SAGE International Australia
On September 14, 2019 a representative of the Houthi Rebels in Yemen stepped forward to announce that this group was responsible for a devastating strike against Saudi oil facilities at the Khurais oil field, near the Saudi capital Riyadh and against the oil facilities at Abqaiq, in eastern Saudi Arabia, geographically close to Bahrain, where America’s powerful Fifth Fleet is headquartered.
What is strange about this attack is that no one has adequately explained how a country that has invested so heavily in state-of-the-art military and surveillance technology, most of which of American origin, allowed such a surprisingly successful missile and drone attack to happen. After all, the Houthi Rebels cannot afford stealthy missiles and drones and certainly have not demonstrated a capacity to operate this sophisticated equipment in a way that could elicit a strategic-level strike against their Saudi enemy.
Indeed because of this, the Trump Administration was quick to blame the Iranians for the attack, though hard evidence of Iranian involvement is yet to make the public domain. Nonetheless, by ‘connecting the dots’, Iran as the sponsor of the Houthi Rebels seems likely to have provided equipment and training to the Houthi to carry out this attack. ‘Seems’ being the key word here.
The damage to Saudi Arabia’s oil production is all over the news cycle in typical alarmist fashion. ‘Half of the country’s oil production’ is down and oil prices ‘are expected to rise’ to new, painful highs for the world’s economies. Following on from the tanker attacks in the Gulf last June, this signals renewed tensions between the US and Iran. Indeed, war talk, fuelled by the US president’s incautious remarks about being “locked and loaded”to respond should it be verified that Iran was behind the attack implies being ready to carry out a kinetic response.
Saudi authorities are not as convinced as the Americans that the Houthis were the culprits for the attack and are being uncharacteristically cautious. The stakes are high. The Saudis are close to floating an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of the country’s state-owned oil monopoly, ARAMCO. A crisis in the Gulf affecting Saudi oil output may drive prices for this conglomerate down, which would not be in Riyadh’s interests. But in an ironic twist, high oil prices would be a net benefit for the Kingdom. However, as the US has re-entered the oil production market through fracking old ‘tapped out’ oil fields, should international oil prices rise too steeply, the US could ramp-up production of its fracked oil to make up the short-fall and restabilise the market, though this would take some time to achieve, giving all oil producers a temporary though no doubt welcomed financial reprieve.
So, where are we with regard to who did what to the Saudi oil fields?
Did the Yemeni Houthis conduct the attack alone? The Iranians use Yemen as a staging base? Was it a coordinated strike between the Houthis and the Iranians? Or, stranger still, did pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias launch the strike on the orders of Iran’s Al Quds force, with the Houthis taking the credit in an effort to confuse the Americans, the Saudis and the international community?
Irrespective, it is in no one’s interest to escalate matters in the Gulf. The KSA clearly has problems militarily in Yemen, being unable to extract itself from the country’s ongoing civil war and, having breached with its only ally in its ‘intervention’ in Yemen – the UAE, which for some time now has been marching to its own beat and to entirely different war-aims.
But doing nothing in response to this aggression may be almost as bad as doing something.
Doing nothing means the aggressor, whoever it was, will know that the KSA is highly vulnerable to the sort of attack that was conducted and will likely continue to utilise this sort of attack to achieve its goals.
Interestingly, without Bolton as Trump’s National Security Adviser, the likelihood that Trump will offer the olive branch to Iran in spite of his not-so-veiled accusation that Iran was responsible for the attack, cannot be discounted. Trump is no fan of war and is a fan of his ‘Art of the Deal’. He might order a punitive airstrike against an Iranian target/s and then reach out to Tehran for a negotiated settlement. Had Bolton remained at his post as Trump’s National Security Adviser, the likelihood of Bolton acting as a torch-barer for Washington ‘Iran-hawks’ would create even more policy confusion in Washington.
As it is, this crisis still has some time to play out. Whatever the US, Iran or the KSA decide to do next will dictate the flow of events. But what is clear is that intelligence has yet again failed. KSA investment in Patriot missile batteries and the attendant air defence technologies necessary to support these batteries failed to detect, track and intercept intruder drones and missiles. This is clearly a Saudi failure that needs to be addressed before attempting any retaliatory action. Similarly, the fact that US forces in the Gulf, with the advantage of both regional air and space surveillance dominance did not detect the threat to the KSA and warn the Saudis of the impending attack shows that someone in the hierarchy did not do their job. Or maybe they did? But in a region of the world where conspiracy theories flourish like the proverbial desert blooms, the truth may never be fully known.