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Houthi drones spark fires at two Saudi oil facilities

Kuwait condemns attacks – 6 UAE troops killed in ‘military collision’; Amir sends condolences

RIYADH: Drone attacks sparked fires at two Saudi Aramco oil facilities yesterday, the interior ministry said, the latest such assault claimed by Yemeni rebels following a spike in regional tensions with Iran. Huge palls of smoke rose into the sky after the pre-dawn attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais, two major Aramco facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia as the state-owned giant prepares for a much-anticipated stock listing.

The attacks highlight how the increasingly advanced weaponry of the Iran-linked Houthi rebels – from ballistic missiles to unmanned drones – poses a serious threat to oil installations in Saudi Arabia, the world’s top crude exporter. “At 4:00 am (0100 GMT) the industrial security teams of Aramco started dealing with fires at two of its facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais as a result of… drones,” the interior ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. “The two fires have been controlled.”

The statement added that an investigation had been launched after the attack in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, but did not specify whether operations at the two facilities had been affected. Interior ministry spokesman Mansour Al-Turki told AFP there were no casualties. But the full extent of the damage was not immediately clear as reporters were not allowed near the plants where Saudi authorities appeared to have beefed up security.

ABQAIQ, Saudi Arabia: Smoke billows from an Aramco oil facility about 60 km southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province yesterday. – AFP

The latest strikes drew swift condemnation from Riyadh’s Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. An official source at the Kuwaiti ministry of foreign affairs yesterday expressed Kuwait’s strong condemnation of the attacks. The source condemned in the strongest terms the sabotage attack that targeted the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and the global energy supply. The source confirmed Kuwait’s call on the international community to redouble efforts to curb such attacks and prevent their recurrence. It also stressed Kuwait’s full support to Saudi Arabia in all measures it has taken to preserve its security and territorial integrity. The source concluded the statement by asking Allah Almighty to preserve Saudi Arabia and its brotherly people from all harm.

Three sources close to the matter said oil production and exports had been affected. One source said 5 million barrels per day of crude production had been impacted – close to half the kingdom’s output – but did not elaborate. “A successful attack on Abqaiq would be akin to a massive heart attack for the oil market and global economy,” said Bob McNally, who runs Rapidan Energy Group and served in the US National Security Council during the second Gulf War in 2003.

Many Western employees of Aramco live in Abqaiq. The US Embassy in Riyadh said it was unaware of any injuries to Americans from the attacks. “These attacks against critical infrastructure endanger civilians, are unacceptable, and sooner or later will result in innocent lives being lost,” the embassy quoted Ambassador John Abizaid as saying in a Twitter post. The three sources said Aramco had raised emergency levels and was holding a crisis meeting after the assault.

“This is a relatively new situation for the Saudis. For the longest time they have never had any real fears that their oil facilities would be struck from the air,” Kamran Bokhari, founding director of the Washington-based Center for Global Policy, told Reuters. He said Riyadh had in the past largely protected oil assets against vehicle-borne explosive attacks by militant groups.

In recent months, the Houthi rebels have carried out a spate of cross-border missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi air bases and other facilities. The rebels launched “a large-scale operation involving 10 drones that targeted refineries in Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia”, the group’s Al-Masirah television reported.

Last month, an attack claimed by Houthi rebels sparked a fire at Aramco’s Shaybah natural gas liquefaction facility – close to the Emirati border – but no casualties were reported by the company. Rebel drones also targeted two oil pumping stations on Saudi Arabia’s key east-west pipeline in May, shutting it down for several days.

Growing Houthi attacks underscore how Saudi infrastructure, including oil installations, are increasingly vulnerable to rebel attacks four years after a Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention in Yemen. The Abqaiq facility, 60 km southwest of Aramco’s Dhahran headquarters, is home to the company’s largest oil processing plant. Khurais, 250 km from Dhahran, hosts a major Aramco oil field.

“Depending on the extent of the damage and any outages, Aramco will use its contingency plans by tapping into its storage if necessary,” Samir Madani, co-founder of shipping monitoring website Tanker Trackers, told AFP. “The Saudis are using language in their statements to assure customers that the fires are under control. But there could be supply disruptions if the damage at Abqaiq is extensive.”

The Abqaiq plant, which Aramco says plays a “pivotal role” in its operations, has been targeted by militants in the past. In an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda in Feb 2006, suicide bombers with explosive-laden vehicles attempted to penetrate the processing plant, killing two security guards. The two bombers also died in the attack, which failed to breach the compound, authorities reported at the time.

The latest attacks come as Saudi Arabia accelerates preparations for a much-anticipated initial public offering of Aramco, the world’s most profitable company. The mammoth IPO forms the cornerstone of a reform program envisaged by the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a son of King Salman, to wean the Saudi economy off its reliance on oil. Aramco is ready for a two-stage stock market debut including an international listing “very soon”, its CEO Amin Nasser told reporters on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the UAE, a key member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels, said Friday six of its soldiers were killed in a “collision of military vehicles” while on duty. It did not specify if the men died in Yemen. The armed forces announced “the martyrdom of six of its valiant soldiers as a result of a collision of military vehicles while carrying out their national duty in an operations field”, state news agency WAM reported. In July, Abu Dhabi announced a troop drawdown in Yemen, a move that many saw as an attempt to limit its losses amid escalating regional tensions with Tehran.

HH the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah sent on Friday a cable of condolences to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. The Amir expressed his sincere condolences and sorrow over the martyrdom of six Emirati soldiers while performing their national duty in the operations field. He prayed to Allah Almighty to bestow his mercy upon them, place them in his heavens, and bless them with martyrs’ status. HH the Deputy Amir and Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah sent similar cables to the Emirati president. – Agencies

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