Jeddah: Yemen’s Houthi rebels attacked an oil depot on Friday in the Saudi city of Jeddah ahead of a Formula One race in the kingdom. It was the rebels’ highest-profile assault yet, though Saudi authorities pledged the upcoming grand Prix would go on as scheduled.
The attack targeted the same fuel depot that the Houthis had attacked in recent days, the North Jeddah Bulk Plant that sits just southeast of the city’s international airport and is a crucial hub for Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca. No injuries were reported in the attack.
The publicly traded Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Saudi Aramco, did not respond to a request for comment. Saudi authorities acknowledged a “hostile operation” by the Houthis targeting the depot with a missile.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia leads a coalition battling the Iran-backed Houthis, who seized Yemen’s capital of Sanaa in September 2014. The kingdom, which entered the war in 2015, has been internationally criticized for its airstrikes that have killed scores of civilians — something the Houthis point to as they launch drones, missiles, and mortars into the kingdom.
Brig Gen Turki al-Malki, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the fire-damaged two tanks and was put out without injuries.
“This hostile escalation targets oil facilities and aims to undermine energy security and the backbone of the global economy,” al-Malki said, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. “These hostile attacks had no impact or repercussions in any way, shape or form on public life in Jeddah.”
The Saudi-led coalition warned overnight it would launch new attacks on Yemen, including on the hard-hit port city of Hodeida.
Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser, condemned the attacks and called them “clearly enabled by Iran” despite an ongoing U.N. arms embargo. While Tehran denies arming the Houthis, U.N. experts and Western nations have linked weaponry in the rebels’ hands back to Iran.
In Tehran, authorities bathed its Azadi, or “Freedom,” Square in a light projection showing the faces of Houthi leaders.
“At a time when the parties should be focused on de-escalation and bringing needed life-saving relief to the Yemeni people ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, the Houthis continue their destructive behaviour and reckless terrorist attacks striking civilian infrastructure,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken separately said in a statement.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the Houthi attacks on Twitter. “These strikes put civilian lives at risk and must stop,” he wrote.
A photojournalist covering practice laps at the F1 track in Jeddah saw the smoke rising in the distance to the east, just after 5:40 p.m. As the flames rose, the tops of the tanks of the bulk plant were clearly visible some 11.5 kilometres (7 miles) away. Drivers raced on into the evening even as the fire burned.
The second-ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah is taking place on Sunday, though concerns had been raised by some over the recent attacks targeting the kingdom.
Hours later, the F1 said plans for Saturday’s third practice and qualifying and Sunday’s race were still set to go ahead. The Saudi Motorsport Co., which promotes the race, acknowledged the attack but said the “race weekend schedule will continue as planned.”
We “remain in direct contact with Saudi security authorities, as well as F1 and the FIA to ensure all necessary security and safety measures,” the company said, referring to motorsport’s governing body. “The safety and security of all our guests continue to be our main priority.”
The al-Masirah satellite news channel run by Yemen’s Houthi rebels later claimed they had attacked an Aramco facility in Jeddah, along with other targets in Riyadh and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Saudi state TV also acknowledged attacks in one town targeting water tanks that damaged vehicles and homes. Another attack targeted an electrical substation in an area of southwestern Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border, state TV said.
The North Jeddah Bulk Plant stores diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel for use in Jeddah, the kingdom’s second-largest city. It accounts for over a quarter of all of Saudi Arabia’s supplies and also supplies fuel crucial to running a regional desalination plant.
The Houthis have twice targeted the North Jeddah plant with cruise missiles. One attack came in November 2020. The last came on Sunday as part of a wider barrage by the Houthis.
At the time of the 2020 attack, the targeted tank, which has a capacity of 500,000 barrels, held diesel fuel, according to a recent report by a U.N. panel of experts examining Yemen’s war. Repairing it after the last attack cost Aramco some $1.5 million.
The U.N. experts described the facility as a “civilian target,” which the Houthis should have avoided after the 2020 attack.
Cruise missiles and drones remain difficult to defend against, though the U.S. recently sent a significant number of Patriot anti-missile interceptors to Saudi Arabia to resupply the kingdom amid the Houthi attacks.
The attacks have renewed questions about the kingdom’s ability to defend itself from Houthi fire as a yearslong war in the Arab world’s poorest country rages on with no end in sight.