Attacks on Saudi Oil Stoke Fears of Violent Retaliation

On Sept. 14 a presently unknown actor attacked the Abqaiq processing facility and the Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia according to CNBC. The Houthis, a group involved in the Yemeni Civil War, claimed responsibility for the attacks which hampered 50% of the Saudi and 5% of the global oil supply. 

Members of the Saudi and American governments seem to disbelieve the Houthis, and instead either blame Iran for directly attacking Saudi oil or using a proxy to carry out the strikes. On the day of the attack, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that “amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.” 

NPR reported that the Saudi coalition has been more cautious in their response to the attacks, but on Sept. 18 a Saudi military spokesman, Turki al-Malki, stated that the attacks were “unquestionably sponsored by Iran.” 

President Trump took the rhetoric a step further on Sept. 15 when he tweeted that America is “locked and loaded” for a response against the perpetrator of the attacks. Although the Vice President’s chief of staff, Marc Short, walked this statement back the next day, when he said that Trump did not necessarily imply military intervention, this rhetoric marks a significant increase in tensions. However, so far, the only response the US has committed to is increased sanctions on Iran, which Trump announced on Sept. 20, according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Iran has staunchly denied involvement in the attacks on Saudi Arabia. Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, tweeted that the “[US] having failed at ‘max pressure,’ [Mike Pompeo is] turning to ‘max deceit.’ US & its clients are stuck in Yemen because of illusion that weapon superiority will lead to military victory. Blaming Iran won’t end disaster. Accepting our April ‘15 proposal to end war & begin talks may.” A foreign ministry spokesman went on to reiterate that “such blind accusations are inappropriate comments in a diplomatic context” according to CNN.     

The world may never know with certainty who launched the attacks. NPR reported on satellite evidence that suggests that the attacks were launched from the north instead of the south (Iran and Iraq are to the north of Saudi Arabia, while the Houthis in Yemen are to the south). Additionally, the strikes were extremely precise, more accurate than any attacks that the Houthis have carried out on Saudi Arabia previously. So despite the protestations of Iran, circumstantial evidence implicates the Iranian regime. 

Professor Matthew Fehrs further explored the likelihood of Saudi retaliation and what form it would take, suggesting that whatever the Saudis choose they will undoubtedly need the approval of the US. In regard to the form of the response, Fehrs suggested that it is unlikely that the Saudis or the US will directly attack Iran since “Trump uses bellicose rhetoric but is reticent to use the US military.” However, a response may come in the form of a further expansion of Saudi intervention in Yemen.

The Saudi war in Yemen is just one of the ways in which Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (commonly referred to as MBS) reign has ushered in a more aggressive foreign policy for the oil-rich nation. However, Fehrs stated that these attacks at the heart of Saudi wealth directly undercut the power of MBS. Conversely, these successful strikes, against a long-term regional adversary, will undoubtedly bolster domestic support for the Iranian government.

Although the Saudis have announced that oil production will return to normal levels by the end of September, the long-term implications of these attacks may very well reverberate for years according to CNBC. The Saudis have yet to respond decisively. Additionally, Fehrs suggested that the overwhelming success of these drone attacks may usher in a new phase of warfare which has “dramatic implications on soft domestic targets.” Particularly if the Houthis did in fact launch the attacks, because that suggests that any small group could attack much larger powers with relative ease. 

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