Drones, Oil and Geopolitics: Making sense of the unfolding crisis in Yemen

Will Marshall is second-year student of International Relations at King’s College London and Editor-in-Chief of International Relations Today. Whilst all eyes are turned towards the US-Iran standoff in the Persian Gulf, this article illustrates that the real crisis may be unfolding right under our noses.

Given the tumultuous events of recent weeks in the geopolitical tinderbox that is the Middle East, with all eyes turned towards the brewing crisis between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf, it is perhaps no surprise that a series of isolated missile attacks against remote airstrips in south-western Arabia have passed relatively unnoticed by the global media. With the longstanding rivals at loggerheads following a string of attacks on oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, Tehran and its proxies are quietly moving in to execute their master stroke.

Yemen: The Forgotten Front

Since 2015, Yemen has been at the heart of what journalists describe as a ‘forgotten war’, a conflict which is shaping up to be one of the bloodiest in the twenty-first century so far with profound snd far-reaching geopolitical repercussions. The crisis began when Iran-linked Houthi militias seized the presidential compound in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a forcing President Abdrubbah Mansur Hadi to resign. The chain of events the ensuing constitutional crisis precipitated quickly sent the impoverished Middle Eastern country down the slippery slope towards a brutal civil war between rival factions vying for control of the state. Soon, what began as a localised conflict between domestic rivals quickly became subsumed in the bitter proxy struggle between the two foremost regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

For over four years, a Saudi-led coalition opposed to perceived Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony has launched a systematic, high-tech aerial campaign against Houthi targets, often using state-of-the-art drone technology to conduct attacks with a devastating degree of accuracy. The systematic approach adopted Riyadh involves deliberate efforts to target civilian populations and vital infrastructure in the drought-prone country, precipitating what the UN describes as the ‘worst famine seen anywhere in the world for a hundred years’.[1]

The Houthis, who Riyadh alleges are nothing but proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, have at the receiving end for much of the conflict so far. However, in recent months the tide of the conflict has turned. The Houthi rebels, on the back foot and unable to strike back against Saudi for much of the conflict have launched a series of devastating attacks, not only against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen but against targets on Saudi soil using drone technology which intelligence officers trace back to Iran.[2]

Not only do such attacks serve to illustrate the increasingly ‘hot’ nature of the Iran-Saudi proxy conflict, they also shed light on Tehran’s grand geostrategic plans in the region.

What’s the deal with Drones?

The most recent attack by Houthi drones on 24th June against Abha International Airport in south-western Saudi Arabia which left one dead and seven severely wounded comes following multiple attacks against strategic targets since last month. An earlier attack against the airport which left 26 wounded came on 12th June after a series of strikes against oil and natural gas installations more than 800km away from the Yemeni border in central Saudi Arabia.[3]

Whilst drones and missiles have long been one of the few assets the Houthis have been able to effectively deploy against the Saudi-led coalition, the recent attacks illuminate the growing technological capabilities of the rebels. The new drones deployed by the Houthis, labelled by the UN as ‘UAV-X’ have an estimated range of 1,200 to 1,500km putting most of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates comfortably within striking distance. Whilst analysis by geopolitical intelligence experts at Stratfor suggest the drone itself is unlikely to have originated from Iran, the ability of the Houthis to carry out such an attack successfully suggests input by technical experts from the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, with whom the rebels are known to have ties.[4]

If Iran is indeed behind the attacks, as may be reasonably suspected, light is shed on Tehran’s broader geostrategic goals in the region. Saudi Arabia’s East-West pipeline, the target of multiple Houthi drone strikes last month is one of the state’s prime strategic assets, linking the oil and natural gas fields in the east of the country to the Red Sea coast. This is pivotal for the security of Saudi oil exports as it allows natural resources to bypass the Iranian presence in the Persian Gulf, which Tehran is capable of blockading any time, thus cutting Riyadh off from its major export partners.[5] The fact that Iranian proxies are now capable, and willing, to strike at such crucial strategic assets serves to illuminate Tehran’s emerging strategy.

Despite the vice-like grip exerted on Iranian oil exports by President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy against Iran, Tehran has shown its preparedness to fight back by disrupting flows of oil to international markets.[6] This is illustrated by the spate of attacks earlier this month against oil tankers in the Gulf, which intelligence officials claim can be traced to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Whilst sporadic attacks against oil tankers in the Gulf are scarcely likely to impact oil supplies to the US directly, the series of attacks would be sufficient to drive oil prices on global markets through the roof, a move which would have dire indirect impacts on the US economy.

The fact that the Houthis have shown such determination to strike against Saudi oil installations far from the traditional crisis points in the Persian Gulf suggests that Tehran, rather than merely attempting to signal its resolve in light of perceived US aggression, is in fact engaged in a far broader campaign to cripple the Saudi economy and disrupt global oil markets. The fact that such an uptick in attacks has occurred just as US-Iranian tensions have reached boiling point puts it beyond ant reasonable doubt that the Houthi campaign is being directed from Tehran.

Whilst the prospect of open conflict between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf remains highly unlikely given President Trump’s ardent desire to disengage from the Middle East, the real crisis is quietly unfolding on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula. As Washington seeks to disengage from the region and proxy conflict in southwestern Arabia continues to heat up, the prospect that Riyadh will have to stand on its own two feet and retaliate becomes ever more likely, making the prospect of an open conflagration between Saudi and Iran greater than ever.

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/yemen-civil-war-explained-facts-saudi-arabia-bombing-uk-forgotten-war-deaths-refugees-a8584356.html

[2] https://www.defensenews.com/unmanned/2019/05/21/how-yemens-rebels-increasingly-deploy-drones/

[3] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-saudi-attacks/yemens-houthis-attack-military-positions-at-saudi-abha-and-jizan-airports-tv-idUSKCN1TQ2OS

[4] https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/saudi-pipeline-attack-amps-suspicions-arabian-peninsula-iran-houthis-oil-sanctions

[5]https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-14/saudi-pipeline-attack-highlights-risk-to-middle-east-oil-exports

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/23/us-iran-donald-trump-farce-brink-of-war

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