Billions of dollars spent by Saudi Arabia on cutting edge Western military hardware mainly designed to deter high altitude attacks has proved no match for low-cost drones and cruise missiles used in a strike that crippled its giant oil industry.
Saturday’s assault on Saudi oil facilities that halved production has exposed how ill-prepared the Gulf state is to defend itself despite repeated attacks on vital assets during its four-and-a-half year foray into the war in neighboring Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have said they believe Iran, the kingdom’s arch-enemy, was probably behind the strike. On Tuesday, a U.S. official said Washington believed the attack originated in southwestern Iran. Three U.S. officials said it involved both cruise missiles and drones.
Tehran has denied such accusations, saying that Yemenis opposing Saudi-led forces carried it out. Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement is alone in claiming responsibility.
Iran maintains the largest ballistic and cruise missile capabilities in the Middle East that could overwhelm virtually any Saudi missile defense system, according to think-tank CSIS, given the geographic proximity of Tehran and its regional proxy forces.
But even more limited strikes have proved too much for Saudi Arabia, including recent ones by Houthis who claimed successful attacks on a civilian airport, oil pumping stations and the Shaybah oilfield.
“We are open. Any real facility has no real coverage,” a Saudi security source said.
The Sept. 14 assault on two plants belonging to state oil giant Saudi Aramco was the worst on regional oil facilities since Saddam Hussein torched Kuwait’s oil wells during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis.
The company said on Tuesday that production would be back to normal quicker than initially feared, but the attack nonetheless shocked oil markets.
Riyadh said preliminary results indicated the weapons used were Iranian but the launch location was still undetermined.
Authorities initially specified drones, but three U.S. officials said the use of cruise missiles and drones indicated a higher degree of complexity and sophistication than initially thought.
“The attack is like Sept. 11th for Saudi Arabia, it is a game changer,” said a Saudi security analyst who declined to be named.
“Where are the air defense systems and the U.S. weaponry for which we spent billions of dollars to protect the kingdom and its oil facilities? If they did this with such precision, they can also hit the desalination plants and more targets.”
The main Saudi air defense system, positioned mainly to defend major cities and installations, has long been the U.S.-made long-range Patriot system.
It has successfully intercepted high-altitude ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis at Saudi cities, including the capital Riyadh, since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen against the group in March 2015.
But since drones and cruise missiles fly more slowly and at lower altitudes, they are difficult for Patriots to detect with adequate time to intercept.
“Drones are a huge challenge for Saudi Arabia because they often fly under the radar and given long borders with Yemen and Iraq, the kingdom is very vulnerable,” said a senior Gulf official.