Ramifications of targeting Saudi oil

THE terrorist attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil installation in February did not come as a surprise given that the kingdom is in the midst of an intense war against terror. The fact that the attack failed also did not come as a surprise to those familiar with the scope of the developments in this struggle. Three fundamental elements help analyse the incident.

By Abdulaziz Sager

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Published: Mon 13 Mar 2006, 9:44 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:44 PM

First, terrorist groups in Saudi Arabia are in a real predicament after suffering serious setbacks at the hands of the security agencies, which have been particularly successful during the last two years. This has created a state of desperation and confusion in the leadership of these groups both at home and abroad, forcing them to conduct any terrorist operation just to assert their existence, which is beginning to fade. Thus the attack was not completely unexpected.

Second, targeting the oil industry in the country was also anticipated. Public appeals by the leaders of terrorist organisations urging members to attack ‘oil facilities’, emphasising the importance of these targets, had increased recently.

Third, the failure of the operation came in the backdrop of the national security agencies — in cooperation with the oil companies — taking elaborate measures to protect these vital facilities. This reduced the likelihood of attacks against such targets from succeeding. There are about 30,000 special forces, aided by modern technology, protecting the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia today. This does not mean that oil facilities in Saudi Arabia are impregnable, but it does mean that an assault against these targets will not be easy and the possibilities of foiling the attacks will be more than the likelihood of them succeeding.

The failed attack in Abqaiq coincided with the escape of 23 terrorists belonging to the Al Qaeda from a Yemeni prison during the first week of February. This prompted the security agencies in Saudi Arabia to declare a state of alert in order to deal with the possibility of them entering Saudi territory or communicating with domestic sleeper cells, especially in light of approximately half the escapees having been extradited to Sanaa by Riyadh. Saudi Arabia had toiled to arrest them previously since they were engaged in terrorist activities in the kingdom and had contacts with terrorist groups in the country. Riyadh responded to the prison break by anticipating the consequences it would entail for Saudi stability and security.

The attack also raises some important questions: Why did the terrorists target the Abqaiq oil facility? Why would the leaders of terrorist organisations, secretly and publicly, encourage their members to sabotage oil facilities? There are various factors that make oil, transportation and power supply facilities attractive targets for terrorist groups. First, oil is a strategic commodity, the value and importance of which remains incomparable with any other commodity. It sets the pace of the present civilisation. For oil producing and exporting nations, petroleum represents the fundamental source of revenue and national wealth. Attacking and incapacitating oil installations would deal a severe blow to the state. Incapacitating oil facilities would embarrass the country and cast doubt on its ability to provide services for the average citizen, as well as its ability to provide for the pace of economic development within the country and the other sectors that fundamentally rely on refined oil products, beginning with power generation, communications, and other basic services.

Second, an attack on oil installations is relatively easy to attempt and yields significant returns from the political and technological points of view. Oil-producing countries have several facilities distributed over a wide geographical area that are impossible to conceal. These facilities include wells, production plants, storage centres, pipelines, pumping stations, ports, loading platforms and tankers, among others.

Third, the nature of oil in its chemical composition is also important. Oil is highly inflammable and combustible. Any minor attack targeting oil storage facilities would lead to a major explosion and ignite a fire that would rage beyond control for several days.

Last, any attack on oil installations in oil-producing countries would have repercussions at the international level. The world oil market, especially in light of it being subject to a supply-demand imbalance, would be faced with an excess demand over supply, thereby raising concerns over any developments that would lead to a reduction in oil production and exports, and increased prices. Thus, attacks on oil facilities would not only present a local, but also an international attraction, which makes terrorist groups seriously consider them as potential targets to expand their sphere of influence, in addition to the media coverage such operations entail.

Over the past three years, the world has witnessed how rewarding terrorist operations against oil facilities in Iraq have been. Based on official Iraqi statistics, sabotage operations directed against oil facilities have collectively cost the country in excess of $6 billion during 2005. Nearly 186 terrorist attacks of all kinds targeting oil facilities have been recorded, including operations to blow up wells and pipeline networks (for export, to supply crude for refineries, and to transport oil-related products). But what is happening in Iraq represents an exceptional situation and cannot be generalised. The losses incurred by the Iraqi oil sector are the result of the overall situation gripping the country caused by the collapse of security apparatus in general. In addition, technical teams have not been able to deal swiftly and effectively with the effects of such sabotage.

In conventional situations, the effects of the majority of terrorist acts against oil facilities are limited. Perhaps the effects themselves are temporary and can be overcome if the country possesses the technical capabilities to deal with the aftermath of terrorist operations and if the concerned authorities have comprehensive emergency plans that may be effective in such eventualities. In addition, the state should have a security plan to prevent the repetition of these acts and limit the possibilities of them succeeding, before trying to eliminate their sources. In this context, it is necessary to support and develop security forces so that they can remain one step ahead of the terrorists and be prepared for any eventuality that lies ahead.

Abdulaziz Sager is the Chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai



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