RIYADH/DUBAI/LONDON (Dispatches) -- Yemen’s drones on Saturday attacked two plants at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, including the world’s biggest petroleum processing facility, in a strike that several sources quoted by Reuters said had disrupted output and exports.
The pre-dawn drone attack on the Saudi Aramco facilities sparked several fires, although the kingdom, the world’s largest oil exporter, later claimed they were brought under control.
Three sources close to the matter, however, said oil production and exports had been affected, Reuters reported. One source said 5 million barrels per day of crude production had been impacted — close to half the kingdom’s output — but did not elaborate.
A spokesman for Saudi Arabia's interior ministry said in a statement that the attacks targeted two Aramco factories in Abqaiq and Khurais.
The statement did not identify the source of the attacks, but Yemen's Houthi movement later claimed responsibility in an announcement on Al Masirah TV.
The movement's military spokesman General Yahya Sare'e said 10 drones were deployed against the sites in Abqaiq and Khurais, and pledged to widen the range of attacks on Saudi Arabia.
"This was one of the largest operations which our forces have carried out deep inside Saudi Arabia. It came after careful intelligence and cooperation with honorable and free people inside Saudi Arabia," he said without elaboration.
A Reuters witness nearby said at least 15 ambulances were seen in the area and there was a heavy security presence around Abqaiq.
"A successful attack on Abqaiq would be akin to a massive heart attack for the oil market and global economy,” said Bob McNally, who runs Rapidan Energy Group and served in the U.S. National Security Council during the second Persian Gulf War in 2003.
Abqaiq is 60 km (37 miles) southwest of Aramco’s Dhahran headquarters. The oil processing plant handles crude from the world’s largest conventional oilfield, the supergiant Ghawar, and for export to terminals Ras Tanura - the world’s biggest offshore oil loading facility - and Juaymah. It also pumps westwards across the kingdom to Red Sea export terminals.
Two of the sources said Ghawar was flaring gas after the strikes disrupted gas processing facilities. Khurais, 190 km (118 miles) further southwest, contains the country’s second largest oilfield.
Many Western employees of Aramco live in Abqaiq. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh said it was unaware of any injuries to Americans from the attacks.
The three sources said Aramco had raised emergency levels and was holding a crisis meeting after the assault.
It was the latest in a series of Yemeni missile and drone strikes on Saudi cities that have recently hit targets, including Shaybah oilfield last month and oil pumping stations in May. Both those attacks caused fires but allegedly did not disrupt production.
"This is a relatively new situation for the Saudis. For the longest time they have never had any real fears that their oil facilities would be struck from the air,” Kamran Bokhari, founding director of the Washington-based Center for Global Policy, told Reuters.
Hours after the strike in Abqaiq, the Reuters witness said fire and smoke were still visible. Earlier video footage verified by Reuters showed bright flames and thick plumes of smoke rising toward the dark pre-dawn sky. An emergency vehicle is seen rushing toward the site.
Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on Yemen’s northern Saada province, on Saturday, a Reuters witness said. Houthi-run al Masirah TV said the warplanes targeted a military camp.
The Houthis’ military spokesman said drones hit refineries at both Saudi sites, which are over 1,000 km (621 miles) from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and pledged a widening of assaults on Saudi Arabia.
General Yahya Sare'e pledged to widen the range of retaliatory attacks on Saudi Arabia.
"As long as the invasion and siege continues, we promise the Saudi establishment that our future operations will expand further and become more painful," he said.
"There is no solution before the Saudi establishment other than halting attacks and putting an end to the siege," Sare'e added.
The latest attacks also come as Saudi Arabia, the world's top crude exporter, accelerates preparations for a much-anticipated initial public offering of Aramco.
The IPO forms the cornerstone of a program envisaged by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a son of King Salman, to replenish the kingdom’s once buoyant coffers which have dwindled in stride with falling oil prices and the protracted Yemen war.
The war has turned into a quagmire for Riyadh, with Yemeni forces increasingly using sophisticated weaponry in retaliatory attacks.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia’s most notable partner in the conflict, recently announced the gradual withdrawal of its troops from Yemen, largely because it believes the war has become "unwinnable", according to US reports.
Yemeni forces regularly target positions inside Saudi Arabia in retaliation for the Saudi war, which began in March 2015 in an attempt to reinstall the country's Riyadh-allied former regime and crush the popular Houthi Ansarullah movement.
The Western-backed military aggression, coupled with a naval blockade, has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis, destroyed the country’s infrastructure and led to a massive humanitarian crisis.