Drones over Middle Eastern Skies

The precision drone attack by the Houthis targeting the economic heart of the Kingdom of Saud has finally given to the proverbial ‘David’ a weapon to measure up to his ‘Goliath’ like opponents. What does this spell for global security and economic stability?


For long, the “Goliaths” of the modern world ruled the skies-what with their modern jets and an arsenal of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV). Till recently, terrorist groups/non-state actors bereft of a matching weapon looked helplessly skywards unable to defend themselves from the bolts from the skies. But now, this seems to be changing fast with predictions of a paradigm shift in the conduct of low-intensity conflicts.

The use of missile-firing drones was pioneered by the US in 2000 in their efforts to hunt down an elusive Osama bin Laden. The US ally in the Middle East, Israel was quick to adopt the UCAVs for its precision strikes on its neighbours. China too has a large share in the commercial drones market and has been busy upgrading its own versions of UCAVs, some of which have apparently found their way to “customers” in the Middle East. Iran, the latest entrant to this exclusive club seems to have amassed an impressive arsenal of UCAVs which is being put to great effect by its proxies, especially the Houthis.


The skies of the Middle East have witnessed a sharp escalation in drone warfare, which has not only brought the region very close to conflict but also impacted the already stressed world economic stability. Non-state actors/ militias with access to sophisticated UCAVs can use them with impunity to strike at vital economic targets deep inside their enemy’s borders. This has raised concerns on the proliferation of this weapon system.

What has grabbed international attention now is the pre-dawn strike on Saturday, 14 Sep 2019. Apparently, 10 explosive-laden drones attacked two ARMCO oil refineries, in Saudi Arabia. The targets were Abqaiq Oil Refinery, the largest in the world and the Khurais oil field. Though no casualties were reported, extensive damage caused to the infrastructure forced ARMCO to curtail daily oil production, by more than 50%. It is estimated that this single strike has affected almost 5% of the worlds crude supply. Houthi rebel spokesman, Brigadier Yahya Sare claimed responsibility for the attacks, stating the attack was in response to the Saudi Arabian air campaign, being carried out in the five-year Yemeni civil war.

Surprisingly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, laid the blame squarely on Iran, saying Houthi rebels did not have the capacity of carrying out an attack 800 Km from Yemeni soil. Iran was quick to deny any involvement, with their spokesman saying, the accusations were “… blind and futile…”. The US has not offered any evidence in support of their accusation.

The attack has had a cascading effect on the world markets, with oil prices soaring. The attack is being labelled as worse than the shock on oil markets after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When markets opened on Monday, panic struck and prices zoomed from $59 to $71 per barrel. Since then prices eased once the US President gave the go-ahead to release the strategic reserves if the need so arises.

Some analysts are worried that in case the supply is not resumed at the earliest, or if more successful attacks follow, oil prices may go north of $100 per barrel as they did in 2009. This will have a serious impact on the global economy already facing a downturn.

With an eye on the forthcoming elections, Israel had upscaled its drone offensive in the skies over the Middle East, going hammer and tongs after Iranian proxies and their supply lines – the Hezbollah’s missile manufacturing plants in Lebanon, its headquarters in Beirut, Palestinian bases in Lebanon-Syria border and a weapons depot in Iraq at a facility run by a Shiite paramilitary group backed by Iran.  


  • The larger story is that hostilities in any part of the world have cascading effects and come at a cost, not only to the protagonists involved but also to the interconnected global economy. A tactical success by a relatively small player can deal a strategic blow with wider ramifications.
  • Powerful states gave impetus to the adoption of UCAVs in an offensive role in preference to manned platforms; now non-state actors have followed suit, with vengeance.
  • As drones become smaller and quieter, they become easier to move and launch, and harder to intercept thus making them deadlier. Their relatively low cost and easy availability of material and components lower the technical threshold for their fabrication in rough and ready environments.
  • The drone attack appeared to be impervious to Saudi Arabia’s sophisticated American radars and the anti-ballistic missile shield. Further, it was carried out with precision, on targets more than 800 Km away from their place of launch.
  • Saudi Arabian involvement in the Yemeni civil war is increasingly being perceived as a Goliath versus David contest. Unfortunately, in this round, it appears that David has won again.
  • The fallout of this attack will not be confined to the immediate economic cost, which has already been highlighted. It has the more fearsome potential of furnishing the perfect opportunity to the US and its allies to scale up ways to punish Iran.
  • Another issue demanding global attention is how to stop the proliferation of UCAVs. While drones have been classified with cruise missiles in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTRC), neither the member states nor non-members like China and Israel are deterred from their unrestricted usage/ transfer to proxies in violation of international borders and laws.
  • There is no provision in existing international law governing the use of drones in armed conflicts. In this regard, the international legal system is anachronistic from the human rights perspective.   
  • In case of the use of drones, two international legal frameworks i.e. jus ad bellum (governs the decision of whether or not to use force) and jus in bello (governs the way that warfare once undertaken is conducted) can be considered. The use of force is legitimate only if undertaken in self-defence or authorized by the United Nations. 

India Watch

India is particularly vulnerable as it is the world’s third-largest oil consumer — importing more than 80% of its oil requirements and 18% of natural gas. Every dollar increase in the price of oil raises the import bill by around Rs.10,700 crore annually. India spent $111.9 billion on oil imports in 2018-19. This will adversely impact India’s GDP and will create further hurdles for the government’s efforts to give a boost to the slowing economy.

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