History: Houthi Drones Attack Saudi Aramco Oil Refineries

Saudi Aramco’s two main crude oil production facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) on September 14, 2019. The incident caused severe fires and disrupted production activities of around 5-7 million barrels daily, nearly half of the production or 5 percent of oil supplies globally. The Abqaiq oil processing facility is the world’s largest crude oil factory, processing around 7 million barrels of sour crude oil into sweet crude oil, then transporting it to shipping locations or containers in bays and the Red Sea. Saudi Aramco acknowledged that the Khurais facility had more than 20 billion barrels of oil reserves.

“Saudi Aramco is not an ordinary company. It is a company that runs the country.”

Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid

Conflict Armament Research (CAR) compares UAV ruins at the scene with improvised explosive devices or IEDs in Yemen. The result is identical, meaning that the wreckage came from Iran or an area connected to a network of Iran-supported equipment suppliers. Other CAR investigations revealed that the US-made Patriot missile system equipped with radar failed to detect the threat of the drone, allowing opponents to fire ballistic missiles at targets without obstacles.

Samaan & Barracks (2015) state that Houthis often attack some military and energy infrastructure belonging to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, even ordinary people, using missiles and UAVs. Houthis reportedly fired one missile strike almost every week in 2018. Houthis repeated Hezbollah’s effective strategy in South Lebanon during the 1992-2000 period to deal with the superiority of conventional armed forces.

A satellite image showing Saudi Aramco’s oil processing facility suffered a severe fire after being attacked by a drone on September 14, 2019. The facility is located at Abqaiq in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia.Photo: ©Planet Labs.
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The crisis a decade ago caused Yemen to become a battlefield of regional interests. Arab countries have failed to deal with the problem (Munteanu, 2015). The Congressional Research Service (2020) explains four main groups involved in the Yemen conflict. First, the Government of the Republic of Yemen has been recognized by the international and Saudi-led coalition since 2015. Abdu Rabbu is the interim president who has been in charge since 2012. He replaces President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years. Second, the Houthi or Ansar Allah Movement troops are the Shiite Zaydi group under the leadership of Houthi family members who carry the political revivalist movement and live in the Sa’dah province in northern Yemen. This group is an ally of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh until 2017. The Houthis are the most prominent group and cause many security problems in Saudi Arabia. Third, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has operated in Yemen since 2009. AQAP took over and controlled many areas along the coast of southern Yemen because of the support of several tribes inland. Fourth, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is headed by General Yemen Aidarous al Zubaidi, the former Governor of Aden. STC separatist forces have been supported by the United Arab Emirates since the spring of 2017 and have controlled Yemen’s interim capital, Aden, since 2019.

The attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais resulted from the rapid transformation of the Houthis from local rebel groups to non-state actors capable of fighting regional forces. Sharp (2020) stated that the shift could be realized because of the transfer of knowledge and military support from Iran to Houthi, so the ability to threaten Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries increased rapidly. UN experts for Yemen explained that the Houthis received assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank guided missiles, and more advanced cruise missile systems with technical characteristics identical to Iran’s manufactured weapons.

Houthi drone attacks on 2 Saudi Aramco oil facilities spark fires

Saudi Arabia says drone attacks knocked out half its oil supply

Saudi Aramco attack drone components linked to Iran and Houthis in Yemen

Patriot Missile Batteries Under Fire For Missing Yemeni Drones

Răzvan Munteanu. Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Geopolitical Game In Yemen (November 2015).

Jeremy Sharp. Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention (April 2020).

Photo: Unsplash/Zbynek Burival

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