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Saudis opt for words not weapons

The kingdom sees Iran's hand behind the recent attacks but is holding fire for now

Saudis were shocked and angered by the audacious drone assault on oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. But, as efforts were made to maintain the flow of crude oil out of the kingdom, the official reaction to the devastating attacks was surprisingly restrained.

The cabinet was not summoned into emergency session, nor were there immediate calls for retaliation.

The Saudis have presented evidence that they say proves the drones and missiles used were Iranian and were not fired from Yemen. They also believe that Iran was involved in launching the weapons.

But, in general, the focus has been on portraying the incident as an act of terrorism against vital energy targets that should concern the whole world. The Saudis say governments in the region and beyond should see the attacks as proof of Iran’s status as a state sponsoring terrorism and deal with Tehran as they would other sources of terror.

“Iran is no longer just a threat to the region,” says an editorial in the influential Saudi daily al-Riyadh, “but to the global energy sector, the world economy and global security. The world is becoming convinced that Iran is a vicious and dangerous member of the international community.”

Saudi officials insist that all options for responding to the drone and missile attacks remain open. In the view of a leading Saudi columnist, Ali al-Kheshaiban, writing on the al-Ain news platform, the kingdom will not rule out the possibility of using force. “Saudi Arabia has military capabilities if matters reach a dead end,” he says. But a better route is to “involve foreign countries and organisations in the investigations into the attacks so they can be informed of the facts”.

"Neither America nor Europe can allow [Iran’s] manipulation of the region’s political and economic balance, because that is the route to a world war" — Kheshaiban

The consensus in the Gulf as a whole is that war is the worst possible option. All of Saudi Arabia’s Arab neighbours have been restrained in their public responses to the attacks.

Even Iran appeared to act in a way that was intended to increase pressure on the kingdom and its alliesbut stopped short of provoking a war. “Iran has given the Saudis the chance to avoid escalation by maintaining the narrative that these attacks were carried out by non-state actors,” says David Butter, a fellow of the Middle East programme at London’s Chatham House thinktank. “The Iranian calculation seems to be that Saudis and other Gulf Arabs are terrified because of their acute vulnerability and because this would expose the degree of their dependence on US and other Western support.”

One could argue that Saudi Arabia’s awareness of its vulnerability should logically lead it to change strategy and seek accommodation with Iran. Butter believes that we should not hold our breath, adding that “dialogue is inevitable at some point, but it is not in the Saudis’ hands to deliver the solution, which would lie in the US lifting sanctions on Iran”.

The likelihood, then, is that the current state of no-war but no-peace will continue, with tension in the Gulf remaining high.

For now at least, the Saudis and their neighbours are hoping that the international community will absorb some of the Iranian pressure and take further measures to isolate, rather than attack, Iran. “The whole world lives on Gulf oil,” Kheshaiban says. “Neither America nor Europe can allow [Iran’s] manipulation of the region’s political and economic balance, because that is the route to a world war.”

Source: Petroleum Economist
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