UK’s Financial Times has reported that the attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia points out the possibility of a drone war in the Middle East.
The newspaper said that long before the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities that knocked out half of its oil production, the kingdom knew it was vulnerable to assault from armed drones, indicating that Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen have often used this new type of aerial weapon, alongside missiles, to target Saudi airports, desalination plants and crude facilities in the past 18 months.
“The rising threat has prompted numerous Saudi agencies — from Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, to air defence, ports and civil aviation authorities — to scout the US and Europe for adequate defence systems,” said one defence industry executive.
The newspaper added the details of last weekend’s attacks on Abqaiq, a crude processing centre, and the Khurais oilfield, remain murky: On Sunday, Houthi rebels said they had used 10 drones to conduct the assault. But Washington has blamed Iran, which is accused by the US and Saudi Arabia of smuggling arms to the Houthis, including missiles and drones.
A US official told the Financial Times on last Tuesday that US intelligence indicated the strikes also included long-range weapons, raising the possibility of cruise missiles. Saudi Arabia has not yet backed up such claims. Yet, Iran has denied any involvement.
According to the British newspaper, either way, armed drones have become the latest weapon of choice across the Middle East.
“As tensions between the US and Iran have ramped up, the Iranian-aligned Houthis have escalated attacks across Saudi Arabia’s southern border. The cheap, nimble weapon that can easily evade air warning systems is posing a novel defence challenge for the world’s largest oil exporter — also one of the world’s biggest arms buyers — and other countries in the region.” The newspaper reported.
The director of defence and security at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and a former adviser at the Pentagon, Bilal Saab, said this is the advent of 21st-century drone warfare in the Middle East, adding that in this race, the advantage is to the adversary, because our responses are not efficient.
Last month, the Houthis were blamed for a drone attack on Shaybah oilfield in eastern Saudi Arabia and in May, the rebels claimed they had used drones to attack Saudi oil pumping stations and a vital pipeline deep inside the kingdom.
Jack Watling, a research fellow in land defence at the London-based Royal United Services Institute told the Financial Times that the Middle East is particularly vulnerable to drone attacks because it has a lot of centralised economic assets which are critical.
It also added that Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE import drones from markets such as China; meanwhile Israel, Iran and Turkey manufacture their own.
“Anti-drone defence infrastructure is expensive to build, including GPS jammers to neutralise drone navigation, search and track facilities to identify incoming drones, and missile and radar-guided canon interceptors to destroy them.” The report concluded.