Saudis Down Yemen Rebel Missile Before It Strikes Palace

Updated on
  • Loud bang heard in Riyadh, plumes of smoke could be seen
  • Missile is the second fired at the Saudi capital in weeks
Saudi Coalition Downs Houthi Missile Over Riyadh

Saudi Arabia said its air defenses intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Yemen rebels at the royal palace in the capital, Riyadh, an attack that threatens to edge the kingdom and its chief nemesis, Iran, closer to confrontation.

The Iranian-backed Houthi militants said they had targeted a meeting of top Saudi officials at the al-Yamamah palace, the official residence of King Salman and headquarters of the royal court. Saudi Arabia is leading a military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, and shortly after the missile launch, alliance aircraft struck Houthi positions south of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.

“You are hitting Sana’a and we are hitting Riyadh and Abu Dhabi,” rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi said in a speech. “You are attacking the republican palace in Sana’a and our ballistic missiles reach al-Yamamah palace in Riyadh. You are targeting our vital installations and we will do that.” A separate Houthi statement said Saudi military and oil installations were also “within our missiles’ reach.”

The missile attack, aimed at the very heart of Saudi power, is the most audacious challenge to Saudi Arabia by Iran’s proxy in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Iran already support opposing sides in conflicts across the Middle East, and after the rebels fired a missile at the international airport in Riyadh last month, the coalition warned that the failed attack could be considered “an act of war” against Saudi Arabia.

Coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Maliki on Tuesday again pointed the finger at Iran. “This aggressive and arbitrary act by the armed Houthi Iranian group proves the continued involvement of the Iranian regime in supporting the Houthis with qualitative capabilities,” he said, according to state-run Saudi Press Agency. The Saudi royal air defense forces spotted the launch of the missile from Yemen, he added.

The United Arab Emirates’ state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said on Twitter on Tuesday that “with every Iranian missile launched by the Houthi militia against civilian targets, it becomes clear that the storm is necessary.”

Iran in the past has denied providing the Houthis with missiles to attack Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis have said their military experts have the capability to develop Scud-type missiles. The Burkan 2-H launched Tuesday is such a weapon.

Push for Action

Crispin Hawes, a managing director at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consulting firm in London, predicted “a concerted effort by the Saudi government to push for action against Iran.”

“We have clearly entered a period where there is a direct threat to Saudi population centers, even with their air defense systems in place,” Hawes said. This will have a “depressing impact on the local capital markets and on economic activity in general,” he added.

Iran Sees Its Rivals Uniting as Israel Talks Up Saudi Ties

A loud boom was heard in Riyadh and a column of white smoke could be seen briefly from a distance before the coalition announced it had intercepted the missile. No injuries were reported, according to Sky News Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s benchmark stock index declined as much as 0.4 percent before recovering the loss.

The palace that was targeted on Tuesday is the site of official meetings, including cabinet sessions last held there on Dec. 12. The cabinet met on Tuesday to approve the 2018 budget, which officials said would focus on bolstering an economy battered by the drop in oil prices, austerity measures and regional instability.

Proxy Struggle

Yemen’s civil war, nearing the end of its third year, has become part of the broader struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence. The coalition is fighting the rebels, who are members of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a Sunni.

The fighting has killed well over 5,000 civilians and contributed to one of the world’s biggest humanitarian disasters, according to the United Nations. Nearly 1 million people have contracted cholera, and 3 million, out of a population of 28 million, are internally displaced, according to the UN.

Saudi Arabia last week hosted unprecedented talks between the head of Yemen’s Islah Party, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the U.A.E.’s capital, Abu Dhabi, which classifies the Islamist group as terrorists. Gargash said the talks -- held after the Houthis assassinated their onetime battlefield ally, former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- aimed to “unite efforts to defeat Iran and its Houthi militias.”

Dozens of civilians have died this month in an intensified coalition campaign following Saleh’s assassination, which took place after the Houthis accused him of defecting to the Saudi side.

The attack Tuesday could be “a reminder that the Houthis are still there and can keep the Saudis on their toes,” said David Butter, associate fellow at Chatham House in London.

— With assistance by Nour Al Ali, Glen Carey, Vivian Nereim, and Claudia Maedler

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