JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A raging fire erupted Friday at an oil depot in Jiddah ahead of a Formula One race in the Saudi city, with Yemen’s Houthis rebels acknowledging they had launched a series of attacks on the kingdom.
While Saudi Arabia and its state-run oil behemoth Saudi Aramco did not immediately acknowledge the blaze, it appeared to be centered on the same fuel depot that the Houthis had attacked in recent days.
The attacks come as Saudi Arabia still leads a coalition battling the Iran-backed Houthis, who seized Yemen’s capital of Sanaa in September 2014. The kingdom, which entered the war in Yemen in 2015, has been internationally criticized for its airstrikes killing that have killed scores of civilians — something the Houthis point to as they launch drones, missiles and mortars into the kingdom.
The North Jiddah Bulk Plant sits just southeast of the city’s international airport, a crucial hub for Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca. Videos posted online of the blaze corresponded to known geographic features around the plant.
The Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Saudi Aramco, and Saudi government officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An Associated Press photojournalist covering practice laps at the F1 track in Jiddah saw the smoke rising in the distance to the east, just after 5:40 p.m. As the flames rose, the tops of the tanks of the bulk plant were clearly visible.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately known.
The second-ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jiddah is taking place on Sunday, though concerns had been raised by some over the recent attacks targeting the kingdom.
The F1 said in a statement that: “The position at the moment is that we are waiting for further information from the authorities on what has happened.” The F1 did not elaborate.
However, the al-Masirah satellite news channel run by Yemen’s Houthi rebels said more details would be released later about their attacks. The Houthis did not immediately claim they were behind the Jiddah fire on Friday.
Meanwhile, Saudi state television acknowledged attacks in the town of Dhahran targeting water tanks that damaged vehicles and homes. Another attack targeted an electrical substation in an area of southwestern Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border, state TV said.
The North Jiddah Bulk Plant stores diesel, gasoline and jet fuel for use in Jiddah, the kingdom’s second-largest city. It accounts for over a quarter of all of Saudi Arabia’s supplies and also supplies fuel crucial to running a regional desalination plant.
At the time of the 2020 attack, the targeted tank, which has a capacity of 500,000 barrels, held diesel fuel, according to a recent report by a U.N. panel of experts examining Yemen’s war. Repairing it after the last attack cost Aramco some $1.5 million.
The U.N. experts described the facility as a “civilian target,” which the Houthis should have avoided after the 2020 attack.
“While the facility also supplies the Saudi military with petroleum products, it is mostly supplying civilian customers,” the panel said. “If the plant had been out of service of a significant period, the impact on the kingdom’s economy as well as on the welfare of the residents of the Western region would likely have been significant.”
Cruise missiles and drones remain difficult to defend against, though the U.S. recently sent a significant number of Patriot anti-missile interceptors to Saudi Arabia to resupply the kingdom amid the Houthi attacks.
In September, the AP reported that the U.S. had removed its own Patriot and THAAD defense systems from Prince Sultan Air Base outside of Riyadh.
The attacks have renewed questions about the kingdom’s ability to defend itself from Houthi fire as a yearslong war in the Arab world’s poorest country rages on with no end in sight. It also comes as Saudi Arabia issued an unusually stark warning that it is unable to guarantee its oil production won’t be affected by further attacks — which could push global energy prices even higher amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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