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The drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil wells

In the early morning of Saturday, September 14 last, at 3.31 and 3.42 a.m., the Yemeni Houthi Shiite rebels supported by the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards” – the right eye of Imam Qomeini, as they are called in Iran – launched about ten drones against the largest Saudi oil extraction area owned by ARAMCO.

Allegedly the operation was launched from Iraq. Both Abqaiq, the largest stabilization facility in the world, as well as the Buqaiq facility in the extraction field, and finally Kurais, about 60 kilometres from Abqaiq, were hit with drones.

It is the largest oil disruption ever, considering all those caused by wars or other reasons.

The Shiite attacks have immediately reduced Saudi production by about five million barrels per day, i.e. about half of the Saudi Kingdom’s daily output.

With the drone attacks, the world has lost 6% of its oil output.

The Saudi authorities have said that, as early as September 17, everything has been under control.

The first geopolitical deduction that can be made is that the current attacks, much more virulent than those already occurred last May, open a second front of Arabia’s war against Iraq, which, in any case, would severely strain the Saudi armed forces, already absorbed by the war in Yemen- albeit with meagre results.

Moreover this could open a new strategic area, in which the USA could be forced to help Saudi Arabia and Israel could be forced to later project its power not only onto its northern and southern borders, but also onto eastern Syria and Iraq – and permanently so, unlike what currently happens.

Certainly, all this regards above all Iran that, however, could not afford a hybrid and conventional war with Saudi Arabia and its traditional regional allies.

Moreover, the Shiite Houthi’s attack on the Saudi oil facilities was conceived and probably planned by the Head of the Pasdaran, Qassem Soleimani.

Hence the Houthi operation has run parallel with the action directly organized by the Pasdaran on September 15 last, i.e. the seizure of a ship – the name of which is still unknown -carrying a fuel cargo of over 250,000 litres.

All this happened in the Strait of Hormuz, near the island of Tunb, in Iranian waters.

A full option strategy to show Iran’s new regional strategic status.

According to Iranian sources, the rationale underlying the naval operation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards concerns the substantial oil smuggling to and fro the United Arab Emirates.

Tout se tient.

Iran, on the one hand, while assessing the war burden for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, wants to open other fronts of the conflict, thus also extending Israel’s defence chain. Hence Iran pursues the overstretch of its traditional opponents.

Another possible assessment of the drone operation carried out by the Houthis and Iran is that it could be an Iranian response to the actions undertaken by French President Macron who has recently tried to organize a side meeting, at the UN General Assembly, between US President Trump and  Iranian President Rouhani.

Ali Khamenei, the Rahbar and, hence, Iran’s Supreme Leader, was, however, clearly opposed to a new Iran-US diplomatic relationship, and his Revolutionary Guards have immediately understood the issue.

Moreover, the very recent drone attacks on the two Saudi facilities are not even the first and only ones. As mentioned above, on May 15 last, two Saudi pumping stations – placed on the East-West pipeline that reaches up to the Yanbu oil terminal were attacked with two drones probably launched from Iraq.

Hence Iran has an efficient and stable network in Iraq to launch attacks on the Saudi territory and its surrounding areas, not necessarily with drones only.

With its satellite photos, Israel has shown that the Al Quds Force, the elite of the Pasdaran, is building an Iranian military station in Albukamal, on the Syrian-Iraqi border-and probably these operations indicate that the base is already finished.

It is supposedly a base for at least 3,500 soldiers, with means that should be used above all for the “hybrid war”, but not only for it.

Once again Israel has become a target for Iran, from the new bases in Northern Iraq. The United States, however, does not want to be entangled and bogged down into a new “long war” in the Middle East, even though it will help Saudi Arabia (and, obviously, Israel) from afar, while Saudi Arabia has explicitly stated that the Iranian drones are very hard to track.

At economic level, however, the Saudi oil crisis has the same magnitude as the oil crisis following the Yom Kippur war.

This crisis, however, is really such only because Saudi Arabia has proved to be fragile, not only in terms of mere oil quantity, which has been immediately reintroduced into the daily balance, using the Saudi huge reserves.

Nevertheless they will run short and nobody really knows what the reserves of the Saudi wells are, which are reportedly still very large. However, there are those who have doubts in this regard, since it is the best kept Saudi State secret.

This has been the worst attack ever on the “oil bank”, as analysts call the Saudi Kingdom.

Hence the attack is a real game change rand it is currently hard to predict all its effects, even for technical experts and  strategic analysts.

It much depends on Mohammed bin Salman’s moves, as well as on the US real engagement in the region, and finally on Israel’s future military policy.

According to some organizations that study oil markets, the Iranian and Houthi operation is at least as severe as the invasion of Kuwait – which also “sucked” Iraqi oil- or as  the 1979 Iranian Shiite revolution itself.

President Trump has already authorized the release of US strategic reserves (SPR), where necessary, “to keep the markets well supplied”.

As early as September 16, however, Saudi ARAMCO has been expected to recover at least a third of its production, with a maximum of two or three million barrels of Saudi oil that will go back to the markets within two-five days, while additional 2.7 million barrels will arrive on the market later, considering the nature and specificity of the Abqaiq facility.

