Saudis Intercept Biggest Missile Barrage Yet From Yemen War

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia said it intercepted seven ballistic missiles fired at Riyadh and other cities by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, the biggest such barrage since the kingdom went to war against them in March 2015.

The missiles were intercepted late Sunday over the northeastern part of the capital and the cities of Najran, Jazan and Khamis Mushait, the official Saudi Press Agency said. Fragments killed one Egyptian national and injured two others in Riyadh, it said, citing the civil defense spokesman, Mohamed al-Humadi.

The Houthi-affiliated Saba news agency said the rebels targeted King Khaled International airport in Riyadh, Abha airport in Aseer and Najran’s airport. Rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi said in a televised speech that the group’s missile force is growing and that it enters the fourth year of the war with a “developed rocket system that cannot be intercepted by the U.S. defense systems.”

While Iran has rejected Saudi accusations -- repeated on Monday -- that it supplied projectiles for rebel missile attacks, the barrage could bolster Riyadh’s demands to rein in the Islamic Republic, its arch-rival for regional influence. The assault came as the mastermind of the intervention, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, tours the U.S. to promote his plan for modernizing and diversifying his country’s economy.

Fodder for MBS

“The Saudis have directly blamed the Iranians for previous missile launches, so I expect MbS will bring this up with his U.S. counterparts,” Graham Griffiths, senior analyst at Control Risks Middle East, said in reply to emailed questions. “It reinforces Saudi claims that measures against Iran need to go beyond a focus on the nuclear issue and address Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support for armed groups throughout the region.”

At a press conference in Riyadh Monday, Turki Al-Maliki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the kingdom had evidence Iran smuggled ballistic missiles to the Houthis along with other advanced weapons. All necessary measures would be taken to halt the attacks, he said, without elaborating.

Washington has armed Saudi Arabia in its intercession in the Yemen conflict, which has created a humanitarian catastrophe with thousands of civilian deaths, disease, hunger and displacement. Retired Saudi General Anwar Eshki said the attacks were an attempt to “test Saudi readiness” to deal with a large barrage and to signal the U.S. that it “will use missiles to target its interests in the region.”

Trump Meeting

Saudi Arabia will be served by the timing of the missile fire during the prince’s U.S. visit, added Eshki, who heads the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah. “The United States will not hesitate to give him more weapons and sell him more military technologies” to protect the kingdom’s borders, he said.

Prince Mohammed, who has met with President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials during his visit, designed the intervention in Yemen as part of a broader plan to assert Saudi Arabia’s power more aggressively. The Yemen war is one of several proxy conflicts between the kingdom and Iran.

While Saudi Arabia’s allies have been able to recover areas in southern Yemen from the Houthis, the rebels still control the capital Sana’a and territories in the north.

The Saudi stock market hardly moved on news of yet another missile attack. The Tadawul All Share Index fell as much as 0.6 percent in Riyadh before reversing to increase 0.1 percent as of 12:41 p.m.

“Investors have priced in already this geopolitical risk, and I don’t think this will have a reversal in their decision to invest in Saudi Arabia,” John Sfakianakis, director of economic research at the Gulf Research Center, said in an email.

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