Yemen in Focus: Houthis attack Saudi oil amid unrest

Yemen in Focus: Houthis target Saudi oil pipeline amid flaring Gulf tensions
7 min read
17 May, 2019
This week we take a look at tensions in the Gulf exacerbated by attacks on oil tankers and Houthi strikes on Saudi's pipeline, the rebel withdrawal of Hodeida and more.
Coalition warplanes hit Sanaa after Houthi drone strikes shut a key Saudi oil pipeline [Getty]
Chief of all stories this week is the Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia's main oil pipeline on Tuesday, which forced the kingdom to shut down the vital East-West Pipeline, further ratcheting up Gulf tensions after the mysterious sabotage of several oil tankers.

The pipeline, which pumps five million barrels of oil a day from the oil-rich eastern province to a Red Sea export terminal, was struck by drones early on Tuesday and was announced hours after Yemen's Houthis said they had targeted vital installations in Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition against the rebels.

Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said Saudi Aramco had "temporarily shut down" the pipeline to "evaluate its condition" but added that oil production and exports had not been interrupted.

"The company (Saudi Aramco) is working on restoring the pumping station before resuming operations," he said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The stations reportedly targeted lie west of Riyadh, at Dawadmi and Afeef.

Read also: Family of three killed in Yemen as Saudi-led coalition bombs Sanaa

Falih said Tuesday's incident was an "act of terrorism... that not only targets the kingdom but also the security of oil supplies to the world and the global economy".

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdusalam meanwhile wrote on Twitter that the attacks were "a response to the aggressors continuing to commit genocide" against the Yemeni people, where tens of thousands have died in what the UN describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

During the course of the conflict, the Houthis have launched several missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, though both countries have denied some attacks.  

Read also: Middle East drone wars heat up in Yemen

The reported pipeline attacks came after the UAE said four ships were damaged in "sabotage attacks" off the emirate of Fujairah, close to the Hormuz, on Sunday.

Washington and its Gulf allies stopped short of blaming Riyadh's regional arch-rival Tehran for the sabotage, but US President Donald Trump warned Iran against doing anything to harm US interests.

Both attacks came after the US deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group, an amphibious assault vessel, a Patriot missile battery and B-52 bombers, triggering fears of a possible military confrontation.

The United Nations urged all sides to "exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace".

Washington and its Gulf allies stopped short of blaming Riyadh's regional arch-rival Tehran for the sabotage, but US President Donald Trump warned Iran against doing anything to harm US interests

Hodeida doubts

Despite the acts of aggression outside, Yemen's Houthi rebels took a different approach toward peace within the borders, though not many bought into their "show".

The UN confirmed Yemen's Houthi rebels handed over the security of key Red Sea ports to the "coastguard", despite widespread doubts among the government. 

The rebel pullback is part of a hard-won truce agreement struck in Sweden in December between Yemen's Saudi-backed government and the Houthis.

But the government has accused the insurgents of merely handing over the ports to their own forces in different uniforms.

The UN said on Sunday it had been monitoring the withdrawal of the Houthi rebels from the Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Issa terminals but much work remains to remove military equipment.

A UN team was there on Tuesday to verify the redeployment.

Its head, General Michael Lollesgaard, welcomed the handover "of the security of the ports to the coastguard", according to a UN statement.

"There is still a lot of work to be done on the removal of the manifestations, but cooperation has been very good. UN teams will continue to monitor these initial steps in an impartial and transparent manner."

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam wrote on Twitter that the rebels "have completed their commitment in implementing the first phase of redeployment".

The United Nations has brushed aside government complaints that the withdrawal was flawed, insisting that it was proceeding as planned.

"This is redeployment activity that's being monitored and verified by the United Nations, and it is going according to procedure," UN spokesman Farhan Haq said. 

"I'm well aware that there are contradictory points of opinions from the opposing sides."

The governor of Hodeida, Al-Hasan Taher, said the Houthis were merely reshuffling personnel, echoing sentiments shared by Yemenis on social media.

