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In Saudi Arabia, World Oil Supplies Are in Flames

Before he was elected, President Donald Trump went on Twitter tirades against Saudi Arabia. In 2014, he was enraged that the oil-rich monarchy could not protect itself—and that America was defending the kingdom. “Have you been watching how Saudi Arabia has been taunting our VERY dumb political leaders to protect them from isis. Why aren’t they paying?” he tweeted. A few minutes later, he added, “Saudi Arabia should fight their own wars, which they won’t, or pay us an absolute fortune to protect them and their great wealth—$ trillion!” In 2015, three months before announcing his candidacy, Trump tweeted, “If Saudi Arabia, which has been making one billion dollars a day from oil, wants our help and protection, they must pay dearly! NO FREEBIES.”

Famous last tweets. During the weekend, after a massive, pre-dawn strike on Saudi’s largest oil-processing center, the President called Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—the kingdom’s de-facto leader—and vowed support for “Saudi Arabia’s self-defense.” On Sunday night, he tweeted that the United States was “locked and loaded” and ready to act, even amid uncertainty, at the time, about the exact source and method of the attack. The United States was just waiting, he tweeted, to hear from the kingdom “under what terms we would proceed!”

The attack in the heart of Saudi Arabia on Saturday was audacious even by Middle Eastern standards; it set a precedent for the targets, tactics, and scope of warfare in the Persian Gulf and has global ramifications. “This is the mother of all escalations in our region,” an Arab ambassador in Washington told me last weekend. With pinprick precision, the aerial strikes hit more than a dozen oil installations in Khurais and Abqaiq, which is widely considered the most critical single facility for oil supplies in the world. “If you wanted to disrupt global markets, that’s where you’d look,” Jason Bordoff, the director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former National Security Council official, told me. The billowing black plumes of smoke from Abqaiq, which is near the Persian Gulf coast, in eastern Saudi Arabia, could be seen from space for hours. Khurais, which is farther southwest, is the kingdom’s second-largest oil field.

The repercussions sent shudders worldwide, amid fears that the attack would trigger U.S. retaliation and wider instability in global energy supplies. Initially, oil prices rose nineteen dollars a barrel. The desert kingdom is the world’s largest oil exporter; it accounts for roughly five per cent of global oil consumption. Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, was forced to suspend production of almost six million barrels per day, more than half of Saudi daily oil output. Oil experts say that it will take weeks, potentially months, to repair the facilities and return to full production.

The attacks underscored the vulnerability of the geostrategic kingdom, despite massive investments in its military—much of them American or Western. In 2018, Saudi Arabia spent more than sixty-seven billion dollars on defense expenditures; it ranked third worldwide, after the United States and China, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It was the world’s largest arms importer between 2014 and 2018. Yet it could not protect its strategic oil installations, its prime source of revenue. “The kingdom’s vulnerability is highlighted partly by military technology,” F. Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert at Texas A. & M. University, told me. “Cheap twenty-first century technology can literally fly under the radar of twentieth-century missile and defense systems—and not get picked up.”

Saudi Arabia is particularly vulnerable because its oil installations are concentrated in one area. The United States now produces more oil than the kingdom, but its operations are spread out across the country—and are thus less susceptible to a single strike being able to take out half of its production, Bordoff said. “The region the Saudis are in also has unique risks,” he added. Conflicts have flared on its borders in Iraq, Yemen, and across the Red Sea, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Other wars—Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Syrian civil war—are being fought nearby. The last massive U.S. deployment in the kingdom, in 1990 and 1991, was to help liberate neighboring Kuwait from Iraqi occupation and to protect Saudi Arabia.

The attack was claimed by Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been under Saudi bombardment for more than four years. On Saturday, Brigadier General Yahya Sare’e, a Houthi spokesman, said that the movement “carried out a massive offensive operation of ten drones targeting Abqaiq and Khurais refineries.” The conflict, which has killed up to seventy thousand people, has produced the world’s gravest humanitarian disaster. The Houthis had previously fired ballistic missiles and drones at Saudi oil installations, military facilities, and airports—from Jeddah, in the west, to the oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, on the Persian Gulf.

For years, Iran has been the primary arms supplier to the Houthis, whose military capabilities have increasingly expanded. If the attacks did come from Yemeni soil—a fact the United States and Saudi Arabia disputed—the drones would have had to fly more than five hundred miles. In January, the U.N. reported that the Houthis had drones capable of flying up to fifteen hundred kilometres, or about nine hundred and thirty miles. On Monday, Sare’e threatened further Houthi attacks on the kingdom. “We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” he tweeted. Future attacks, he said, “will expand and be more painful.”

During the weekend, however, the Trump Administration charged that the attack came from Iran. In a tweet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there was “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.” He accused Iran of direct culpability for “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” The Administration released satellite photos of the points of impact on seventeen targets, which indicated that the launch site would have been in the north or northwest—not from Yemen, to its south. (Geographically, Iran is to the northeast.) U.S. officials also reportedly assess that the attacks involved missiles in addition to drones.

Iran has long waged its own form of warfare against Saudi oil installations. In 2012, an Iranian cyberattack on Aramco damaged thirty thousand computers; at the time, it was considered to be one of the most extensive hacks of a single business anywhere in the world. The so-called Shamoon virus forced Aramco to turn off its internal Internet system for a week. A group called the Cutting Sword of Justice, which claimed responsibility, said that it had gained access to sensitive Aramco documents. Since then, the kingdom has faced sporadic cyberattacks on its oil facilities. In January, 2017, a cyberassault at the National Industrialization Company, a privately owned Saudi petrochemical company, wiped the organization’s hard drives clean. In August, 2017, a hacking operation on a Saudi petrochemical plant was reportedly designed to sabotage the facility and trigger an explosion. “Aramco spends an enormous amount on defense, even on cybersecurity after Iran’s attack,” Bordoff said. But the kingdom remains both physically and virtually at risk.

The attack comes at a particularly bad time economically for the kingdom, which has been accelerating long-delayed plans to make a public offering, or I.P.O., of shares in Aramco. The goal has been to generate income to more rapidly modernize the kingdom under the crown prince’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan. Dozens of bankers from around the world assembled in Dubai last week to work on the plan, Bloomberg reported. They discussed making an initial offering as early as November, but that may be delayed now that the monarchy has to prove that it can defend any investment and also produce oil profitably.





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