The combination of unprofessionalism in the Saudi armed forces and the lack of a clear understanding of strategic and tactical defence needs have led to a major security breach in the kingdom.

In the wake of the Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq Aramco facility, oil markets are describing the moment as Saudi Arabia’s ‘Pearl Harbor’, causing the world’s highest climb in crude oil prices in a single day.

Amidst the chaos, the Saudi military has come under scrutiny for its lack of preparation to counter attacks, following escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

Strikes against Saudi infrastructure and targets by Houthi rebels have become commonplace and have only grown increasingly more sophisticated and frequent. 

The Abqaiq strike was not the first drone attack against Saudi Arabia, leading to the question: was it a blunder of staggering proportions or an unexpected surprise?

Fault not with Saudi Arabia

According to Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir, the fault wasn’t with Saudi Arabia’s defences. In a press conference, he claimed that the kingdom was “targeted by 260 ballistic missiles, and more than 150 unmanned drones”. He goes on to add that the Saudi Arabian Forces were able to “prevent them from reaching their targets, and destroyed a great number of drones”,implying that the attack was caused by a small minority that got through.

“Saudi Arabia should have invested in critical defense infrastructure to let them see attacks coming from hundreds of kilometres away. If the attack on Aramco’s facility came from Yemen, that means a drone would have flown well over five hours to reach the facility, which suggests either incompetence, or alternatively the lack of hard or technical capabilities,” says Mark Jefferson, an analyst with Stratton Consulting Group, who spoke to TRT World.

The question remains, why didn’t Saudi Arabia’s defence strategists harden critical strategic infrastructure and defences against them? In the case that Saudi Arabia is unable to develop credible defences against a militia for targets of national and international significance, its rhetoric for combatting Iran conventionally may suffer a major blow. 

The Houthis however, long since defined as a militia, have steadily grown into something else.

Over the years, Houthi rebels have received significant support and training from Iran and its proxies including Hezbollah. This provided it with a plethora of new armaments, which have made all the difference to the once-ragtag group. 

With the infusion of heavier firepower, advanced missiles and drones into Houthi armouries, Saudi Arabia has found itself hard-pressed to fulfill its campaign targets in Yemen. 

For one, it was unable to blockade arms transfers to the Houthis, to say nothing of failing to push them out of Sanaa.

Houthi attacks have gone from random, ballistic fire-and-forget barrages to targeted strikes, going after essential targets such as airports and oil installations. Threateningly, successive strikes have become more accurate and penetrated more deeply into Saudi Arabian territory. 

While Saudi Arabia has attempted to intercept Houthi missiles, their state-of-the-art Patriot batteries have just as often been unable to shoot down outdated Scud missiles that once saw use in the first and second Gulf wars.  

Houthi rebels on the other hand, seem to have adopted an asymmetrical strategy prioritising economic pressure on Saudi Arabia, given their inability to match the kingdom’s considerable defence spending or arsenal. 

Spread thin

While Saudi Arabia has been the victim of drone and missile attacks from Houthis to the south, an explanation for the gap in defences that allowed the attack is that it came from the north, or even possibly from the east, if the Saudi narrative is to be believed. 

It was just this year that an Iraqi group used drones to bomb a Saudi oil pipeline.

Asymmetric warfare relies on cheap but effective tactics that can surprise a stronger military force, while dealing high damage at low cost. But asymmetric warfare is hardly a novel concept, much less so after years of combating it along its borders. 

Aside from an incredibly large defence budget, Saudi Arabia enjoys close ties with the United States, which over the last 50 years has provided the kingdom with the $150 billion of the best fighter jets, air defence systems and advanced weaponry. The US assistance to the Kingdom of Saud doesn’t end there, given that it benefits from significant amounts of US intelligence. 

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition's campaign in Yemen to the south has stretched on for four years, leaving well over 8,500 dead and 9,600 injured.

Khaled Amro, an analyst for OMRAN, suggests that Saudi Arabia’s purchases of high-tech defence gear doesn’t equate to experience using it.“Other countries have long traditions of combined arms coordination within their national defence set-ups. Saudi Arabia hasn’t been at it that long. They have the gear, the ranks and the men; but it’s one thing to have an army on paper, and another to have an effective fighting force,” said Amro.

He added: “Saudi Arabia has no clear hierarchy when it comes to dealing with external aerial threats. That’s a limiting factor. It’s certainly difficult to detect, much less shoot down low-flying missiles or drones; but being taken by surprise is another level of misconduct.” 

A UK defence consultant for the Saudi military spoke to TRT World anonymously about what he believed to be the problem behind Saudi Arabia’s inadequate defence. 

 “I provided consultancy to the Saudi end by overseeing a number of G-3 Warfighter automatic rifle deals, and I was very taken aback in finding that the top brass who were pushing for massive deals were pushing for defence gear without a clear understanding of the kingdom’s strategic and tactical defence needs. It was just shopping for shopping’s sake,” he said.

“You had some brilliant officers throughout their corps, let me be clear,” he added.

“But you just as often had unmotivated, unprofessional officers and NCOs who got their positions through personal connections, and nothing is more damaging to a military’s ability to fight back or even develop a clear vision to realising security for its people.”

Source: TRT World