Death to America,
Death to Israel,
Curse upon the Jews
Victory for Islam!
The slogan is echoed by Houthi fighters as ballistic missiles are fired into Saudi Arabia, mostly in response to indiscriminate targeting in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. Houthis, otherwise officially known as Ansar Allah, have executed more than 34 missiles into Saudi Arabia since 2015 spilling the conflict over into the Kingdom’s mainland. Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, leader of the group, announced the latest military strategy on missile strikes, dubbing it the “post-Riyadh” campaign which began with the attack on Saudi Arabia’s primary energy infrastructure, Saudi Aramco.
On 23 July, Aramco’s oil refinery was targeted with a Burkan-2 missile in Yanbu, west coast of Saudi Arabia. The missile travelled just under 1,000 kilometres inside the country without being intercepted by Saudi defence systems. A large explosion and fire at the oil compound was reported by locals, which firefighters worked throughout the night to extinguish.
Satellite imagery of the Aramco oil refinery did not illustrate major or visible damage on the factory, although local reports on social media have shown video footage of a large uncontrollable fire in which firefighters had to work throughout the night to extinguish.
Post-Riyadh Houthi campaign
The “post-Riyadh” campaign missile strike refers to the 19 May attack which was executed a few hours ahead of the arrival of American President Donald Trump for the Saudi-US talks. Announced on social media applications, including Telegram, it listed oil refineries as an official and new military target.
The document also warned international companies operating the region to take the necessary precautions and effectively pack up and leave. In declaring the new targets, the Houthis have outlined a clear strategy to threaten Saudi Arabia against its aerial campaign in Houthi strongholds, from Sana’a to Saada.
Nevertheless, serious ballistic missile capabilities have been demonstrated by the Houthis who have executed Burkan and Qaher missiles, which is telling of the external support the armed group is receiving. Well before the conflict erupted, Yemen was not known for producing missile systems and thus the only explanation is that they are being supplied directly to the Houthi group.
In January 2015, the Houthis took over the Faj Attan military base in Sana’a, which stocked Yemen’s ballistic missiles. This triggered major concern for Saudi Arabia. Three months later, the Kingdom headed an Arab coalition and launched a military campaign called “Operation Decisive Storm” against the Houthis. The objective was to push back military advancements made by the group from Saada to Sana’a, as the Houthis set expansion goals to Aden – southern Yemen. Saudi Arabia pounded the air base, claiming that the missiles storage area had been destroyed. “Operation Decisive Storm” ended on 21 April 2015, dubbed a success by the Saudi-led coalition. However, the triumph is questionable as members of the coalition have continued to fight on to this day, making the conflict a stalemate.
The most likely candidate for supply arms to the Houthi armed group is Iran. The allegations against the Iranian’s on supporting the Houthis are not unfounded. US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, stated that the Saudi-led coalition operating in the Red Sea has uncovered and “revealed a complex Iranian network to arm and equip the Houthis”. This sentiment has been echoed by the Saudi-led coalition and the US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis who warned Iran of fuelling a sectarian war.
Weapons are funnelled to the Houthi group via the Hudaydah port, which has triggered extra monitoring by the Saudi led-coalition. Retaking control of the strategic Hudaydah port is on the list of the coalition’s military goals. The Red Sea port is a vital entry path for humanitarian aid amid a famine and matured cholera outbreak.
National security threat
Besides the domestic security threat emanating from sectarian groups and militant cells, seen last year with the unsuccessful car bombing of Islam’s second holiest mosque in the city of Medina. There is a direct national security threat from Houthi ballistic missiles. The fact that Saudi Arabia failed to intercept the missile heading towards Aramco in Yanbu province, 1,000 kilometres beyond its borders, shows signs of deficiency in dealing with fatal threats. Off the back of the US-Saudi arms deal, it is likely a major shift in defence capabilities against asymmetric threats will be seen. However, Saudi Arabia must realise that indiscriminate targeting and a continued campaign in Yemen, particularly in Saada and Sana’a, have given the Houthis resolve to strike inside the Kingdom. This has caused the conflict in Yemen to spill over beyond the southern Saudi border. Frequent incursions by the Houthi fighters using guerrilla warfare tactics have seen some success on the part of the Houthis; taking over army barracks, ambushes and surface-to-air rocket attacks.
The annual religious pilgrimage, Hajj, begins later this month with over two-million Muslims expected to head to Saudi Arabia. This poses a severe security dilemma that requires neutralising, quickly. Fortunately, the Chair of the Supreme Yemeni Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, called upon Saudi Arabia to cease fighting during the Hajj out of respect and honour of the religious act of worship in Islam. The call for the truce includes ceasing fighting throughout Yemen.
An opportunity to enter into a truce during the Hajj and lower the risk for the two-million Muslims who will be in Mecca, in addition to Saudi Arabia’s own nationals and residents in the country, should not be shunned. With 670,000 foreign workers expected to leave Saudi Arabia by 2020, it is important to ensure “Operation Decisive Storm” does not lead to any unintended consequences to Saudi Arabia. If the truce can be administered successfully, without any breakages, then it may form a path for future dialogue between parties to the conflict.
Saudi Arabia needs to assess the threat of blowback from the continued airstrike campaign in Yemen, particularly when the war is at a stalemate dynamic. It is important to seek a political settlement amid a dire humanitarian crisis and cholera outbreak that is maturing. Otherwise, asymmetric threats from the Houthi group will increase and reach deeper into Saudi Arabia – impacting commercial, religious and civic industries – particularly the energy and tourism sector.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.