It is a huge facility located in a Saudi area where the  presence of Shiite Islam is far from negligible, i.e. about 15-20%, mainly in the eastern zones and among the workers operating in the wells and facilities.

This is another political sign-halfway between religion and class struggle – not to be neglected.

When the markets opened, on the Monday following the attacks, the oil barrel price increased by 20%, with a peak of 71.6 USD per barrel.

However, what are the Iranian assets in the current war launched against the great Wahhabi and Sunni power, namely Saudi Arabia – a war which is a proxy one only from a formal viewpoint?

They are manifold and remarkable.

There are over 45 Iranian military airports. The maritime positions currently held by the Revolutionary Guards are over 16, all located on the coasts and islands of the Persian Gulf.

The missile stations in Iran and Iraq have several carriers capable of reaching a range of 2,500 kilometres.

Iran’s area denial and access denial capabilities are much greater than those of any country in the region.

Iran has a significant submarine fleet, both in the Persian Gulf and in the Indian Ocean, as well as a large fleet of very fast motorboats and patrol boats.

At military level, Iran is not afraid of its obvious tactical superiority nor of the first or second-level reactions of its opponents.

Cyberattacks are another Iranian “excellence” while, only recently, Saudi ARAMCO has been updated in terms of protection from cyberattacks- albeit we are still at less relevant levels than Iran’s.

It is no by mere coincidence that the Saudi oil company has already suffered cyberattacks, with the Shamoon virus in 2018. Moreover, due to their geographical location, also the Saudi ports and infrastructure are scarcely protected from missile or air attacks.

But also from sea bombings, especially on the ports of Ras Tanura and Ras Juaymah, located in the Persian Gulf, and of Yanbu, in the Red Sea, which are hard to protect.

So far, however, the Saudi critical infrastructure has been defended only from Qaedist attacks, not from a real military operation, possibly with the Houthi conventional or hybrid war protection.

Not to mention the desalination plants, which process 70% of all the drinking water distributed in Saudi homes, in addition to electricity grids, which are based on the production of energy using over two thirds of the abundant oil supplies. They are surely targets of the drone attacks, as well as cyberattacks or conventional operations.

Another factor not to be neglected regards one of the mainstays of Mohammed bin Salman’ strategy, namely the sale of Saudi ARAMCO.

Clearly the attacks significantly reduce the stock market value of the company, and it just so happened that, in the last days before the attack of last Saturday, the sale procedure had recorded a strong acceleration.

Mohammed bin Salman has set the cost of the ARAMCO operation at 2 trillion dollars.

Hence, considering the infrastructure weakness shown by Saudi Arabia, it will be very unlikely for investors to run to buy the company and carry out transactions on the Stock Exchange.

It is also easy to understand that Iran’s and its proxies’ operation against Saudi Arabia is such as to place Iran in a vantage position in a future new negotiation on the nuclear issue.

It should be recalled that the war in Yemen started in 2015 when Saudi Arabia entered that country to free some areas, including the capital Sana’a, from the insurgents.

Later Saudi Arabia established a friendly government, led by Abu Mansur Hadi.

Saudi Arabia, however, was not able to hold its positions and reach its strategic objectives.

In fact, holding Yemen means to completely control the Persian Gulf and the areas pertaining to it.

Saudi Arabia has kept only Aden and Al Mokha, as well as few other areas, while the border between Arabia and Yemen is still a land of conflict and clashes, in a tribal zone, on the Saudi side of the border line, which has always been scarcely favourable to the Al Saud family and to the Wahabi tradition of Islam.

Nevertheless, not the whole Ansar Allah, the Houthi Shiite movement, is strictly dependent on Iran.

Hence the war in Yemen is a huge cost for Saudi Arabia, while it is negligible for Iran.

We should also consider the support provided to the rebels in the South by Abu Dhabi, the other Emirates and Oman, a country that has always had its own specific policy vis-à-vis Iran.

It should also be recalled that Saudi Arabia was directly hit by drones on December 4, 2017.

However, only a part of the Yemeni tribes are currently  loyal to Hadi’s central government and they have often had to enter the Saudi territory, while the other tribes, including the Sunni ones, have supported the tribal-national autonomy proposed by the Houthis.

As already mentioned above, however, ultimately not even Iran will be able to control Ansar Allah completely.

Other effects of the oil crisis will be seen in India, whose  economic take-off relies solely on Middle East oil, with 18% of its annual consumption resulting from Saudi oil alone.

Other Asian countries shall change their main supplier, but also the United States – despite its shale oil production -has so far imported 400,000 barrels per day in 2019 alone.

The situation is not bad at all for Russia which, for years, has been setting oil prices similar to OPEC’s. The same holds true for Kuwait and the Emirates, but the possible expansion of production could currently reach a million barrels per day, which are not enough to cover the Saudi shortfall.

Reverting to Yemen, it should also be recalled that the local war is the result of the US-sponsored “Arab spring”.

Hence, it is however unlikely that the attacks on oil wells and facilities (and we should consider that they are not far from the Yemeni border) provide the opportunity for a combined Saudi, US and Israeli attack on Iranian military positions in Iraq or in the Persian Gulf.

From a disadvantaged position, Iran has managed to create its own strategic level playing field with regional and international players, which is the real new fact of the drone attack on the Saudi oil facilities that took place last Saturday.

Giancarlo Elia Valori