The Saudis are vulnerable: their oil infrastructure has been hit, and might be targeted again in the future. They will be able to count on the United States and Israel as allies, but they are not invincible. Indeed, it is the proximity to Washington and Tel Aviv that renders the Saud dynasty frail, as evidenced by the attacks themselves, to which we will return shortly below.
The strikes came a week after Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman replaced Khalid al-Falih in the role of Energy Minister, as Riyadh is trying to organize an IPO to sell off a part of the state oil company Aramco to investors, in order to raise funds and diversify the economy. The potential investors will have to take into account the risks of a further escalation.
At 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, the Abqaiq refinery and the Khurais oil field were attacked by drones and missiles, which—oddly—no defense system was able to intercept. The Saudi oil production was suddenly cut in half, losing 5.7 million barrels per day, representing 5% of global production which disappeared from the markets, so that on Monday morning the price of “black gold” had jumped by 20% (just like during the Gulf War of 1991), only to drop back down after the United States made their own reserves available.
For a while, the Saudis will not be able to turn on the oil faucets to please the Trump administration. While the flames have been kept at bay at the Abqaiq refinery and in the Khurais field, and there have been no casualties, the damage seems to be more serious than has been admitted: it will take months, not weeks, to restore things to their previous working order.
The Abqaiq refinery is the largest refinery in the world, and the Khurais field is part of the massive Ghawar, 300 km long by 70 km wide. The affected facilities are located in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, where the 15% of the Shiite population lives. For this reason they have always been subjected to persecution by the authorities in Riyadh.
The Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are of Shiite faith but belong to the Zaydi sect (different from the Twelvers which are dominant in Iran), have claimed responsibility for the attack. For the arms industry, the Saudis are the ideal customers: they buy them, use them and then they buy some more, particularly to deploy in Yemen, where they have been conducting air bombings since March 2015, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian casualties and putting 80% of the population (24 million people) in a desperate situation, without access to food or medicine and falling prey to epidemics.
The Houthis are fighting the Saudi-led coalition that is supporting the government of Mansour Hadi and is currently bombing Yemen. While that gives them a strong motive to hit Saudi installations, Martin Griffith, the UN envoy to Yemen, has expressed doubts about the role of the Houthis, saying it was “not entirely clear” who was behind the attack, a sentiment shared by the Security Council.
Colonel Turki al-Malki, a spokesperson for the military coalition led by the Saudis in Yemen, has claimed in no uncertain terms that the attack did not come from Yemen (the Khurais field is located 770 km from the Yemeni border), contradicting the Houthis’ claims.
Given that the attack originated from the northwest (and not from Yemen, which lies to the southwest of the targets) and given the extent of the attack (19 individual targets were struck, not 10 as was claimed by the Houthis), according to some inside sources from the Trump administration, it’s very unlikely that Yemeni rebels were involved: instead, according to their theory, the drones and missiles involved must have been launched from the northern coast of the Persian Gulf, thus either from Iran or—as claimed by Israeli sources—from pro-Iranian Shiite militias in southern Iraq.
The Iraqi authorities are denying the latter scenario and want to shift the blame onto the Ayatollahs and the Pasdaran in Tehran, while the latter are saying that they don’t know anything about it. The theory of Iranian involvement, put forward by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the weekend, is allegedly supported by images captured by US spy satellites, which have not been made available to the press: once again, as in many other cases, we are supposed to take the warmongers of the hour at their word.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, US president Trump took to Twitter to threaten military action against those responsible for the drone attack—but he stopped short of directly accusing Iran, because the goal at the moment is to lower the tensions: the Saudi leader Mohammad bin Salman needs some stability to attract investment and diversify the economy of the kingdom. At the same time, the Americans cannot help but welcome the increase in the price of crude oil, because they will reap profits from the sale of shale oil (while us Europeans, who are importers of energy, will find ourselves getting the short end of the stick).
Another party who stood to reap some benefit from these attacks was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, fighting to win the elections on Tuesday and become the longest-serving Prime Minister in the history of the Jewish state. However, as of late evening, exit polls were pointing towards the results being too close to call, with Netanyahu unsuccessful in his bid to secure an outright majority.