Paris (AFP) – An attack on Saudi oil facilities at the weekend has exposed the vulnerability of the kingdom to drone strikes and underscores how traditional air defences can be breached by new low-cost technology, experts say.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s biggest buyers of weapons and spent an estimated $65 billion on arms last year, mostly from the United States, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Its air defences include the latest radars, fighter jets such as the F-15, and Patriot missiles which are meant to intercept missiles fired from enemy territory.
But on Saturday, attacks on national energy giant Aramco’s Abqaiq processing plant and the Khurais oil field knocked 5.7 million barrels per day (bpd) off production, over half of the OPEC kingpin’s output.
“The Huthis’ use of drones to attack Saudi Arabia has identified gaps in its air defences,” Becca Wasser from the think-tank Rand Corp told AFP.
The exact type of weapon used has not been confirmed, but the Soufan Center, a security think-tank, said that 10 drones had been deployed.
Unidentified US officials have also told American media that cruise missiles might have been fired as well, and have suggested these came from Iran, which backs the Huthi rebels in Yemen to the south but denies being involved in Saturday’s strikes.
“A coordinated attack like this is not something anyone can do, and not everyone can defend themselves against it,” a former head of one of France’s intelligence agencies told AFP on condition of anonymity.
– Growing capability –
The Huthis, a Shiite rebel group battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since 2015, had already served notice several times that they were building up an arsenal of long-range weapons capable of eluding Saudi defences.
In March this year, they released footage taken from a drone that had flown over a desalination plant more than 120 kilometres (75 miles) inside Saudi airspace.
Then in May, a drone strike on a major pipeline in the oil-rich Eastern Province to the Red Sea forced it to be shut down temporarily.