Yemen’s Shiite rebels and their allies fired a ballistic missile deep into Saudi Arabia, an overnight strike that they said on Friday had targeted an international airport while the kingdom claimed that it flew toward the holy Muslim city of Mecca.
Saudi Arabia said the missile was “intercepted and destroyed” 65 kilometers (40 miles) from Mecca, which is home to the cube-shaped Kaaba that the world’s Muslims pray toward five times a day.
Angry Saudis soon denounced the missile fire online with hashtags questioning the faith of Yemen’s Shiite rebels known as Houthis, as other Sunni Arab leaders in the Gulf linked the attack to Shiite power Iran.
Invoking Mecca also invigorated support for Saudi Arabia as it leads the stalemated war in the Arab world’s poorest country, as well as turned attention away from those starving under a kingdom-led blockade and the civilians killed in its airstrikes.
The Saudi military said the missile, fired Thursday night from Yemen’s northwestern Saada province, which borders the kingdom, caused no damage. The Saudi military has a supply of U.S.-made, surface-to-air Patriot missile batteries it previously has fired at Houthi-launched missiles.
The kingdom’s military said in a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency that it immediately targeted the area where the missile was launched in airstrikes.
The Houthis and their allies, including forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have a stockpile of Soviet-era Scud missiles and locally designed variants. A Houthi ballistic missile fired earlier this month targeted Taif, home to Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd Air Base, which also is near Mecca.
What the missile fired Thursday night targeted, however, quickly became a controversy.
The Houthi-controlled satellite news channel Al-Masirah said the Yemeni rebels had fired a Volcano-1 variant missile at Jiddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, without mentioning Mecca. That airport is 75 kilometers (45 miles) northwest of Mecca.
The Houthi-controlled SABA news agency said the missile “directly hit” the airport and caused massive destruction, though there were no delays or diversions affecting the airport Friday.
The Saudi military, however, stressed the missile was fired “toward” Mecca, without elaborating — the protection of the holy city is a key pillar of the Saudi royal family’s prestige and the country’s national identity.
Gulf Arab countries allied with Saudi Arabia immediately began condemning the attack, suggesting the Houthis intentionally targeted the Islamic world’s holiest site. Many also immediately linked the attack to Iran, further inflaming regional sectarianism.
“The Iranian regime supports a terrorist group that launched its rockets on Mecca,” Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nayhan wrote on Twitter. “Is this regime Islamic as it claims?”
While analysts suggest Tehran doesn’t have direct control over the Houthis, the U.S. Navy says it is has intercepted Iranian arms heading to the rebels.
In Iran, state media reported on the ballistic missile fire citing international reports, without any government comment.
Yemen, on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has been in the midst of a civil war since September 2014 when the Houthis swept into the capital of Sanaa and overthrew the country’s internationally recognized government. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries began a military campaign against the Houthi forces, saying its mission served in part as a counterbalance to Iran’s influence following its nuclear deal with world powers.
The Saudi-led campaign initially had the logistical and intelligence support of the U.S., but mounting civilian casualties from its airstrikes led to America pulling back, especially after a Saudi strike earlier this month on a funeral in Sanaa killed some 140 people and wounded over 600.
The U.S. also fired Tomahawk missiles at mobile Houthi radar sites after reporting its warships came under fire in the Red Sea near the crucial Bab el-Mandeb strait. In recent days, two commercial ships reportedly have come under fire in the same area.
United Nations efforts to strike a peace deal to end the conflict have been slow. The most recent plan apparently sidelines President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Saudi Arabia launched its coalition campaign to restore Hadi’s rule, so that’s likely a deal breaker for the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
In the meantime, Yemen stands on the brink of famine. More than 10,000 people have been killed or wounded and 3 million of the country’s 26 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting.