Around four AM Saturday morning, local time, a number of drones reportedly attacked two major oil facilities in northeastern Saudi Arabia. Reportedly, these attacks affected up to half of Saudi’s oil supply, though it should not take long for the Saudi’s to recover from this. According to Iranian media reports, this attack originated with the Houthis in Yemen. That claim, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is more than a little dubious as he flat out claimed that “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
Clearly, Secretary Pompeo should know what he’s talking about in this case. The Saudi facility attacked represents “perhaps the most critical facility in the world for oil supply.” In addition, this facility is less than 50 miles from the Gulf–and there is a ton of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) in the region. The map below gives some perspective: Al Udeid Air Force Base–the largest US Air Force Base in the Middle East–is only about 120 miles from this facility. Bahrain, the headquarters of the US 5th Fleet, is about half that distance and, while no US ships are permanently assigned to the 5th Fleet, an American naval presence–of some sort–has been routine here for years. The question here really isn’t who did this–the list is very short, either the Houthi’s–who have claimed responsibility are fully supported by Iran–or the Iranians themselves–but rather, how did this happen given not only the ISR capabilities in the region but also the elevated tensions with Iran?
Iran recently claimed that they have a very long range drone, capable of the roughly 750 mile flight from Yemen–in the extreme southeastern part of the peninsula. However, if the drones did not originate in Yemen, as Pompeo alleges, where did the come from? Iran is about one third the distance as that of Yemen but again, I think everyone knows–or certainly believes–that Iran had a hand in this (that question is simply to what degree?). The question, again, is how did this happen? Did these drones really go undetected by all of the US ISR in the region? Or, did the Saudis, once warned from the US, simply fail to prevent the attack. Indeed, it seems much more plausible that the Saudi’s air defenses are seriously lacking rather than the Mullahs in Tehran possibly launching these drones from somewhere in Iran and crossing the Gulf in the very teeth of US ISR capabilities. But again, if they didn’t come from Yemen, and the peninsula is a vast desert, where did they come from and how did the Saudis miss these?
One final question: With the notable success of this drone attack, how will the Saudis respond? I think most everyone acknowledges that the drones themselves were most likely manufactured in Iran. Tensions have been high in the region for some time. In the wake of yesterday’s attack, they’ve escalated even more–almost as if someone through a match on a powder keg, or an oil refinery.