A quick note from the terminal to write about the attacks this weekend on the Saudia Arabian oil fields. There’s been great reporting by The NY Times and Wall Street Journal, among other sources.
First, what happened. Drones were used to attack Saudi Oil fields, causing fires and damage and taking offline, at least for now, about half its production capability.
Who did it? The most likely culprit are Houthi rebels, based in Yemen and currently fighting the Yemeni government. The Houthis are backed by Iran, as they are both Shia, while the Saudis have been backing the government of Yemen, both because of its Sunni faith and because of their desire for stability on its southern border. A “proxy war” by Iran has been waged in Yemen in supporting the Houthis, while the Saudis have waged an overt war with a large bombing campaign and a devastating blockade causing the worst famine crisis in modern times. Needless to say, there are clear reasons why the Houthis would attack Saudi Arabia where it hurts. Unlike what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo states, there does not seem to be indication that Iran was directly behind the attacks (and hard to believe they would), but the Shia state has waged a war by proxy actor in Yemen supporting the Houthis, so they are indirectly involved.
So What? Well, Saudia Arabia’s economy and entire social contract with its citizens is based on oil. Any attack on those facilities would demand a response from any sovereign nation, let alone one that impacted half of its output. The attack shut down about 5 percent of the global output of oil, something that will have an impact on the global economy. Other oil-producing nations will need to make up that gap. Additionally, this is an attack that violates the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia, something that they will not look at passively (despite their current involvement in the sovereignty in Yemen).
What’s next? This attack was a a clear attack against the heart of Saudi Arabia’s economy and foundation of their economic state. They will respond, and it will most likely be a strong military response. Oil is at the heart of the importance of the Middle East, and this attack strikes at that importance. Andrew Bacevich writes about this foundation of oil in the Middle East in his book America’s War for the Greater Middle East. Thus, while Trump’s talk of the US being “locked and loaded” may be laughable, it is true that we have an interest in the stability of the region, in the oil that flows through it’s straits, and in supporting our ally (Saudi Arabia) in responding. We have been a large supporter of the proxy war already. We will see if this response is military related or not.
Attacks like this involving drones and hitting economic infrastructure also represent an evolving modern type of warfare, something ISIS has used already and others are adding to their arsenal. Warfare is evolving, from cyber attacks like Stuxnet, Sony, and Russia and the 2016 US election, to drone attacks like this. But for the time being, it will be interesting but also concerning to see what the responses by Saudi Arabia, the Houthis, Iran, and the US looks like following these attacks against the Saudia oil fields.