By Arab News
By Faisal Mrza*
It is surely no coincidence that Tuesday’s attack on energy facilities in the Kingdom came just two days after four commercial ships, including two Saudi oil tankers, were sabotaged off the UAE coast.
Details are sketchy as to who was behind the twin attacks, but they both carry the fingerprints of the region’s primary aggressor: Iran.
The drone attack on Tuesday targeted the East-West Pipeline, which stretches from Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province to the Red Sea, where the Kingdom has significant export capacity. The pipeline has recently been expanded to carry about 7 million barrels of oil per day — equivalent to the majority of Saudi Arabia’s daily exports.
The physical damage in the attack was limited, although the main target was a psychological one, delivering a clear threat concerning Saudi Arabia’s ability to export crude. It is an important fact that exports via the Red Sea bypass the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened to close multiple times.
The back-and-forth in the blame game for that attack would have been comic, were the situation not so grave. Early on Tuesday, Al Arabiya television reported that the Iran-backed Houthi militia of Yemen had claimed they had targeted Saudi energy facilities with drones. With no apparent sense of irony, the Houthis later backtracked on that statement, saying the attack emerged from within Saudi Arabia. It’s almost as if someone else was pulling the strings.
There are several parallels between this attack and Sunday’s “sabotage” of four ships near Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast. That too caused little damage, yet can be seen as a clear threat to Saudi Arabia’s ability to export oil, via a facility outside of the Strait of Hormuz.
There were also the predictable shenanigans at play when it came to attributing blame. Iran called the Fujairah incident regrettable, and then, with a straight face, pointed the finger of blame at its arch-foe Israel. Yet an initial assessment by the US found that Iran was probably behind the attack.
More details will doubtlessly emerge in the coming days. But both attacks must been seen in light of the increased global pressure on the Tehran regime — notably the bolstered US military presence in the Gulf, along with Washington’s tighter sanctions on Iranian oil exports.
If Iran did indeed back the two attacks, it would hardly be without precedent.
Saudi Arabia was last year forced to temporarily suspend moving crude through the Red Sea shipping lane of Bab Al-Mandeb, after attacks by Houthi militias on oil tankers.
And Iran has made frequent threats to block the Strait of Hormuz; in 2011, Tehran said “not a drop” of oil would pass through if sanctions against it were widened. It has not followed through with this threat, but the impact on oil prices — which in early 2012 were above $100 and later hit unsustainable levels — was profound.
Such statements from Tehran, plus this week’s two attacks, suggest a three-pronged threat to Gulf energy exports — covering those via the Strait of Hormuz, Red Sea, and east coast of the UAE.
Yet these are not salvos confined purely to the region’s messy proxy wars. The actions mark a serious threat to global energy security — as the spike in oil prices on Tuesday illustrated.
More is at stake aside from unhealthy movements on the energy markets, however. Impeding the international passage of oil tankers has serious repercussions for free shipping and international trade — and will help push up insurance costs.
The cynical and cowardly attacks on the Gulf energy industry this week, therefore, endanger more than just the security of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They pose a threat to countries, and consumers, worldwide.
- Faisal Mrza is an energy and oil market adviser. He was formerly with OPEC and Saudi Aramco. Reach him on Twitter: @faisalmrza