Yemeni Rebel Attack Sets Saudi Oil Facility Ablaze

BEIRUT, Lebanon — An attack on an oil storage facility in Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels in Yemen on Friday ignited a huge fire that filled the sky over the port city of Jeddah with black smoke on the first day of a Formula One car race aimed at drawing international spectators.

A spokesman for the Saudi coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen called the strike an “aggressive escalation” aimed at disrupting oil markets and hurting the world economy.

The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, saying they had also targeted other oil facilities across Saudi Arabia with drones and cruise missiles.

Saudi Arabia’s state-run news media reported some of those attempts, but only the attack in Jeddah appeared to have caused significant damage.

The attacks were the latest attempt by the Houthis to inflict economic damage on Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, after seven years of grinding war in neighboring Yemen.

The Houthis, who have received military and financial aid from Iran, the Saudis’ regional nemesis, seized Yemen’s capital, Sana, in 2014, sending the Yemeni government into exile and spurring a military intervention by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries aimed at restoring the Yemeni government.

The war has settled into a stalemate while causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with malnutrition, poverty and illnesses such as cholera afflicting large numbers of Yemenis.

Brig. Gen. Turki al-Maliki, a spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, said the attack had hit a fuel distribution station belonging to Saudi Aramco, the Saudi state oil monopoly, in Jeddah.

The attack set on fire two storage tanks, General al-Maliki said, adding that no one had been hurt and that the blazes had been brought under control.

Images of a fire ball rising from the storage tanks and a column of black smoke filling the sky spread on social media and appeared to spook oil markets, which were already on edge because of uncertainty caused by the war in Ukraine. Oil briefly rose above $120 a barrel before dropping slightly.

Drone and missile attacks from Yemen on Saudi Arabia have grown common in recent years, and while most do not do much damage, some do, and others tarnish the kingdom’s efforts to sell itself as a safe place for foreign investors, businessmen and tourists.

Friday’s attack appeared timed to coincide with the opening of the Formula One event, which is scheduled to run through Sunday. The attack was close enough to the venue that the smoke was clearly visible from the track, where practice runs were taking place for the races meant to kick off on Saturday.

The kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has pushed to bring such events to Saudi Arabia as part of his broader plans to open up the country and diversify its oil-based economy.

Prince Mohammed, who also serves as the kingdom’s defense minister, was also the architect of the country’s military intervention in Yemen in 2015, which Saudi officials at the time told their American counterparts would only last for a few weeks.

In January, the Houthis carried out a similar attack on the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally in the war in Yemen, blowing up oil tankers and killing three people. The rare attack on a country that does not share a border with Yemen suggested increased Houthi reach and capabilities, analysts said.

In September 2019, an attack claimed by the Houthis damaged key oil processing plants in eastern Saudi Arabia, temporarily knocking them offline.

The increasing sophistication of the attacks has led Gulf officials and military analysts to accuse Iran either of training and equipping its Yemeni allies to carry out the attacks or launching them themselves while using the Houthis for cover.

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