On early Saturday, September 14, explosions lit up the predawn sky in Eastern Saudi Arabia as two of the monarchy’s major oil plants were bombed in drone strikes. The raids knocked out what accounts for more than half of Saudi Arabia’s oil output, as well as around 5% of the entire world’s oil supply.
The Yemeni Houthi rebels who have been in war against the Saudi-led coalition since 2015, soon claimed responsibility for the attack, stating it is one of their major operations within Saudi borders, and which purportedly involved 10 drones.
The Houthis threatened to lead more attacks, but the United States and Saudi Arabia maintained that Iran was behind the strikes. US officials said the drones were launched from the North of Saudi Arabia, rather than from the South in Yemen.
Iran denied any involvement in the attacks, although it had often threatened to hinder other countries’ oil exports, as Tehran itself undergoes relentless sanctions on its oil trade (which the United States seeks to cut to a rate as low as “zero”).
“There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate,” a US official told Reuters on Sunday. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo also ruled out Houthi involvement, accusing Iran of an “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”
Although denying its connection, Iran said it was ready for a “full-fledged war”. Trump soon tweeted that the United States, too, was “locked and loaded depending on verification” to respond to the attack.
“Remember when Iran shot down a drone, saying knowingly that it was in their ‘airspace’ when, in fact, it was nowhere close. They stuck strongly to that story knowing that it was a very big lie. Now they say that they had nothing to do with the attack on Saudi Arabia. We’ll see,” Trump later posted.
The US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft told the UN Security Council on Monday that growing information “indicates that responsibility lies with Iran,” as there is no evidence of Yemen’s involvement.
Yemen’s UN envoy Martin Griffiths told the same council that it was “not entirely clear” who was behind the attack, but his statement made it even less evidence that the drones were launched from Yemen.
The attacks drew reactions from all around the world. Japan’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi was among the first to share his concerns about the Middle East’s stability following the incident, saying that he and Pompeo “agreed that if the situation in the Middle East becomes unstable, that would affect the international economy.”
Russia, however, deemed it “unacceptable” in case of retaliation from Saudi Arabia or its allies, as the Kremlin said it was “counterproductive” to use the incident as a means to increase tensions in the region.
Relying on “preliminary” findings, the Saudi-led coalition said on Monday that the attacks were not launched from Yemen and were carried out with Iranian weapons. The coalition’s spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, said the investigation was still under the process to determine the exact launch location.
“The preliminary results show that the weapons are Iranian and we are currently working to determine the location … The terrorist attack did not originate from Yemen as the Houthi militia claimed,” Malki told reporters in Riyadh. “This cowardly act largely targets the global economy and not Saudi Arabia,” he later added.
Hitting the world’s biggest crude oil processing plant, the attacks not only propelled worldwide concerns and political turmoil, but also appeared to affect the energy global market.
On Monday, two days following the attack, oil prices soared to as high as 20%, as the strikes were estimated to have knocked out a barrel-per-day rate of 5.7 million of Saudi Arabia’s whole output. Analysts said that Brent, which usually trades at $66 per barrel, could reach $100 the barrel if Saudi Arabia fails to recover quickly.
However, it may take Saudi Arabia months to bring its oil supply to normal volumes. Many countries that collaborate with Saudi Arabia in oil trade are expecting a rise in gas prices.
In a bid to help managing the new crisis, Trump ordered to release US strategic reserves —which are usually only proceeded to in case of emergency— to supply Saudi Arabia and prevent a further jump in prices. South Korea said it will do the same if the circumstances worsened.
The German government, which said on Monday that it will still extend the arms export sanctions on Saudi Arabia, stated that its oil supply wasn’t affected by the attacks, and that any decision to release strategic reserves must be made jointly with the members of the International Energy Agency —30 countries as a whole— making it even harder to expect an unanimous agreement on helping Saudi Arabia.
Israel, having long shared feuds with Saudi Arabia against Iran, also said on Monday it was prepared for any spillover in case of a —now more imminent— confrontation with Iran.
Whether or not Iran is first-degree responsible for hitting Saudi Arabia’s heart of oil industry, it is hard to decontextualise the incident from the Yemen War, which largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This year, Houthi rebels have stepped up drone and missile attacks in numerous Saudi locations and facilities, whereas Saudi Arabia and the coalition it leads are accused of alarming human rights abuses and war crimes.