THE intricate war dance among the US, the Saudis and Iran on the Houthi attack on Aramco oil installations may still not spill over into a shooting war in West Asia. The Saudi defence ministry spokesman Col Turki al-Malki said the attack was unquestionably “sponsored” by Iran – this is quite different from saying that Iran actually launched the attack. Even the US is now using language such as Iran was “behind the attack”, and following up such statements with fresh sanctions on Iran – indicating that the “locked and loaded” gun that President Trump had tweeted earlier may not be fired now.
Houthis have shown to the Saudis that its mastery over drones has created new conditions. As I wrote a few weeks back in these columns, drones and missiles with mobile launchers, make it possible for weaker forces to inflict unacceptable damage on much stronger countries attacking them. This has created a new strategic balance in various theatres of war, which forces with much greater fire power have yet to register. This is the new strategic balance between Houthis and Saudis; Hezbollah and Israel; and on a wider scale, Iran-Hezbollah-Houthis and the US-Israel-Saudis. None of the weaker forces have to win: they only need the ability to keep fighting while imposing unacceptable costs on the other side.
The Aramco facilities damaged in the Houthi attack was Abaqaiq and Khurais, and has taken out nearly 50 per cent of Saudi oil production. The Saudis currently produce 12 per cent of the world’s oil, and any long term damage to its oil installations has huge consequences for the world’s oil supply, as well as oil price. In spite of the Saudis saying that they have enough stocks to meet the shortfall and the US releasing its strategic reserves of oil to the market, the oil price immediately jumped by 10 dollars or nearly 20 per cent, making clear how important Saudi oil production is to the global economy. With continuing US illegal sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, the world is now critically dependent on oil from the Saudis, who have promised to increase production to meet the shortfall. Any hit on this supply will have global repercussions and drive the world into a new recession.
For India, the consequences are more dire. India imports more than 80 per cent of its crude oil. We have cravenly followed the US “orders” on Iran and Venezuela sanctions, and are now even more dependent on the Saudis. The US offer for shale oil is no solution to the Indian economy, as shale oil is much more costly and will drive our balance of payments deep into the red. Unfortunately, jettisoning Iran under Trump’s diktat has serious consequences for India.
The Houthis have shown that the days when Saudis lorded it over Yemen’s airspace, bombing Houthi forces and civilian centres at will, have consequences. The Houthi drone strikes can now hit the soft Saudi underbelly – its oil installations, power plants and desalination facilities. Armed by the NATO powers, Saudi Arabia has overwhelming air dominance over the Houthis. Its defence spending is next only to the US and China, and more than India’s, which is in the fourth place (SIPRI Database). The Saudis spent 70 billion dollars on its defence, compared to Iran’s 6.3 billion dollars, or less than a tenth of the Saudi expenditure. Certainly the Houthis cannot defend themselves from Saudi air attacks, but neither can Saudi Arabia against drone or cruise missile attacks that hug the ground and defeat easy detection by radar.
After the Iraq war and the then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Oscar winning performance on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in the UN, the bible thumping, current Secretary Pompeo’s claim that it was Iran who dunnit, will carry very little conviction with the rest of the world. The coastline facing Iran has a very dense set of radar networks, housing the US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and the US Uded Airbase in Qatar, as well Saudi radar installations. They should have detected such a strike coming over the open waters of the Persian Gulf. That the US and the Saudis have produced no such evidence tells its own tale.
The Saudis are now claiming that Iran was “behind the attack”, and a climb down from blaming Iran directly. Their spokesperson, Turki al-Malki said in his press conference that the drone and cruise missile attack came from the north, meaning that drone swarm that hit Aramco did not come from the direction of Yemen. This is very thin evidence, as we know that drones do not need to fly in a straight line, and can hit a target from any direction irrespective from where it originated. Neither does it prove that if it came from the north, it must have come from Iran. Even the BBC was forced to say that this ducked the essential question: were the weapons used in the attacks against the Saudi oil installations actually fired from Iranian soil?
While the Saudis have presented the debris of the missiles and drones, showing a fallen wing of a missile and calling it Iranian or calling the data inside the “computer” Iranian, can at best prove that Iran did transfer drone technology to Houthis. To present this transfer of drone technology as somehow a smoking gun against Iran, simply overlooks that it is not technology that the US, France and UK have transferred to Saudis but real aircrafts, bombs and missiles that have devastated Yemen.
The attack from the Houthis on Aramco was not an isolated one. They have been carrying out a series of drone attacks on Saudi Arabia for the past few months, testing their capabilities and probing the Saudi defence. Open source information (https://irangeomil.blogspot.com) on the type of radar, air defence systems and the centres protected by Saudis show that while the Saudis have some capability in defending against air attack by conventional means – bombers and other attack aircraft – they have very little defence against drone attacks. Most of their air defence is based on the assumption that the only serious threat they have is from Iran, that too using aircrafts and conventional missiles. What the Houthis have shown is that in the age of asymmetric war, there are cheaper attack options using UAVs – unmanned air vehicles – or drones.
A number of people have written about open source drones, its guidance systems and the small piston or jet engines that are commercially available. All these can be used to create a viable drone that can do what Houthis claim they have done. And all of it for about $20,000 tops.
The western media has extensively covered the UN Report that has talked about Iran’s involvement in Houthi drone programme. What has yet to find similar coverage, is that the same report also shows that laser guidance missile systems from the US and UK have been used in attacks on civilians that breached international humanitarian law. And they were launched from aircraft that only the Saudis possessed. It is NATO countries that have armed the Saudi air force to carry out more than 20,000 attacks on the Yemenis. It is this asymmetric nature of the coverage that shows that the western media is in the business of manufacturing consent on a worldwide scale for their security state establishments.
The importance of Saudi Arabia to the US and its allies is that Saudi Arabia underwrites the dollar, and makes it possible for the US and the western financial institutions to control the global financial order. But the days of US strategic dominance over the West Asia are now over. Yes, the US can destroy Iran, but cannot save the region and its oil infrastructure from destruction as well. This is the new strategic balance that is emerging and sooner the US and its NATO partners accept it, the sooner can we look for peace in the region. We can either have collective security in the region, or no security. That is the lesson of the current events in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.