Country Risk

Houthi UAV attacks on Saudi oil pipeline increase likelihood of US-led confrontation with Iran and proxies in Gulf

15 May 2019

A UAV that the US and Saudi Arabia accuse of being supplied to the Houthi militant group by Iran, on display on 14 December 2017. Source: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The Saudi Minister of Energy, Khalid al-Falih, stated on 14 May that two pumping stations on the East-West pipeline, in the Dawadmi and Afif Governorates, and approximately 450 km west of Riyadh, had been attacked by weaponised unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The attacks reportedly caused a fire and minor damage to one of the pumping stations. The pipeline was temporarily closed for evaluation, but oil production was unaffected. The attacks were claimed on the same day by the Yemen-based Houthi movement, which stated that seven UAVs had been used.

  • The UAV attack, although claimed by the Houthi, is likely to be used by Saudi Arabia as evidence of an intensification of attempts by Iran to disrupt Saudi oil exports . Saudi Arabia treats the Houthi as an Iran-backed proxy in Yemen, and it has repeatedly, with some justification, accused Iran of providing UAV and ballistic missile technology to the movement. This attack follows the 12 May Saudi government claim that four commercial vessels, including two of its oil tankers, had been damaged in sabotage attacks off the coast of Fujairah port in the UAE, 140 km south of the Strait of Hormuz.
  • The attack on the pumping stations highlights the persisting risk of Houthi targeting of hydrocarbon infrastructure in Jeddah, Yanbu, and potentially cities such as Riyadh, with ports, military installations and airports also at high risk of further attacks . The Houthi have previously attacked Saudi hydrocarbon sector targets with both SCUD-type missiles and UAVs. This is the first time the Houthi have demonstrated an apparent capability to hit a target 800 km in Saudi territory with UAVs, but the launch site could well have been from inside Saudi territory, reducing the range. The selection of a UAV, as opposed to a ballistic missile, limits the size of warhead delivered (the Houthi Qasef 1 UAV has a 30 kg warhead).

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