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Analysis: New force to protect Saudi oil

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by Derek Sands
Washington (UPI) Aug 31, 2007
A new oil facilities protection force in Saudi Arabia faces a convinced enemy with a record of attacks on the country, but analysts say it is just another layer of protection on a security apparatus that has so far succeeded in protecting the country's most important resource.

Saudi Arabia plans to create a special oil facility protection force by year's end that will number 20,000 and eventually total 35,000.

"Oil is the lifeblood of the kingdom, and they are always going through different ways to make sure they are doing the best they can to protect the biggest investment the kingdom has," said Christopher Boucek, a researcher at Princeton University who has written extensively on security in Saudi Arabia. "They are always working to take these things into account, and I think this is just the latest iteration of that."

Petroleum products are crucial for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With the world's largest reserves of oil, about 264 billion barrels, Saudi Arabia is reliant on oil for 70 percent to 80 percent of its government revenue, according to the Energy Information Administration, the data arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.

An attack on Saudi oil facilities would not just have repercussions within the country; the entire world is dependent on Saudi oil. The country produced more than 13 percent of the world's oil in 2006, according to BP's Statistical Review of World Energy.

Not only is Saudi oil crucial for world markets now, but it will likely remain that way, according to a paper on Saudi Arabia and energy security presented in early June by Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

"In the medium term, the importance of the Persian Gulf and especially of Saudi Arabia is going to increase as the world continues, pushed by China and India, to consume ever-increasing quantities of oil," Barkey wrote.

Terrorist groups like al-Qaida, which has made no secret of its desire to overthrow the crown, have not missed these facts. In February 2006 gunmen thought to be supported by al-Qaida attacked the Abqaiq oil facility and blew themselves up after a gunfight with the facility's security forces, but before they could do any damage. In May 2004 about 22 people, most Western oil company workers, were killed in an attack in the eastern town of Khobar.

"How secure are Saudi oil facilities? The two threats to Saudi production facilities come from Shiites in the oil-producing region and from al-Qaida. The regime has taken steps to improve its relations with the Shia; and the al-Qaida attacks in 2006, though unsuccessful, have forced the regime to improve security. In addition, the Saudis have also built-in excess capacity on the Red Sea to export oil in the event the main Persian Gulf port's operations are interrupted," Barkey said.

Also, Jihadist literature often mentions attacks on oil facilities, raising levels of concern even higher in Saudi Arabia, said Princeton's Boucek.

Part of the reason direct attacks on oil facilities have been unsuccessful so far is that the Saudi government has spent "many billions of dollars in turning their oil facilities into the rough equivalent of Fort Knox," said Steve Yetiv, the author of several books on Persian Gulf politics and global oil security, and a political science professor at Old Dominion University.

Despite this, Saudi oil facilities still have several vulnerabilities, Yetiv said.

"The biggest vulnerability is if al-Qaida, or al-Qaida sympathizers, have penetrated Saudi oil facilities. In other words, if they are working inside those facilities. If they are working inside those facilities they can gather information on the weaknesses of the facilities, where to target, and they can facilitate a larger attack from outside, or try to execute something from inside," he said.

There is also the possibility of a suicide attack from the air, Yetiv said. In fact, the Saudi government announced in April it had arrested more than 170 people, saying some in the group were training to use civilian aircraft to attack Saudi oil facilities. But even with this strategy, Saudi security forces will likely have some warning.

"There are multiple radar systems, they've got all kinds of missile systems protecting it," Yetiv said.

The instability in Iraq, which runs along Saudi Arabia's northern border, may also indirectly spill over into Saudi Arabia, Barkey said.

"They also fear the blowback from Iraq; many of the suicide bombers come from Saudi Arabia and a very large number of Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida elements have gotten a tremendous education in terrorism in Iraq, not to mention a great deal of self-confidence. Saudi Arabia has never strayed far from al-Qaida's sights and hence Riyadh's new assertiveness is defensive in nature," he wrote.

For the time being, this assertiveness seems to be working.

"Based on what the evidence is right now, it seems like they must be doing something right," Yetiv said.

Boucek agrees.

"The Saudis are facing a serious problem, and I think they are doing a great job," Boucek said.

(e-mail: energy@upi.com)

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