Abqaiq and Khurais attacks demand a strong response
Saturday’s attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities were a game-changer and should be met with equally robust responses. They were a serious escalation by Iran against Saudi Arabia, the US, the rule of international law, the stability of oil markets, and the health of the world economy. According to the Saudi Ministry of Energy, the attacks resulted in the temporary disruption of production in both facilities, with about 5.7 million barrels taken off the market daily. That is more than 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s exports. In addition, about 2 billion cubic meters of daily associated gas production was also halted, depriving petrochemical companies of their main input.
There will be a disruption to oil supplies no doubt, but Saudi officials have promised to make it as short and painless to consumers as possible by releasing Aramco’s reserves to cover some of the shortages. The new Saudi minister of energy and the new Aramco chair, both appointed this month, are intent on restoring production capacity in both facilities as soon as possible.
But what if it happens again, which is very likely considering Iran’s escalations since early May? There has been a rising pattern of Iranian attacks against oil facilities and oil tankers. And, if nothing changes in Iran’s aggressive posture and the muted international response to its provocations, it is quite probable that it will attack again in the near future.
While Iran’s attacks against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and oil tankers in the Gulf have become quite brazen in recent months, Tehran has for decades targeted the Kingdom, especially its oil-producing regions. Since the revolution 40 years ago, Iran’s leaders have tried to destabilize Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Within months of the start of the revolution in February 1979, Iran began training for and funding terrorist acts in the province, including attacks on oil and petrochemical facilities. Since then, the level of Iranian-supported violence in that region has ebbed and flowed, but has never stopped. Saudi Arabia has nevertheless been able to contain the violence.
However, the recent attacks appear to be of a different pedigree. After the Trump administration adopted its “maximum pressure” strategy, Tehran has mobilized its forces and those of its proxies to attack oil-exporting facilities in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia, as well as oil tankers and US targets.
Because Iran’s threat is global, the international community should act collectively to deter any further aggression
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The twin attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais are at such a level that they should be met with new thinking about how to deal with the Iranian menace. At the regional level, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners will have to bolster their asymmetric defense capabilities. They have done a good job on upgrading their conventional and ballistic missile defenses, which is one reason Iran is not keen on challenging them in these areas. However, they need to deal with the emerging risk of drones and smaller missiles that can easily escape detection. The GCC has, over the past decades, agreed on a number of measures for closer military integration, including setting up the GCC Unified Military Command in November 2018 — a first in its 38-year history. This entity coordinates the work of all armed services and is charged with the day-to-day implementation of the GCC Joint Defense Treaty of 2000.
However, the Iranian threat is not only directed against Saudi Arabia or GCC countries, but is rather a threat to the political and economic world order, as governed by the UN Charter and international law, which bar aggression or the use of force to achieve political or economic goals. Iran clearly does not subscribe to this rules-based system, as it demonstrated recently by suggesting signing “non-aggression pacts” with selected countries, implying that others are fair game. In addition, the world economy has been teetering on the edge of a global recession; any disruption of supplies or dramatic increases in oil prices could easily push it over the edge.
Because Iran’s threat is global, as the aftermath of the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks demonstrates, the international community should act collectively to deter any further aggression. Countries that have been trying to cajole Iran and pay it off with financial benefits should, by now, realize that their approach is not working. Europe has been trying to persuade the US to extend a $15 billion line of credit for Iran to moderate its position on the nuclear deal, but those efforts have failed to change Tehran’s mindset.
Countries that have been on the sidelines should join the US-led efforts to mobilize nations to take part in safeguarding shipping in the Gulf. All trading nations, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, South Korea, Japan and the EU, should stand united in upholding international law and deliver a unified and unambiguous message to Iran to dissuade it from further attacks.
It is a good thing that the US has seemingly backed away from its offer for Donald Trump-Hassan Rouhani talks at the opening of the UN General Assembly next week. After the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks, it would be pointless to hold such a meeting without securing Iran’s agreement on some ground rules, something the GCC has been trying to do for some time. At any rate, high-level talks rarely succeed if they are not preceded by solid agreements on detailed frameworks negotiated by technical teams and ministers.
This week, Washington is hosting two important meetings under the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) rubric. The first, on Tuesday, focuses on MESA’s energy pillar, and the second on the political and security pillars. The attacks against Saudi Arabia’s oil installations should catapult MESA into action immediately. The MESA partners should turn words into deeds in all these pillars to send a message that the core alliance (the US, GCC member states, Jordan, and any others wishing to join) is ready to deliver on its promises. More nations will surely follow.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1