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Saudi Arabia: Mohamed Bin Salman faces the world alone

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 16:18

Mohamed Ben Salman, in November 2015. Hasan Jamali/AP/SIPA

Despite a staggering defence budget and massive US support, Mohamed Bin Salman's kingdom was unable to halt the September 14 attacks on strategic Aramco sites. And appears increasingly fragile.

The worst-case scenario happened. On September 14, Saudi Arabia woke up dazed.

In the night, the kingdom was struck deep in its economic heart.

First, the Abqaiq site, the country’s largest oil refinery, which processes nearly 50% of Saudi crude oil. Then Khurais, one of the main Saudi deposits, 175 kilometres from the first target site.

The result: a production deficit of 5.7 million barrels per day. After initial overly optimistic assessments by the head of Aramco, experts estimate that it will take more than six months to rehabilitate the two sites.

The attack was immediately claimed by the Yemeni Houthis through their military spokesman, Yahya Saree.

They were reportedly carried out thanks to about ten drones and complicity in Saudi territory. “We have the right to respond, in retaliation, to the bombing of our civilians over the past five years. Our future operations will be even more painful as long as the Saudi regime continues its aggression and blockade,” he warned.

The Houthis, allies of Iran, which supplies them with missiles and drones, have regularly targeted Saudi oil infrastructures, cities and airports from North Yemen.

However, doubts quickly emerged. “I don’t believe in the Houthis thesis at all,” says Tom Cooper, an Austrian specialist in the Gulf armies. The Houthis can afford to send a few drones, but not to organise an attack of this magnitude, with a combination of missiles and drones.”

Surrounded on all sides

A satellite photo of the attack’s impacts indicates that the projectiles – drones or missiles – came from the north. From Iraq, perhaps. Or even Iran.

Didn’t Kuwaiti fishermen film missiles flying over their heads in the middle of the night? All these hypotheses show how Saudi Arabia now seems to be surrounded on all sides in its regional battle against Iran, which can rely on a myriad of loyal militias, from Lebanon to Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

“Wherever they come from – Yemen, Iraq or Iran – these attacks would not have been possible without the assistance and agreement of Tehran,” sums up Quentin de Pimodan, a Gulf specialist consultant.

The Islamic Republic categorically denies this… without being very convincing.

In the margins of the UN General Assembly, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel also accused Iran of being “responsible” for the September 14 attack and urged it to “refrain from any further provocation”.

Faced with the United States’ rejection of the Iranian nuclear agreement and the strengthening of sanctions against its economy, Tehran has gone to the extreme: if Iran cannot sell its oil, then no one in the region can.

It is hoped that this maximum pressure will lead to the lifting, or at least suspension, of sanctions. Trump refuses to do this, instead announcing their hardening with each Iranian attack.

In this poker game, the main victim is currently Saudi Arabia. “The Iranians have changed their tactics by attacking oil targets. They made it clear to everyone that they would not hesitate to strike strategic positions,” says Quentin de Pimodan. I do not believe that it is enough for Riyadh to stop the war in Yemen for Iran to calm down. Yemen is a strategic lever for Iran, not a priority. »

A particularly effective lever: Riyadh is mired in a conflict that is disastrous for its image and has not achieved any of the objectives of the campaign launched in 2015.

The Emirates themselves announced this summer that they would reduce their presence in Yemen. “Not to mention that this war is weighing on the kingdom’s finances,” explains Yemeni political scientist Linda al-Obahi. Taxes have increased significantly since 2015. »

The Houthi rebellion now allows itself to make incursions into Saudi territory, and claimed a major operation in Najran at the end of August, which would have resulted in the capture of several hundred soldiers of the kingdom.

Difficult to monitor

How can a country that is in the top 5 in the world in terms of defence budget be so vulnerable militarily? In the event of Houthi attacks against Aramco, the drones had to cover more than 1,000 km in Saudi territory before reaching their targets. All this while passing under the radar of the Patriot and THAAD anti-aircraft defence systems, purchased at great expense from the Americans.

“Criticisms against Saudi anti-aircraft defence are quite unfair,” says Tom Cooper. It is not so easy to protect so many strategic sites. Radars cannot detect everything. At this time of year, hot and humid air masses can, for example, disrupt its operation. And then the kingdom is huge, impossible to keep an eye on everything at all times.”

More than a technical failure, it is the very nature of the territory that makes it so difficult to defend. Most of the major Saudi oil sites are located in the east of the country, a short distance from the Iranian coast and the Iraqi border. “The Americans gave Saudi Arabia bad advice by encouraging it to equip itself with an anti-aircraft defence against ballistic missiles, while the attack was carried out with drones and cruise missiles,” the military expert added. So it is also an American failure. »

Would a Russian defence system have been more effective, as Vladimir Putin suggested to Saudi Arabia, in front of a smiling Iranian president at a tripartite meeting in Ankara two days after the attacks? “The S-400s wouldn’t have changed anything,” says Tom Cooper.

Nevertheless. The Russian offer underlines the fragility of the protection offered by the Americans to the kingdom. In March 2018, in Washington, Donald Trump was unabashedly pleased with the very lucrative relationship with Saudi Arabia, accompanied by a rather uncomfortable Mohamed Bin Salman.

In short, a commercial partnership, but one that no longer offers Riyadh the expected guarantees. And which now forces MBS to be more open to negotiations with the sworn Iranian enemy.