By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

A version of this appeared at The Jerusalem Post

Drone attacks caused large fires at an oil facility of Aramco in Saudi Arabia on Saturday morning. Two factories belonging to the company were targeted in Abqaiq and Khurais were targeted by drones, Saudi Arabia media reported.

These areas are very close to US bases in Bahrain, where the 5th fleet is located, and Al-Udeid in Qatar. It is also not that far from sensitive US facilities in Kuwait and UAE. How did drones penetrate this airspace without being detected by radar and air defense. These are important questions. It comes amid rising tensions in the region.

The attacks began around four in the morning and video showed massive fires, billowing smoke and locals reported explosions. They allegedly struck at the processing plant in Abqaiq (Buqayq) and the Khurais oil field.

Iranian media implied that the attacks were carried out by Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been backed by Tehran. However the facilities that were struck are in northeastern Saudi Arabia, closer to Bahrain and Qatar. A drone would have had to fly 1,000 km to reach the facilities. Drone attacks from Yemen have usually targeted areas close to the Yemen border. Two exception stand out. First was a May 14 attack that also caused Aramco to stop pumping oil. That attack was later blamed, according to a US report in the Wall Street Journal on a paramilitary group operating from Iraq. The second case was the Shaybah attack in mid-August. Allegedly that attack was carried out by up to ten drones, according to the Houthis.

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The full details of the most recent, September 14 attack, were not available on Saturday morning and it was not clear where the drones had come from. Iran has frequently boasted of new drone technology over the last nine months, including long-ranger drones. In early September Tehran unveiled the Kian long-range surveillance and attack drone. Iran’s Press TV is seeking to highlight the attack and blame it on a Saudi-led war in Yemen that has sought to support the Yemen government against the Houthis. The war has been controversial because it has been blamed for suffering in Yemen. Iran’s Press TV claims the “western-backed military aggression, coupled with a naval blockade, has killed tens of thousands.” Iran says this is a “quagmire” for the Saudis, and it is clear that there is a kind of proxy conflict taking place in Yemen. Every drone and rocket strike by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia is highlighted in Iranian media, as if it was an accomplishment by Tehran. This is because the technology for drones, ballistic missiles and air defense among the Houthis is linked to Tehran. For instance the Houthis have shot down at least two US drones over the past six months. There have been alleged splits in the Saudi-UAE coalition that has been fighting against the Houthis in Yemen. In addition separatists in Aden have caused rifts in the alliance against the Houthis.

The last month has seen the Yemen conflict heat up. A US drone was downed in mid-August and separatists briefly controlled parts of Aden. It took several hours for Saudi Arabia to conflrm the fires at its oil facilities on Saturday morning. Most of the blazes appeared under control. But the attack was also a serious escalation. This is the third attack of this kind, a long-range strike on key oil infrastructure. That shows that ability of the drone operator to carry out precision attacks. It also shows they have improve the ordnance carried by the drones. In addition it shows the drones can fly long-distances. Saudi Arabia, a key ally of the US, has not been able to interdict these long-distance strikes. It has been able to bring down drones closer to the border with Yemen. Is this because the air defense can’t operate at such long distances? Radar should be able to detect these incursions into Saudi airspace and present a clear picture of where the drones came from. The question then for Riyadh and Washington is how to interdict these drone strikes and also where to assign blame. Having drones striking facilities in key areas near Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE border is a major challenge. It also comes amid the US-Iran tensions. Iran has been hard hit by sanctions and the US wants to drive Iranian oil exports to near-zero. Iran has said this is economic war and it has appeared to respond since May to US efforts. With discussions now about possible sanctions relief or France or other European powers stepping in to broker something, attacks on key oil facilities by a Tehran ally can be seen as pressuring western allies. It can also be seen as showing off drone technology.