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Saudi Arabia in the firing line

The oil facility attacks highlight potentially fatal vulnerabilities in Saudi Arabia’s critical infrastructure

Oil prices retrenched as the prospect of a full-blown war with Iran—blamed by both Saudi Arabia and a sanctions expanding Trump administration in Washington for the c.25 armed drones and cruise missiles assault on the world’s largest oil stabilisation plant at Abqaiq and Khurais, the kingdom’s second-largest oilfield situated about 200km (124 miles) southwest of Abqaiq—receded. 

Some analysts hail Saudi Aramco’s ability to restore calm in the aftermath of the incident. “Despite the damaging attacks, it is remarkable how resilient the Saudi infrastructure is proving to be,” says Jan Kalicki, an energy security expert at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based thinktank.  

“About half is to be restored in a matter of days, although the remainder will, admittedly, take much longer. That, plus the well-stocked global supply and national oil reserves, signifies that the impact on oil markets will be more limited than would otherwise be the case.” 

A quick restoration of a significant volume of affected production and a relatively limited price impact could give a notably conflict-averse US administration excuse to pursue non-military responses. But, despite his cautious approach to date, hawkish pressure is mounting on Trump to respond to the unprecedented attack in kind.  

Security analysts caution, though, that the US and Saudi Arabia may be constrained in going to war with Iran, not least because the kingdom’s vital infrastructure is too fragile to withstand a full-blown attack from Iran’s formidable missile force and cyber warfare assets. If just 25 drones and missiles could wreak such havoc, what could the hundreds, if not thousands, more in Iranian possession do?  

Iran has the largest missile arsenal in the Middle East, though the exact numbers are subject to debate. Aside from missiles, there is a cyber threat. Saudi Aramco suffered a major cyber-attack in 2012, which many attributed to Iran, and Tehran’s offensive capabilities have only improved since then, experts say. 

“Because the basic environment of Saudi Arabia is so hostile, the place is almost as vulnerable as a moon base,” writes Gary Brecher, who runs The War Nerd blog, in a newsletter pre-dating recent events. “Every desalination plant, every oil depot, every overpass in Riyadh has been checked and re-checked on Iranian targeting computers.” 

Soft targets

An August report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), another Washington-based thinktank, lists a large number of such ‘soft’ targets. Abqaiq, which was attacked on Saturday, features prominently, as do Ras al-Khair, the world’s largest water desalination plant, the port of Ras Tanura and numerous refineries, ports, pipelines, power stations and other infrastructure. 

Saudi Arabia may be constrained in going to war, not least because its vital infrastructure is too fragile to withstand a full-blown attack

Water supplies are particularly fragile—today, Saudi Arabia relies on desalination facilities for about 70pc of its drinking water. Three decades ago, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein attempted to sabotage those—and parch his neighbours into submission—by unleashing millions of gallons of Kuwaiti oil into the Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.  

As recently as 2008, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable, simply knocking out the Jubail desalination plant, which serves Riyadh, would have forced the evacuation of the capital “within a week”. At the time, the plant provided 90pc of the city’s water. 

Attacks on potentially vulnerable targets are already taking place, on average, every week. CSIS has identified more than 250 such smaller-scale attempts on critical infrastructure over the past three years, mostly originating from neighbouring Yemen, where Houthi forces allied with Iran operate. 

Most of these attempts have accomplished little, but Iran’s capabilities are far more formidable, as this most recent attack likely demonstrates. Despite massive arms purchases and training from the US in recent years, “the number of Iranian missiles capable of reaching the country would overwhelm virtually any missile defence system”, the CSIS report concludes.

Source: Petroleum Economist
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