06 August 2019

Yemen – the war of drones has moved to Saudi Arabia

Claudiu Nebunu

Starting with April 2019, Houthi rebels executed more than ten separate attacks with missiles or drones on objectives in Saudi Arabia, including airports, oil pipes and other elements of the country’s energy infrastructure, generally situated immediately north of the border with the Saudi kingdom. Despite the fact that it has the third biggest military budget in the world, Saudi Arabia retaliated below its possibilities. The missile defence systems purchased from the US (including Patriot) had a fairly inconsistent reaction when faced with Houthi attacks. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, Iran increased its support for Houthi rebels both with regards to the quantity, as well as quality of the weapons systems t provided. Is Yemen turning into a theatre of direct confrontation on the background of US pressures on Tehran?

Image source: Mediafax

The historical perspective

More than 10,000 people have lost their lives since the Arab Coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), began its military campaign in Yemen nearly four years ago. The civil war pushed the already impoverished country to the brink of famine, according to the UN and NGOs operating in the area.

In January 2019, UN experts concluded in a report sent to the Security Council that Tehran was illegally transporting fuel towards Yemen, in order to fund war efforts. One year ago, a UN group criticized Iran for violating the embargo on delivering weapons to Yemen, and allowed Houthi rebels to obtain Iranian missiles. Tehran repeatedly rejected these accusations.

But the consistent string of attacks on Saudi positions executed lately seems to confirm the UN’s presumptions.

In May 2019, two oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia were targeted by drone attacks which caused minor stoppages in supply, highlighting an apparently significant step-up in the Houthi rebels’ capabilities.

At the beginning of June 2019, Houthi rebels launched a missile on the Saudi’s Abah airport, wounding 26 civilians in the terminal’s arrivals hall. Missile attacks were also launched in other areas of the kingdom’s southern regions, including Khamis Mushait and Jizan. Some drones were intercepted, but it is certain that others reached their targets.

Recently, Saudi forces intercepted two drones launched by Houthi rebels, supported by Iran. The first targeted the province of Jizan, while the second target a residential area in the province of Asir, the Coalition announced in a statement issued by the official Saudi news agency on June 29. Turki al-Maliki, the Coalition’s spokesman, stated that the drones did not cause any significant losses or damages.

Therefore, news on the missile or drone attacks launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen on objectives in Saudi Arabia is no longer a surprise… and the war in Yemen seems to have taken another turn, as Houthi rebels intensified their drone and missile attacks on cities from the neighbouring country, Saudi Arabia. This intensification coincides with the rise in tensions in the past couple of months between Iran and Arab Gulf states allied to the US. But the Houthi rebels deny receiving eventual orders from Tehran and claim the right to defence.

The proxy war continues

Starting with April 2019, rebels have made at least 10 missile attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia. These attacks show the fact that Yemeni war is not close to ending. Furthermore, the recent escalation proves that Iran considers the Houthi rebels as a valuable ally through which to carry out proxy wars, in the context of rising tensions in the Persian Gulf.

Ironically, in what could easily be described with precision as a self-convincing prophecy of the justice to intervene in the neighbouring country, Riyadh supported the idea that the rationale behind its intervention was to counteract substantial Iranian military support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is also true that, when the Coalition led by Riyadh first began its operation Yemen, Iran offered support for Houthi rebels, but the level of this support rose dramatically lately.

Far from counteracting the Iranian influence in Yemen, the Arab Coalition’s actions served to amplify it. This is part of Iran’s traditional strategy, through which it constructs a proxy and militia network equipped with a wide selection of weaponry. The Saudi blockade to ban Iranian weapons transports to Houthi rebels seems to not be a success.

Houthi rebels intensified their military campaign against the Coalition and raised doubts on the possibility to implement the cease-fire for the Hodeidah Port, negotiated by the UN during talks with representatives of both sides in the conflict in December last year, in the Swedish capital Stockholm.

Within the ceasefire agreement, Houthi rebels agreed to give over control of the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Isa to local authorities, “in accordance with Yemenite law”.

Following this agreement, the focus of rebel operations shifted onto Saudi territory. The reason: to fight inside the Saudi territory, to affect the country’s infrastructure as retaliation for the “daily aggressions” perpetrated by the Coalition and to signal that pressure from Iran, as the main Houthi supporter, is growing, which would have an immense price for Saudi Arabia’s national security.

The intensification of Houthi attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia and the possible ties with rising economic and military pressure on Iran suggest that, in the case of a conflict between the US and Iran, Saudi Arabia could be an immediate target for Iranian missiles and Yemenite drones. At the same time, the intensification of Houthi attacks could have the purpose to show the US and its allies that any part of the conflict with Iran risks provoking a regional war through a proxy force similar to the Lebanese Hezbollah, a source of power and deterrence against the main rival, Saudi Arabia.

In these conditions, we can state that tensions between Iran and the US, as well Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are heading closer towards a critical level.

During an emergency UN Security Council meeting on June 24, Kuwait – which held the Council’s presidency in June – condemned the recent attacks on oil rigs in the Gulf of Oman, which Iran is suspected of orchestrating. Kuwait highlighted, also, the necessity for all sides to exercise “maximum restraint” in order to avoid a large-scale conflict.

At the same time, the Trump Administration is supporting the Arab Coalition’s campaign in Yemen, despite growing opposition from Congress. Washington considers Yemen as one of the first frontlines in the regional conflict with Iran. The Washington Administration’s option to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran led to ignoring the counterproductive nature of the conflict in Yemen.

And Khashoggi’s role…

The assassination of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul also has consequences on the Yemeni war… Khashoggi’s death launch worldwide debates on the interdictions of arms sales towards Saudi Arabia, which had become the world’s biggest weapons importer between 2014 and 2018.

In these conditions, several European states have already stopped arms exports to Saudi Arabia – Norway, Sweden, Austria, Greece and Belgian region of Wallonia. Germany announced that it also suspended weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, while Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands followed suit by suspending future approvals for weapons exports; meanwhile, Austria is supporting an EU-wide weapons embargo on the matter.

The UK Government announced that it will not grant new licenses for weapons exports towards Saudi Arabia or its coalition partners, including the UAE. The US Senate rejected – with a vote of 53 to 45 – President Donald Trump’s plan to curtail Congress and finalize a weapons sale deal worth USD8 billion to the kingdom.

However, France, Spain, Italy and Canada have yet to stop arms exports towards Saudi Arabia.

Will the war in Yemen stay in… Yemen? It seems that has implications which go further than this state’s borders…

Translated by Ionut Preda