Saudi cities face growing threat of Yemen Houthi drones
Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) have stepped up drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities, highlighting what analysts call the kingdom's military vulnerabilities amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington.
Nine civilians were wounded Tuesday (July 2nd) in a Houthi attack on Abha airport in the kingdom's south, the latest in a series of recent strikes on the site.
The Houthis claimed they had hit the airport with drones.
The rise in drone warfare targeting Saudi civilian airports, desalination plants and other infrastructure follows the prevalence of Houthi ballistic missiles, including some that targeted the capital Riyadh.
As the US worked with Saudi Arabia to choke off missile smuggling routes, drones have emerged as a relatively low-cost and arguably more effective alternative for the Houthis, experts say.
Aside from low-flying drones that are hard to detect, the Houthis have also used cruise missiles in recent attacks on Saudi facilities, US and Saudi officials say.
Houthi chief Abdel Malek al-Houthi has said they have the capability to reach "important and strategic" targets in Saudi Arabia, and another key coalition member the UAE.
The Houthis are also increasingly deploying improvised sea mines in the Red Sea, which represent a "hazard for commercial shipping", according to a report last year by a UN panel of experts.
The increasing drone attacks have cast a spotlight on the defence systems of Saudi Arabia, which has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on fighter planes and other military hardware.
"The Houthi attacks on Saudi territory have exposed gaps in Saudi Arabia's air and missile defence," said Becca Wasser, a policy analyst at RAND Corporation.
Describing the Saudi air force as "one of the strongest branches" of the country's military, Wasser told AFP the force has nonetheless been put under "tremendous pressure" by the Houthi strikes.
The kingdom's Patriot missile defence system is not primarily designed to repel low-flying drones, experts say.
"While the air defence forces are experienced Patriot operators, it is worth noting that they are operating a missile defence system that was designed without drones in mind," Wasser said.
The raids come amid heightened regional tensions after Washington accused Iran of shooting down a US drone over international waters, which Tehran claimed was flying in its airspace.
The US has also blamed Iran for carrying out attacks on tankers in the strategic Gulf of Oman, an accusation vehemently denied by Tehran.
"The Houthis are demonstrating deliberate targeting of key pieces of infrastructure that, if damaged or destroyed, would have a negative effect on (Saudi) civilians," said Wasser.
Saudi and US officials accuse Tehran of providing the Houthis with the training and designs to build their drones.
Iran denies arming the rebels, but the 2018 UN panel of experts report said it identified "missile remnants, related military equipment and military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are of Iranian origin".
It said the Houthis' Qasef-1 drone is "virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability to that of the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries".
It rejected the Houthis' assertion that they manufactured the drone themselves.