Houthi attack against pumping stations highlights new capabilities

(Picture for illustration purposes only)

Le Beck’s analysts take a brief look at the recent Houthi drone attack against two Saudi pumping stations, as well as the context of the attack

Two oil pumping stations located along the Eastern Province-Yanbu Port pipeline were targeted by Houthi drones on May 14. After Houthi-controlled outlets claimed that the group launched seven armed drones against “vital Saudi installations”, the Saudi Minister of Energy confirmed that the attack damaged the two facilities and temporarily halted operations along the pipeline as a basic safety precaution. The targeted installations are Pumping Station 8 (location), about 330 km west of Riyadh, and Pumping Station 9 (location), about 250 km east of Medina. Confirmation of the incident further led to an increase in oil prices.

This is highly significant as it comes amid growing tensions between Iran and the US and comes on the heels of the May 12 “act of sabotage” off the coast of the UAE against four commercial vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers - which some US officials claim may have been carried out by Iran. Indeed, the timing and targets of these recent attacks are in line with Tehran’s explicit threats to disrupt oil flow should it come under attack or should the US attempt to disrupt its own oil exports, along with warnings that Iran will look to retaliate against Washington’s interest and allies.

As assessed in Le Beck’s latest Weekly Security Brief, the recent attacks may be meant to “call Trump’s bluff”. Despite the US President’s harsh rhetoric, Tehran may indeed assess that Washington, and the President in particular, still remains uninterested in a large-scale military escalation and is merely trying to push it to come back to the negotiation table.

In this context, the use of a group backed by Iran is a common tactic employed by Tehran to convey a threatening message across the region, whilst maintaining plausible deniability. By doing so, Iran aims to show its readiness to retaliate and increase its deterrence over the US without actually triggering a potentially destructive conflict.

As notable is the use of drones so deep inside Saudi territory. While the use of armed drones by the Houthis is not uncommon, these attacks had thus far largely taken place close to the border region or inside Yemen. The May 14 was, however, conducted hundreds of kilometers inside Saudi Arabia. What’s more, the level of accuracy of the attack is also notable, as it targeted two specific pumping stations. While satellite images suggest the drones may not have inflicted significant damage to the installations, the mere fact that these managed to get so close to the pumping stations without being shot down raises questions both as to what kind of drones were used, as well as to the effectiveness of Saudi Arabia’s air defence. Beyond that, the use more effective weaponry, and targeting of such vital installations further serves to highlight the possibility that the decision to do so may not have been taken by the Houthis alone, but also approved or even directed by Tehran.