Yemen’s Shi'a Al-Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for allegedly launching at least 10 weaponized drones targeting critical Saudi Aramco infrastructure sites in Eastern Saudi Arabia, Sept. 14. The purported drone attacks struck petroleum and gas processing plants in Abqaiq and Khurais; these facilities process around 8.45 million barrels a day (bpd) between them. According to Aramco, the attacks have led to the temporary closure of both facilities, prompting a loss of production of approximately 5.7 million bpd for Saudi Arabia - over half of the kingdom’s total daily crude output. Saudi energy infrastructure sites have previously been targeted this year; however, the Sept. 14 attacks are notable due to the apparent scale of the attack and the strategic importance of both Abqaiq and Khurais to both Saudi Arabia’s total crude production and global crude market.
While the Al-Houthis claimed responsibility for the Sept. 14 attack, from where the attacks originated remains unclear. In May, the Al-Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack that struck Aramco pumping stations and the critical East-West pipeline. US officials, however, cast doubt on the Al-Houthis' assertion for the May attack, suggesting at least one weaponized drone originated from Iraq, where Iran-backed Shi’a militias operate. Similarly, US officials have once again cast doubt on the latest Al-Houthi assertions. US President Donald J. Trump has strongly alluded to Iran as part of the incident, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has outwardly accused the Iranian government of an “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” Pompeo added there was no evidence the attack originated from Yemen, while US satellite imagery suggests the attack is inconsistent with an alleged launch from the Yemeni territory. Saudi officials have thus far not attributed the blame for the attack. Whether the attack originated in Yemen or Iraq, both the US and Saudi Arabia will regard it as part of a wider regional struggle with Iran.
The short-term impact of the Sept. 14 attacks is already resonating globally. The attack against the Aramco facilities at Khurais and Abqaiq led to a loss of around 5.7 million bpd – around 5 percent of global daily crude production – marking the greatest global loss since the First Gulf War in 1991. Global crude prices also posted the highest ever intra-day rise to more than USD 71 per barrel. It remains to be seen how global crude markets will react in longer-term; however, even with Aramco reportedly commencing production at idle offshore fields, a prolonged shutdown at Abqaiq and Khurais will undoubtedly have global consequences.
Saudi authorities have not announced how they will respond to the attack. The likely Saudi target in response will be Yemen’s Al-Houthi rebels. Already the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) has reportedly carried out retaliatory airstrikes against Al-Houthi targets in Yemen; further similar RSAF airstrikes will continue to be the norm for the duration of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen. Concurrently, Al-Houthi tit-for-tat weaponized drone and missile attacks targeting critical infrastructure sites in Saudi Arabia will continue. So long as Saudi Arabia is militarily involved in Yemen and the US maintains its policy of maximum pressure against Iran, tit-for-tat actions will endure, raising the prospect of the threat of miscalculation.
Despite the possibility of alleged Iranian involvement in the Sept. 14 attacks, the overall threat of a direct armed conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has not increased. Saudi Arabia’s options to respond to the attack and Iran remains primarily limited to the ongoing Saudi-Iranian proxy conflict in Yemen. Neither party has an interest in direct conflict, and it appears Saudi Arabia has far more to lose than Iran. For now, it appears Iran is content to project force and apply pressure against its regional foes via the use of their proxies. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to act independently of US support, particularly due to its reliance on US security guarantees.
Tensions between Iran and its proxies and the US and its regional allies have been heightened since the US withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May. Increasing Al-Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia appear to have coincided with the US campaign of maximum pressure on Iran; as part of this campaign, the US has increasingly targeted Iran’s critical economic infrastructure, such as its oil industry. Since the re-implementation of harsh, US-led sanctions, Iranian oil exports – the lifeline of its economy – has dropped to fewer than 200,000 barrels per day. Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened to disrupt the oil exports if Iranian exports are threatened, a series of attacks against various oil assets has occurred. Given this, Iran utilizing its proxies and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to assert pressure in tandem against US interests within the region is a predictable response. Since May, the IRGC has been accused of attacking several oil tankers, and its patrol boats have also begun seizing oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz - a key waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, is the world's busiest maritime oil traffic route. Iran-backed Al-Houthi rebels have also increased their cross-border attacks against key Saudi infrastructure installations. So long as Iran is unable to export, it will likely continue its policy of interfering within the Strait of Hormuz and utilizing its regional proxies to maintain its own campaign of maximum pressure in line with US maximum pressure.
More than a dozen weaponized drone and missile attacks have primarily targeted Saudi Arabia’s southern regions of Asir, Jizan, Najran. Additional attacks deeper inside the kingdom’s territory have occurred against vital energy infrastructure sites, including the East-West Pipeline, Shaybah oil field, and most recently Khurais and Abqaiq. The increasing number of attacks suggests either Iranian proxies such as the Al-Houthis may have significantly increased their technological and military capabilities, or there are potentially severe gaps in Saudi Arabia’s air defense systems. The status quo in terms of heightened tensions between Iran and the US also serves as a pretext for Iran to utilize proxy groups such as the Al-Houthis to target Saudi Arabia while maintaining the veneer of plausible deniability. So long as these issues remain, further attacks targeting Saudi Arabia’s critical infrastructure are likely. Ultimately, the temporary loss of oil production in Saudi Arabia is of secondary concern; the main takeaway of the Sept. 14 attack is that critical Saudi infrastructure – whether energy or transportation hubs – is vulnerable to attack, either directly via Iran or from Iran’s regional proxies.
Business Continuity Advice for Organizations
Utilize the following tips if you have an organization or personnel operating in or around Saudi Arabia.
- If possible, avoid areas within 40 km (25 miles) of the Saudi-Yemeni border until the security situation improves.
- If incoming indirect fire or drone activity is reported nearby, stay indoors, away from windows and exterior walls, and, if possible, move to a ground floor or basement.
- Confirm that a thorough communication plan exists to ensure rapid accountability for all personnel operating in Saudi Arabia.
- Liaise with trusted local contacts for updates on the situation and verify onward transportation before checking out of accommodations.
- Prepare for heightened security, including checkpoints.
- Carry official identification at all times.
- Heed all instructions from security personnel.
- Remain calm and nonconfrontational and comply with authorities' directions if confronted.
- Do not attempt to bypass security checkpoints; even an accidental breach of the security cordon near a checkpoint may prompt security forces to respond with force.
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