Yemeni rebels attack oil depot in Saudi city hosting F1 race

Yemen’s Houthi rebels attacked an oil depot in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday ahead of a Formula 1 race in the kingdom – their most publicized assault yet that threatened to disrupt the upcoming grand prix.

The attack targeted the same fuel depot that the Houthis had attacked in recent days, the bulk plant in northern Jiddah, located just southeast of the city’s international airport and which is a crucial hub for Muslim pilgrims going to Mecca.

The Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Saudi Aramco, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Saudi authorities acknowledged a “hostile operation” by the Houthis targeting the depot, without describing the weapon used in the attack.

The attacks came as Saudi Arabia still leads a coalition battling the Iran-backed Houthis, who seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. The kingdom, which went to war in Yemen in 2015 was internationally criticized for its airstrikes that left dozens dead. civilians – something the Houthis are pointing to when they launch drones, missiles and mortars into the kingdom.

Brig.-Gen. Turki al-Malki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the fire damaged two tanks and was extinguished without causing injuries.

Brig.-Gen. Turki al-Malki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, is seen in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Tuesday. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

“This hostile escalation targets oil facilities and aims to undermine energy security and the backbone of the global economy,” al-Malki said, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

“These hostile attacks had no impact or repercussion in any way on public life in Jeddah.”

F1 “awaiting further information”

An Associated Press photojournalist covering practice laps at the F1 track in Jeddah saw smoke billowing in the distance to the east just after 5.40pm. As the flames rose, the tops of the bulk plant tanks were clearly visible about 11.5 kilometers away. a way.

Drivers ran into the evening even as the fire burned.

The second Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah takes place on Sunday, although some are concerned about recent attacks targeting the kingdom.

F1 said in a statement that: “The current position is that we await further information from the authorities on what has happened.” F1 did not specify.

Rebels hit ‘civilian target’

The al-Masirah satellite news channel run by Yemen’s Houthi rebels later claimed they attacked an Aramco facility in Jeddah, as well as other targets in Riyadh and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Saudi state television also acknowledged attacks in the city of Dhahran targeting water tanks that damaged vehicles and homes. Another attack targeted an electricity substation in an area of ​​southwestern Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border, state television said.

The North Jiddah Bulk Plant stores diesel, gasoline and jet fuel for use in Jeddah, the kingdom’s second largest city. It accounts for more than a quarter of all of Saudi Arabia’s supplies and also provides essential fuel for the operation of a regional desalination plant.

Damage is seen after an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels targeting Saudi Aramco’s northern bulk plant in Jeddah on March 21. (Planet Labs PBC/AP)

The Houthis have twice targeted the factory in northern Jeddah with cruise missiles. One attack took place in November 2020. The latest took place on Sunday as part of a wider Houthi barrage.

At the time of the 2020 attack, the targeted tank, which has a capacity of 500,000 barrels, contained diesel fuel, according to a recent report by a group of UN experts examining the war in Yemen. Its repair after the last attack cost Aramco about US$1.5 million.

UN experts have described the facility as a “civilian target”, which the Houthis should have avoided after the 2020 attack.

Houthi rebels are seen in Sanaa, Yemen, in November 2021. (Hani Mohammad/Associated Press)

“Although the facility also supplies the Saudi military with petroleum products, it primarily supplies civilian customers,” the panel said. “Had the factory been out of service for any significant period of time, the impact on the kingdom’s economy as well as the well-being of the people of the western region would likely have been significant.”

Cruise missiles and drones remain difficult to defend against, although the United States recently sent a significant number of Patriot anti-missile interceptors to Saudi Arabia to resupply the kingdom amid Houthi attacks.

In September, the Associated Press reported that the United States had removed its own Patriot and THAAD defense systems from Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh.

The attacks have renewed questions about the kingdom’s ability to defend itself against Houthi fire as a year-long war in the Arab world’s poorest country rages with no end in sight. It also comes as Saudi Arabia has issued an unusually stern warning that it is unable to guarantee its oil production will not be affected by further attacks – which could push global prices even higher. energy in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Benchmark Brent prices briefly rose above US$120 a barrel on Friday.