Satellite photos show Yemeni rebels hit Saudi oil site again

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen hit the same oil storage tank in the Saudi city of Jeddah this week that they hit a year and a half ago, showed satellite photos on Tuesday.

Satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC, analyzed by The Associated Press, show Sunday’s damage to the North Jiddah bulk plant, which sits just southeast of the city’s international airport, a hub crucial for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca.

That same storage tank – owned by state oil giant Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Saudi Aramco – was hit by what the Houthis described as a cruise missile in a November 2020 attack..

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

“There’s not much to suggest the attack will have an immediate impact on oil supply,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “But there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is using this as an opportunity to pressure the United States at a difficult time for US-Saudi relations.”

Saudi government officials and Aramco did not respond to questions on Tuesday.

Sunday’s Houthi attack represents one of his most intense barrages of the war, which has seen the kingdom launch punitive airstrikes in Yemen that have been internationally criticized for killing civilians. Among the targets was a petrochemical complex in Yanbu, on the Red Sea coast, which Saudi officials say caused a halt in production at the world’s largest oil exporter.

Another target was the Northern Jiddah Bulk Plant, which stores diesel, gasoline and jet fuel for use in Jeddah, the kingdom’s second-largest city about 285 kilometers (177 miles) to the southeast. from Yanbu on the coast. 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.

Saudi authorities earlier described the attack as causing a “limited fire in one of the tanks, (which was) brought under control with no casualties”. The Houthis said they used the Quds-2 land attack cruise missile in the assault.

Planet Labs PBC photos, taken on Monday, showed what was likely white fire-fighting material surrounding the tank, which appeared damaged on its south side. A new detailed photo taken on Tuesday showed the debris and material had been partially cleared, with a hole clearly punched through the burnt tank.

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

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

“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 AP reported that the United States had removed its own Patriot and THAAD defense systems from Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh..

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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