Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry announced April 26 that it had intercepted and destroyed a remote-controlled, explosives-laden boat headed toward the Jazan wharf and oil terminal. The facility, which is under construction and controlled by the Jazan Gas Projects Co. subsidiary of Saudi Arabian Oil Co., is to be one of the kingdom's most prominent oil and natural gas projects. Authorities believe that the Houthi rebels, who control a large part of northwestern Yemen, launched the boat. Saudi officials monitored the vessel as it embarked and decided to destroy it once it accelerated toward the pier and wharf.
The Houthis' tactical capabilities have evolved over the past six months as the rebels develop new ways in which to attack the strategic assets of Saudi Arabia and its allies. The Houthis have been active for several years in the border regions of Jazan and Najran, launching missile attacks across the Yemeni border and encroaching on Saudi territory. (For instance, they have tried to target oil infrastructure in Jazan with ballistic missile strikes.) The Houthis have used similar strikes to attack infrastructure in other cities as well over the course of Yemen's conflict. The rebels even showed their intention to target and harass ships in the Red Sea in the waters near the port of Mokha in October 2016, when they attacked an Emirati vessel with an anti-ship missile.
But this week's attack using an unmanned remote-controlled boat stocked with explosives is a different type of operation altogether. In the past three months, Houthi fighters have attempted two attacks using remote-controlled boats and explosives, including the April 26 incident. The first occurred on Jan. 30, when three boats attacked a Saudi frigate on patrol near the port of al-Hudaydah; one detonated as it struck the frigate, killing two crew members. Iran is believed to have equipped the remote-controlled ship with technology likely used to automate the attack.
Clearly the Houthis want to attack Saudi facilities, including those belonging to Saudi Aramco and other sites important to Riyadh. But the results of the recent strike show that their ability to do so effectively is limited. Nevertheless, as the Iranians lend more support to the Houthis and their attacks continue, there is a chance that the Yemeni rebels could become more successful in time. The Houthis may also expand their target set beyond Saudi, Emirati and U.S. ships, equipment and facilities to include shipping in the Red Sea.