Oil prices shot up to over $70 a barrel following multiple attacks on Saudi oil facilities in the east of the kingdom at the start of the week. The Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen, after weeks of intensified drone and missile attacks, claimed responsibility.
The development belies hopes of a ceasefire and negotiations to end the Yemen war, a declared aim of the Joe Biden administration whose newly appointed special envoy to Yemen joined his UN counterpart. But the recent tension between Washington and Riyadh seems to have slowed down the push for a political solution in the war-torn country.
The Sunday attack on eastern Saudi Arabia takes the military escalation to new heights. Houthi attacks had targeted southern Saudi regions across the border from northern Yemen, an area controlled by the militia, with the Saudi provinces of Asir and Jazanbore bearing the brunt of the escalation in recent weeks.
But the latest attack targeted Dammam, and there have been reports of attacks on Jeddah, compromising the Gulf and Red Sea coasts respectively. The official Saudi Press Agency issued a statement saying the Royal Saudi Air Force intercepted Houthi attacks on a storage tank at Ras Tanura, one of the largest oil shipping ports in the world.
Later on Sunday, shrapnel from a ballistic missile was sighted in Dhahran, where state oil giant Aramco has its headquarters and thousands of employees and their families live. Though the attacks “did not result in any injury or loss of life or property”, this is still a serious escalation.
The last attack on Aramco facilities in September 2019 led to a half in the production of almost half of Saudi Arabia’s oil output. The Houthis also claimed responsibility for the attack, while Riyadh suspected Iran. According to the Houthis, the new attack targeting Aramco facilities involved more than a dozen armed drones and ballistic missiles. It was in response to the Saudi-led Coalition bombing the Yemeni capital Sanaa and other areas under Houthi control.
Meanwhile the Houthi militia is fighting fiercely for control of Marib, which is being defended by coalition-backed legitimate government forces. Some Yemeni sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Southern Transition Council (STC) forces are reluctant to join government forces in Marib.
Saudi Arabia brokered an agreement between the government and the STC more than a year ago, but its implementation has faced many challenges. The main obstacle was the refusal of the STC to give up a larger share of the Saudi-backed government to the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Islah party. The STC controls most of southern Yemen and hopes to secede from northern Yemen, or at least achieve some kind of autonomy in any future political settlement.
But no such settlement is in sight. The hype about ending the war is quieting down as Washington prioritises the nuclear deal with Iran, and it remains unclear how large a part Gulf concerns will play in the relevant negotiations.
One former American diplomat has suggested there may be discussion of “an Iranian commitment not to interfere in its neighbours’ internal affairs”. Including Iran’s ballistic missile programme in a new deal, which Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have been calling for, is not yet guaranteed. At a time when the UN and international humanitarian organisations are decrying the lack of funds to alleviate the human disaster in Yemen, what is more, military escalation looks like it will continue.
A virtual conference held by the UN and co-hosted by Sweden and Switzerland on 1 March to raise $3.85 billion to help civilians in Yemen fell short of its goal, securing only $1.7 billion in pledges, which UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described as “disappointing”. He added, “millions of Yemeni children, women and men desperately need aid to live. Cutting aid is a death sentence.”
In a subsequent statement, Guterres said, “funding was less than what we received for the humanitarian response plan in 2020 and a billion dollars less than what was pledged at the conference we held in 2019.” Close to half a million children under age of five in Yemen face the threat of death from malnutrition and disease. Millions are displaced by the war and live in drastically dire conditions. The latest military escalations have only made things worse.
Yemenis feel more and more abandoned by the world community. The glimpse of hope of ending the war and providing aid to millions crushed by poverty is fading. One anonymous Yemeni citizen seemed to describe the situation accurately when he said, “we are being forgotten and left to die, if not by war then of famine and diseases.
Political settlement is not the concern of anybody, and the world is cutting humanitarian aid. We are left to the warring parties, poverty and sickness. All are turning away not to feel the stain of shame on humanity’s forehead”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly