Riyadh, Sept 15, 2019: Explosions and towering fireballs struck the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil empire on Saturday in an apparent wave of drone attacks claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The blows knocked out more than half the kingdom’s oil output for days or more and threatened to drive up already high tensions between Iran and its foes in the Persian Gulf.
The predawn blasts on facilities of the state-run oil giant Aramco - which the rebel group claimed were carried out by a fleet of 10 drones - marked one of the most devastating strikes into Saudi territory claimed by the Iranian-allied Houthis in more than four years of war in Yemen.
It was also the most serious attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure in decades, which includes barrages of Scud missiles fired by Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 1991 Gulf War. A NASA satellite image showed what appeared to be a long streak of black smoke flowing to the southwest from the Aramco site.
An Aramco statement said production of 5.7 million barrels of crude was suspended by the attack from "projectiles." That represents more than half of the kingdom’s output and about 6 percent of global oil supply - a shortfall that could send oil price sharply higher.
The Aramco statement did not give any timetable on how long the production could be curtailed. In Washington, the Department of Energy said that the United States was prepared to tap U.S. emergency oil reserves if necessary to cover supply disruptions.
The blasts struck facilities in the districts of Khurais and Abqaiq, Saudi officials said. That is more than 500 miles from the Houthi-controlled zones in Yemen - raising critical questions about Saudi Arabia’s ability to defend its territory from Houthi missile and drone attacks with apparent expanding range.
The rebels’ claim of responsibility, if confirmed, further highlighted their rapidly advancing military prowess. Saudi Arabia and the United States accuse Iran of providing the Houthis with military equipment and technical expertise, a charge Tehran has denied.
Houthi missiles have struck Saudi sites before, including its oil infrastructure. But the latest strike on Aramco was a symbolic blow against the historical hub of the kingdom’s oil riches, and the centerpiece of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to remake the kingdom’s economy.
The company is preparing an initial public offering intended to raise billions for an economic reform program championed by the crown prince to move the country away from its dependence on oil revenue.
The attacks are likely to drive up global oil prices when trading resumes after the weekend and Saudi experts assess the damage. Benchmark Brent crude was just above $60 a barrel on Friday.
In a phone call between President Donald Trump and the crown prince on Saturday, Trump "expressed his country’s readiness to cooperate with the kingdom in supporting its security and stability, stressing the negative impact of the recent terrorist attacks against Aramco facilities on the American economy, as well as the global economy," according to a Saudi readout of the call.
The crown prince told Trump that Saudi Arabia is "willing and able to confront and deal with this terrorist aggression," according to the statement.
Hours later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly blamed Iran for "an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply." Pompeo, however, offered no specific evidence.
The U.S. government believes 15 structures at Abqaiq were damaged on the west-northwest-facing sides - not the southern facades, as would be expected if the attack came from Yemen.
There was no immediate comment from Iranian leaders after the oil site attacks.