or drones) then you will rapidly exhaust your own missiles,” he says.
The ragtag Houthi militia has done exactly that in the past by using a swarm of drones to overwhelm and even take out Patriot batteries.
Lamrani says the actual failure of Saudi Arabia’s military has been in locating and destroying the platforms from where Houthis have launched attacks.
“You just don’t need a shield, you also need a sword.”
Asymmetric warfare adopted in modern conflicts have handicapped even well-equipped armies in dealing with them.
Israel’s formidable Iron Dome air defence system wasn’t able to stop all the rockets that Hezbollah fired from Lebanon during the war in 2006. The Taliban and groups fighting US forces in Iraq planted improvised explosive devices on the side of the road and made it difficult for US forces to move around in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively.
“Houthis are fighting an asymmetric conflict… you can have a group that is very, very weak in conventual terms with the number of tanks and planes but it is still able to leverage tactics and equipment to pose a significant threat,” says Lamrani.
What actually happened?
Experts have cautioned against pinning blame on any particular group or country for the attack in Saudi Arabia as the information coming out remains vague.
For instance, it remains unclear whether a mix of cruise missiles and drones was used or which direction they were fired from. Most of the analysis about the weapons used in the attack is based on pictures shared by Saudi and US officials.
And if US officials are accurate in concluding that it originated from Iran then this would mark the first time the Shia Muslim country has fired missiles at its regional foe Saudi Arabia.
“Some experts are saying that these are cruise missiles shot from Iraq that were provided by Iran. If I had to take a bet, this is the most plausible explanation but we can’t say for sure,” says Gilli of the Center for Security Studies.
Within 48 hours of the attack, the blame shifted from Houthis to Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq and then Iran itself.
“I think we should wait. Speculating without evidence only feeds the political narrative,” says Wim Zwijnenburg, a policy advisor at the Dutch peace group PAX.
Iran’s footprint seems obvious considering that Houthis or any other group can not build their own the cross-breed and hybrid drones, he says.
The drones that Houthis have use components easily available on the internet. “You can buy engines on Ali Baba for $1,500,” says Zwijnenburg.
While you can build the drones relatively easily, it requires aviation and military expertise to operate and weaponise them, he says.
But none of the available information is helping experts decide who’s actually behind the attack and any action based on incomplete facts can easily lead to a new escalation in the region.
“The best solution right now is negotiation,” says Zwijnenburg.