Houthi UAV strike targets oil terminal in southern Yemen for third time since truce expiration

Nov 27, 2022

The Houthi Movement claimed responsibility for another UAV-strike against the al-Dhabbah oil terminal in southern Yemen this week. The strike is the third to target oil terminals in Yemen since the expiration of the UN-mediated truce in early October, and follows an ultimatum by the movement directed at foreign oil companies operating in the country. Despite concerns associated with the escalation, the strikes fall short of the attacks seen during 2021 and early 2022, and imply that the movement continues to exercise deliberate restraint for now. 

On 23 November, an explosive-laden UAV targeted the al-Dhabba Ash Shihr oil terminal in Hadhramaut province, southern Yemen. According to media reports citing workers employed at the terminal, the strike impacted the entrance of the terminal and took place as an oil tanker entered the terminal to load crude oil. The vessel was later identified as the “Pratika” – a Panama-flagged tanker that reportedly arrived from Singapore and was set to deliver to the EU. The vessel left the port in response to the attack, and there were no reports of casualties or damage to the vessel. Any damage to the oil terminal were likewise not discussed but cannot be ruled out.

The Houthi Movement claimed responsibility for the attack in a series of tweets published by military spokesperson Yahya Sare’e, who said the movement “succeeded in forcing an oil ship” to leave the port. The statement added that the vessel was on “a mission to steal an enormous amount of oil” and “refused to heed the armed forces’ warnings.” Like previous claims of responsibility, the remarks were published in English and thus clearly aimed at communicating to an English-speaking western audience.

The 21 November strike follows two earlier UAV strikes targeting oil terminals in southern Yemen. On 9 November, a similar strike targeted the port of Qena in Shabwa province, where a single UAV impacted the Rudum terminal as another foreign oil tanker was loading fuel. On 21 October, two UAVs also targeted a Greek-owned vessel at the al-Dhabbah terminal, likewise causing the tanker to leave the terminal area as a precaution. In late October, Iran-linked sources also discussed an IED attack targeting an oil concession in Hadhramaut province, reportedly operated by Canadian company Calvalley. Four local workers were reportedly killed in the incident which remains subject to limited reporting.

The uptick in strikes follows the expiration of a UN-led truce in early October and marks the most significant escalation by the Houthi Movement since the warring sides failed to agree on an extension. Shortly after the expiration, the movement reportedly issued an ultimatum to all foreign oil companies to “stop looting Yemen’s sovereign wealth” and has since repeatedly warned foreign companies against engaging with the Saudi-backed government, insisting that any oil-related transactions must only be made with Houthi approval.  In response, some international oil companies operating in the country – including Calvalley – were reported by Reuters to have suspended operations. This week, UN Envoy Hans Grundberg expressed concerns about the attacks and said the “threats to oil companies undermine the welfare of the entirety of the Yemeni people.”

UAV strikes indicate deliberate restraint
The escalation observed since the truce expiration in October is understandably worrying but not unexpected. The six-month truce observed a significant decline in long-range attacks by the movement as well as coalition airstrike activity, and the failure to extend the agreement understandably raised concerns that the activity levels witnessed in January-March would return. So far, this has not materialized and the operations recorded thus far still fall short of the coordinated ballistic missile and UAV attacks that targeted Saudi mainland assets in 2021 and early 2022.  None of the operations so far have resulted in casualties and while details remain sketchy, the strikes do not appear to have generated significant or permanent damage to the targeted infrastructure. The Houthi Movement has similarly framed the operations as “warning strikes” and is assessed to exercise deliberate restraint to put pressure on ongoing negotiations to renew the previous truce.

A more significant escalation cannot be discounted over the near term, especially if UN-led efforts to renew the agreement fall short, which would impede Houthi incentives to exercise current restraint. Other risk escalation indicators include a resumption of Saudi-coalition airstrikes inside Yemen which remains possible should current clashes around Taiz and Marib escalate in favor of the Houthi Movement. This would likely trigger a resumption in Houthi long-distance strikes against Saudi mainland assets reminiscent of earlier operations, yet the current absence of such strikes remains a limited but positive indicator in terms of wider threat dynamics.

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