On 14 September 2019 important Saudi oil facilities, the Khurais Oil Field and Abqaiq Plant were incapacitated by precision strikes of drones and cruise missiles. Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company had to suspend the production of almost 6 million barrels per day. The attack knocked off half of Saudi Oil output (six percent of global oil production). This was more than the drop of Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil production during the Gulf War. Oil prices spiked 19%, the most since the 1991 Gulf War. India imports 46.6 million tonnes from Iraq, 40.3 Million tonnes from Saudi Arabia (India’s second largest oil provider) and 23.9 Million tonnes from Iran, till US sanctions forced India to look for alternative sources. Saudi Arabia has assured that supply of crude will not be affected, but price volatility will impact Indian GDP.
US Secretary of State Mr.Mike Pompeo on a visit to Saudi Arabia, termed the attack on Saudi oil fields ‘An Iranian attack…. An Act of War’. The precision and consistency of damage was consistent with employment of guided munitions. These can be remotely piloted or fly a preprogrammed (more complex method) flight path. Saudi Arabian military spokesman, Colonel Turki Al Maliki, displaying fragments of 25 drones and cruise missiles reiterated that the attack was launched from the North and unquestionably sponsored by arch foe Iran. He said that attempts were being made to identify the exact launch pads. Forensic analysis of the recovered weapon remains might answer questions about their type, place of manufacture and location of launch pads to enable responsibility to be fixed. In the meantime, US further tightened sanctions against Iran. It appreciated that not responding, militarily, would leave Saudi Arabia exposed to further attacks. In any case hawks in USA are chafing for another Gulf War.
The US Government released satellite photos showing 17 points of impact at the several Saudi oil facilities. Indications were that they came from the North and North West. It is questionable whether the direction of attack of a precision guided weapon has any significance since the flight path can be changed and the warhead steered from multiple directions
The attacks have punched holes in the much-vaunted Saudi Air defence system. In the past the Saudis, always in receipt of jet fighters a grade lower than aircraft supplied to Israel, had bolstered their defence capabilities by an effective air defence shield. They catered for THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defence) which proved ineffective against low flying weapon systems which now appeared to have been used.
The US Government released satellite photos showing 17 points of impact at the several Saudi oil facilities. Indications were that they came from the North and North West. It is questionable whether the direction of attack of a precision guided weapon has any significance since the flight path can be changed and the warhead steered from multiple directions. The location of hits may be part of analysis but cannot be conclusive. The New York Times of 16 September wrote that evidence available was ‘Insufficient to prove where the attack came from, which weapons were used and who fired them?’ The countries to the North and North West of Saudi Arabia are Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. A launch from the sea is also possible. None of these countries have such capabilities except Iran and Israel. The Yemenis have used UAVs against the Saudis earlier but not of the sophisticated types, now employed. Their claim could be just sheer bluster. It would be worthwhile recollecting Yemen’s tortured past.
When I was defence attache In Saudi Arabia, from 1994-1997, I visited the country frequently as it was part of my ‘beat’. I know the area well. The Yemeni ‘Houthis’ (Zaidi Shias) who promptly claimed responsibility stated that they had launched 10 weapon systems. The targets appeared to be outside the strike distance from Yemen (distance of 2000Kms). Houthi spokesman Yehya Saree, while claiming responsibility, stated that drones, with a range of 1700 Kms had been used. UAE was also warned, of reprisals, if they did not scale down their four years involvement in the civil war in Yemen. Was this actual capability or bluster?
Yemen’s historical background is mired in conflict and bloodshed. It has been a conflict zone for more than half a century and some historical understanding is necessary to appreciate the factors behind the alleged Houthi claim. Present day Yemen was the result of union of two countries, Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the North and Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the South. 55% of the population is Sunni, mostly in the South and South East. 45% are Shia of the Zaidi order, mostly Houthis in the hills of the North. Till the First World War the North was under the Ottoman Turks and the South was under the British at Aden. After the defeat of Turkey in the First World War, Imam Yahia established the Moutawakel Kingdom of Yemen in 1918. The Imam was over thrown by an Egyptian backed revolution and YAR was established in 1962. Britain withdrew from East of Suez in 1967 and PDRY was established, bolstered by support and huge financial help from the Soviet Union. YAR and PDRY fought two wars between 1969- 1990. The Soviet aid dried up in 1990 leaving PDYR impoverished, which resulted in their appeal for a merger with the North, achieved in 1990. In 1994 the South struck oil in the province of Hadhramaut and fearing that they would have to share oil revenue with the North attempted to secede from the Union. A civil war ensued and unity was preserved with the defeat of the South. I visited Yemen several times sending detailed reports on the conflict. The Yemenis wanted to purchase Indian obsolescent military hardware, including T54/55 tanks and MIG 21s in return for oil payment. Our close relations and large expatriate population in the Gulf did not allow this.
Power rested in the hands of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled with an iron hand since 2012 till he was over thrown, after being in power for 34 years, by long time Vice President Mansour Hadi. This resulted in internal strife, Jihadist attacks, unemployment and food scarcity. The Houthis began waging an insurgency after their leader Hussain Badreddin Mansour Hadi was killed by Yemeni forces in 2004. The Houthis, supported by deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh gained control of the capital Sanaa and some northern provinces in 2015. With a Houthi Govt in Sanaa, the Sunni countries of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia waded into the conflict. Saudi Arabia’s intense bombing campaign was supported by USA, UK and France. The Houthis thus harbor a deep grudge against Saudi Arabia and are close allies of Iran. But do they have the capability for such pin point attacks over a distance of 2000 Kilometers?
I visited Yemen several times sending detailed reports on the conflict. The Yemenis wanted to purchase Indian obsolescent military hardware, including T54/55 tanks and MIG 21s in return for oil payment. Our close relations and large expatriate population in the Gulf did not allow this
The suspect country, Iran, has been in dire financial straits after the US withdrew from the nuclear agreement which ended the waiver on oil purchases, affecting India’s oil imports. It makes no sense for Iran to launch an attack on Saudi Arabia when President Trump’s attitude was emitting positive reconciliatory signals. The sacking of hard line, anti-Iran, NSA Bolton was one of them. France had been mediating between USA and Iran, and had been trying to arrange a meeting between the two Presidents- Trump and Hassan Rouhani on the side lines of the UN General Assembly meeting. This was still born.
Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad in his Oped, of 19 September, in the ‘Asian Age’ was of the opinion that ‘as war clouds again shroud the skies of the Gulf, the conclusion is unavoidable that there is a ‘Deep State’ within the US that backs Trump when he is aggressive, that manipulates him into reversing himself when he pursues his deal making instincts and seeks accommodation with foes’.
I would go a step further in stating that we cannot overrule the strike of a ‘Deeper State’ or its allies, anxious to see another Gulf War and with military capabilities to see the decapacitation of arch foe, Iran. This may appear another ‘conspiracy theory’ but now well within the realm of possibility.