Saudi Arabia is facing more frequent and increasingly precise airborne attacks as Iran-linked groups in neighboring Yemen and Iraq exploit persistent gaps in the kingdom’s defenses and the Biden administration reconsiders the U.S. approach to the region.
Fixed-wing drones laden with explosives and launched from Iraq smashed into the main royal complex in the Saudi capital Riyadh in one such strike on Jan. 23, according to U.S. officials and other people familiar with the incident.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have escalated attacks across the kingdom’s southern border this month, including a strike last week that hit an empty passenger jet at a provincial airport. They have also launched drones and missiles against a nearby military base and Jeddah’s international airport, which the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen said had been intercepted.
New disclosures about the incidents show the limits of Saudi Arabia’s defenses and the expanding reach of the country’s foes, even though none of the incidents have produced significant casualties. Although the kingdom’s military capabilities have improved in recent years, current and former U.S. officials say Saudi Arabia still has much work to do to better integrate its radars, Patriot batteries, short-range air defense guns and F-15 jets into an effective defensive system.
They also point to the difficulties of stemming attacks by Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, which continue to present a security threat despite vows by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to rein them in.