Missile attack on Saudi's King Khalid International Airport

06 Nov 2017 Ludovico Carlino

On 4 November, a Saudi-manned Patriot anti-missile defence system destroyed a ballistic missile south of Riyadh, fired from Yemen by Houthi militants. The Houthi-run Saba News claimed that the missile was a Burkan-2 (Volcano) ballistic missile, targeted at King Khalid International Airport. According to Saudi media, fragments landed in an uninhabited area of the airport, without causing casualties or damage. A statement released by Saudi state news agency SPA cited "evidence" alleging that Iran was behind the strike, calling it a "potential act of war". The statement also announced the temporary closure of all Yemeni ground entry points, airports and seaports, adding that an investigation had been launched to establish how a missile of this type was smuggled into Yemen (with an implication that it was by Iran). The missile attack is likely to be cited by Saudi Arabia and its allies as further evidence of Iranian assistance to the Houthis, although the technology involved in the Burkan 2 is based on the Scud, which was supplied to the Yemeni army by the Soviet Union. In any event, the attack increases the likelihood of some form of retaliation against Iran.

Significance: King Khalid International airport is 890 km from Yemen's northernmost border point in Saada province with Saudi Arabia, the historical stronghold of the Houthi Movement and likely launch site. The 4 November missile launch does not indicate an increase in the warhead or range of Houthi ballistic missiles, as on 22 July a Burkan-2 was intercepted close to the coastal town of Yanbu, Medina province, which is around 870 km from Sadaa. The Houthis likely lack the capability to target assets in UAE, as they have repeatedly threatened, which are around 1,200 km distant from Sadaa. As previously assessed by IHS Markit, nevertheless, proven Houthi capability to further increase the range of their missiles, together with their stated intent to target commercial assets, indicates a growing risk to a broader range of sites in central Saudi Arabia, including southern Riyadh province, Taif, and Mecca provinces. The Saudi government probably now feels compelled to retaliate to such attacks, as indicated on 5 November by 40 Saudi airstrikes at targets in Sanaa, and the release of a statement offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of 40 named members of the Houthi movement including its leader Abdulmalik. The missile attack is also likely to increase the Saudi desire to strike a deal with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to withdraw his support to the Houthi's government as sought by UAE.

Ludovico Carlino, Senior Analyst Country Risk - Middle East and North Africa at IHS Markit
Posted 6 November 2017

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