The Saudis have run out of options in their war against Yemen which began in 2015. The latest attack on Saudi oil infrastructure has demonstrated how this conflict can spread well within Saudi borders, threatening the Kingdom and its monarchical foundation. Notwithstanding the habit of pointing fingers at Iran, the Houthi statement about the attack hasn’t just confirmed who planned and executed the attack, but also reveals how this move recieved support from within Saudi Arabia itself, a fact that scared the House of Saud much more than the damage done to its oil infrastructure. The attack shows that the monarchy is vulnerable from both inside and outside. In a situation where the Kingdom can easily be hit where it hurts most, it’s clear that political rivals from within the Kingdom can go to any extent to weaken and eventually overthrow the Saudi royal family. The Saudi war in Yemen has thus already become a double threat, an albatross around the Saudi neck that Mohammad bin Salman finds almost impossible to get rid of.
In spite of Riyadh’s attempts to point fingers at Iran, there is no gainsaying that the Houthis in Yemen have developed their military capability over the last couple of years. Indeed, the rational behind UAE’s withdrawal from Yemen is the Houthi’s increasing military power coupled with their ability to directly hit Dubai. If the Saudia-led coalition was on course to win the war, the UAE would have never chosen to pioneer a so-called “peace first” strategy followed by a tactical withdrawal. The fact of the matter is that this withdrawal came in the wake of Houthi forces’ acquisition of ballistic missiles and drones, forcing a crucial Saudi-coalition partner to fundamentally reverse its strategy, leaving Saudi Arabia potentially alone in a shooting war it just can’t win.
It is equally curious that the statement released by the Houthi movement was directed against Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia alone:
“This operation is one of the largest operations carried out by our forces in the depth of Saudi Arabia and came after a[n] accurate intelligence operation and advance monitoring and cooperation of honorable and free mans within the Kingdom. We promise the Saudi regime that our future operations will expand further and be more painful than ever as long as it continues its aggression and siege. We affirm that our goals bank is expanding day by day and that there is no solution for the Saudi regime except to stop the aggression and siege on our country.”
The statement only mentions ‘Saudi aggression’ and addresses the ‘Saud regime’, making it clear as to who the main culprits carrying out atrocities against Yemen are. The scale of their attacks will expand just as their military capabilities have and will, and the success with which they hit the Abqaiq oil-processing facilities shows that they are capable of bringing the House of Saud down.
Both on a regional and international level, Saudi Arabia received little to no support in the aftermath of the attack, as its claims of Iran being behind them fell on deaf ears. With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being the only exception, no regional states — Egypt, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, etc. — or any foreign power would support blaming Iran. Even US President Donald Trump said they needed “verification” if Iran was involved in the attack or was behind it.
An although Trump did say they were ‘locked and loaded’, the US is far from eager to take a plunge into a new war in the Middle East. Notwithstanding affirmations, the US approach is cautious and unlikely to materialize in all-out support for a possible Saudi war on Iran at a time when the Kingdom has badly failed in winning its war against the Houthis.
Washington may indeed rush for a Saudi rescue, in the words of the US president, if the Saudis can financially afford it and will be willing to foot the bill, which means that the fact that the US and Saudi Arabia are “strategic allies” plays no part in the equation. “The Saudis”, said Trump in a press conference alongside the visiting Crown Prince of Bahrain, “are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we [US] decide to do something. They’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”
Casting further doubts on how strong and close the US-Saudia strategic alliance is, Trump said:
“Saudis want very much for us to protect them, but I say, well, we have to work. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them… we will work something out with them. But they also know that — you know, I’m not looking to get into new conflict…”
Where does the Kingdom stand, then? Over its war on Yemen, it is potentially isolated, weak and vulnerable to new attacks both from within and beyond its borders. While Saudi officials have been stressing that the Kingdom has the ability to deal with the crisis on its own, there is no gainsaying that they will have to tread this path alone.
The Abqaiq attack has shown that the entire Middle East’s production of over 18 million barrels of oil a day – including Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – can be easily knocked out, a possibility that regional states cannot stomach. As for Saudi Arabia, it can neither fight the war in Yemen, nor win it on its own.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.