The Saudis were simply not prepared for such attacks? They have state-of-the-art fighter jets, but the Saudi defense systems are outdated. Also in Abqaiq American Patriot rockets were stationed, as satellite images suggest as classic cars. The American military scientist Michael Duitsman called the air defense in Abqaiq “formidable – at least to the standards of 1995”.
Saudi Arabia has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in its armor. No population in the world has so many weapons per capita. How can it be that the Saudis were still completely defenseless against the recent attack on their oil rigs?
At a press conference on Wednesday, Saudi colonel Turki bin Saleh al-Malki found it difficult to hide his anger: “We save our nation, we save our country. If you think we’ve failed, well, we’re very proud of our defense”. That could hardly deceive the Saudi military’s embarrassment.
This time not only a single tanker was attacked, but the heart of the Saudi oil industry: The refinery in Abqaiq is the largest of its kind. Seven million barrels are processed here every day, that is more than five percent of the world supply.
Who! Mastered the attack is still not clear. The Houthi rebels in Yemen claim the deed for themselves, but it is hard to imagine that they are capable of such sophisticated air strikes. From Washington and Riyadh it was said that the attacks were flown from the north and not from the south, where Yemen is located. The US Secretary of State therefore immediately accused Iran. And also in Riyadh, everything was pointing to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Regardless of where the missiles came from and whether Iran really ordered them – for Saudi Arabia, asymmetric war is actually nothing new. After all, in Yemen, the kingdom did not settle for a conventional army but for rebels.
Houthis have repeatedly inflicted severe defeats on the Saudis through their guerrilla tactics. In June, for example, Yemeni cruise missiles hit Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport. Despite the latest equipment, the kingdom has not managed to win the war for four years, which Crown Prince Salman himself instigated.
Since this spring sabotage attacks on pipelines and oil tankers are added. The Iranian regime has repeatedly increased the pressure on the oil industry of its Arab neighbors since it buried the hope of a return to the nuclear deal. Iranian President Rouhani recently threatened that the other Gulf states should no longer export oil if Iran were prevented from doing so.
In August, American scientists at the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned against an attack on the Abqaiq plant, which was particularly vulnerable to their storage tanks and compressor trains.
It followed – nothing. The Saudi colonel on Wednesday referred to the many ballistic missiles that Saudi Defense has so far successfully intercepted. But that’s exactly the problem: against such attacks, the Saudis may be able to defend themselves, but not against low-flying drones and cruise missiles without predictable trajectory. They literally stay under the radar. Only when they appear above the horizon, they become visible – but then it is usually already too late to react.
Even state-of-the-art weapons are useless if there is a lack of know-how. In Yemen, Riyadh relies on American support. But sometimes even Americans can not help. For example, the New York Times in 2016, citing the US State Department, reported that Saudi soldiers were unable to locate Houthi rebels who had invaded Saudi territory – even though the Americans gave them the positions.
For Saudi Arabia, this is embarrassing, but also holds a chance: Riyadh can now play the role of victim, regain confidence and to upgrade Saudi Defense system.