"The Houthis are staging a new ploy by handing over the ports of Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Issa without any monitoring by the United Nations and the government side," the government-appointed official said.

UN envoy "Martin Griffiths wants to achieve victory even if the Houthis hand over (the ports) to themselves," Taher said.

"This is totally rejected by us, and the agreement must be implemented in full, especially with regards to the identity of the troops that will take over from the Houthis," he added.

Yemen's information minister accused the rebels of faking the pullout. 

"What the Huthi militia did is a repeated theatrical play of handing over control of the port to its own forces (in different uniforms)," Moammer al-Eryani tweeted on Sunday. 

"This shows its continued manipulation and evasion to implement the Sweden agreement... by adopting a policy of deception."

Meanwhile, the British ambassador to Yemen triggered debate online after accusing Yemenis suspicious of the withdrawal as "cynics".

The British ambassador to Yemen triggered debate online after accusing Yemenis suspicious of the withdrawal as 'cynics'

"The Yemeni cynics who criticise everything the other side does even if it is positive and who say the UN are naive seem to be saying the only solution is perpetual war in Yemen. I have more faith in Yemenis and believe they can live together in peace and security," Michael Aron tweeted just hours after the Houthis announced the withdrawal.

But the remarks were met with anger by Yemenis on social media, many of which urged the ambassador to take on board the opinion of people on the ground.

BAE keeps Saudi Arabia armed

Meanwhile, British arms maker BAE Systems revealed it was working with the UK government and industry partners to keep Saudi Arabia supplied with arms, despite Germany's recent extension of its ban on weapon exports to the kingdom.

Germany ceased arms exports to Saudi Arabia following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year with a ban designed to halt world weapons exports to the kingdom, which has faced international criticism for its leading role in the war in Yemen.

BAE, Europe's biggest defence company, announced on Thursday it would continue to ship weapons to Saudi Arabia.

While the ban initially encompassed weapons produced elsewhere with German parts, its March extension made an exception for such arms, including the Eurofighter and Tornado jets.

"Following the recent updates from the German government regarding export licences, we are working closely with industry partners and the UK government to continue to fulfil our contractual support arrangements in Saudi Arabia on the key European collaboration programmes," BAE said in a statement before its annual general meeting on Thursday according to The Independent.

The arms giant's shares had suffered in February after it warned that its multibillion-dollar deals with Saudi Arabia could be threatened by the ban.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt penned an angry letter to his German counterpart, requesting that Berlin reconsider the ban due to its potential impact on the British and European arms industries.

The UK has faced a heavy backlash for its continuous arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which is currently waging a brutal war in Yemen and relies heavily upon British-made weapons. Human rights organisations have called for a ban on these sales.

Saudi Arabia has been among BAE's most lucrative customers.

BAE works with German companies Airbus and MTU Aero Engines on the Eurofighter Typhoon, 72 of which Saudi Arabia purchased in 2007.

The ban had previously put a question mark on BAE's capability to make good on a £10 billion ($13 billion) deal with Riyadh for 48 Typhoons.

Belgian suspension

Similar debates took place in Belgium this week, with reports saying Belgian leaders are mulling the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia after it was reported they had been used in Yemen.

Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told RTBF: "I think it would be good to suspend arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia" if it were shown they had been used "in an ongoing conflict, such as in Yemen," in which case he said the regional Walloonian government "must" take that decision.

Belgium's constitution places responsibility for such decisions on the producer region, in this case Wallonia, which owns the arms manufacturer FN Herstal.

Regional president Willy Borsus told RTBF it "could go as far as suspending existing arms export licenses" if conditions under which they were granted had been violated.

Belgian newspaper Le Soir said on Wednesday an investigation showed Riyadh had used Belgian arms and technology in operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen, where more than four years of fighting has killed tens of thousands of people, relief agencies say. 

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino 

Yemen In Focus is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.