Threat Assessment High: The Attack on Saudi Arabia's Oil Supply Signals a New Danger

Seth J. Frantzman

A brazen attack on key Saudi Arabian oil facilities on September 14 marks an escalation in the drone wars that have tormented the kingdom over the past few months. The attack struck Abqaiq’s large Aramco oil-processing facility and another site at the Khurais oil field. This is the third round of long-range drone or cruise-missile attacks that have struck Saudi Arabia since May. They come in the context of rising tensions between the United States and Iran, as well as Israel and Hezbollah. Saturday’s attack is a game-changer in significance and its proximity to U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf point to a growing threat.

There was video footage of explosions, fire and smoke rising from Abqaiq in the early hours of September 14. Hours later the fires were under control and Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed that ten drones carried out the attack. Iranian media have highlighted the attack amid assertions that it cut half of Saudi oil capacity. Some of that output will be restored this week but restoring the damage and full capacity will take time. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the attack and claimed that Tehran was behind another one hundred attacks on Saudi Arabia. He didn’t specify that the attacks were mostly carried out by Iranian-allied Houthis in Yemen, but the implication is that they were. Pompeo said there was no evidence the September 14 attack came from Yemen—a key assertion that makes the Abqaiq attack a turning point. It means the assault may have come from closer to the oil fields, either from Iraq, directly from Iran or other sources. The investigation into the attack has cast a shadow over the Persian Gulf and ratcheting up U.S.-Iran tensions and representing a strategic escalation.

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