Saudi Arabia drone attacks: How did attack breach Saudi defences and what will happen next?

Escalation is dangerous because infrastructure could be exposed to retaliation

Michael Safi and Julian Borger
Thu 19 Sep 2019


Remains of missiles displayed by Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

Saudi Arabia’s state-of-the-art missile defence systems could do nothing to stop the swarm of drones and cruise missiles that struck some of its most important oil infrastructure at the weekend. They were designed to deal with different threats – and they were looking in the wrong direction.

The audacious strike against the Abqaiq petroleum processing facilities and Khurais oil field on Saturday morning – which the Saudis say was “unquestionably sponsored by Iran” – has exposed the limits of the defences of the world’s largest military spender per capita.


The kingdom’s ability to ward off any future attacks is also constrained, analysts said, and depends heavily on Donald Trump’s willingness to make a deal with Iran.

Like other conventional armies across the region, Saudi Arabia’s armed forces are scrambling to protect against the rise of cheap, low-tech threats such as drones. The kingdom has spent billions in recent years on US-made Patriot surface-to-air missiles designed to shoot down high-flying targets such as enemy jets or ballistic missiles. Satellite imagery suggests at least one was installed at Abqaiq in the recent past.

But drones and cruise missiles fly too low to be detected by the Patriot’s ground-based radar. “They aren’t threats these systems are designed to cover,” said Omar Lamrani, from the strategic analysis firm Stratfor.


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