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Messiness unleashed by the attack on Saudi oil



The Middle East is set for another murderous scrap, one boosted by the usual speculation, fear and rage that accompanies the next provocation. Saturday's attack on the world's largest oil processing facility at Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia, which was responsible for a daily output of some 5.7 million barrels, had its desired effect. There was talk about a constriction in the energy market. The commentariat on oil prices got into a tizz with a price rise of 20 per cent in Benchmark Brent crude.  

Stock photo of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Credit: 3dotsad / Getty)Speculators got busy, concerned that a critical point in the energy supply chain had been assaulted. 'Saturday's attack on a critical Saudi oil facility,' broods the Wall Street Journal, 'will almost certainly rock the world energy market in the short term, but it also carries disturbing long-term implications.' 

For one, it was audacious, executed by drones supposedly controlled by Iran-backed Houthi rebels based in Yemen. But Riyadh is also examining another possibility: that the attack was instigated by another group from Iraq using cruise missiles. What concerns the security fraternity is that, whichever group was responsible, a non-state actor has been involved in targeting vulnerable assets in the global energy chain.

Immediately, geopolitical presumptions were being made. Those responsible for the attack could not have been operating on their own volition. Some puppet mastery was involved. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to swallow Iranian denials regarding the attack, or accept Houthi claims. 

The forced departure of US national security advisor John Bolton, an individual not averse to retaliatory strikes on Iranian targets, had left matters uncertain. Optimists were hoping that the change would lead to a waiver of sanctions for some buyers of Iranian crude. Prospects of a discussion with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani later this month were also floated.

In all that fuss, it was conveniently forgotten that Pompeo remains a bellicose hawk of some determination. He might have been well on cue managing Trump's inconsistent scripts, but he remains a devotee of pre-emptive action and retaliation. In his view, there is only one state responsible for the attacks. 'We call on all nations to publicly and unequivocally condemn Iran's attacks. The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression.' 

In another tweet posted on Saturday, he accused Iran of being behind some 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia 'while Rouhani and [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy'.  He ruled out Yemen as a base for the assault. Iran had 'launched an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply.'


"The Houthis have always been seen by Washington as play dough companions of Teheran, never genuine rebels."


Even in the absence of being briefed with evidence, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, US Representative Adam Schiff, was already adamant on the hidden hand: 'I think it's safe to say that the Houthis don't have the capability to do a strike like this without Iranian assistance.'

All of this has the hallmarks of danger. Previous US administrations have been cavalier with using stretched, and in some cases doctored, evidence, to justify military action. The region still labours with the evidentiary fantasies that drove the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, one filled with extravagant assessments on Saddam Hussein's capabilities regarding weapons of mass destruction.

The dangers of misreading, actual or unwitting, also extend to the cognitive failings of US foreign policy in the Middle East. The Houthis have always been seen by Washington as play dough companions of Teheran, never genuine rebels, set on asserting Shiite control indigenous to Yemen. Similar errors of misreading have been made in Afghanistan regarding the Taliban, and the Viet Cong in Vietnam: local factors are discounted in favour of external, geopolitical interference. 

The condemnation of Iran for the attacks also has the effect of deflecting from the atrocities and war crimes being perpetrated on the state by the Saudi-led coalition. (The Houthi rebels have not been averse to their own bloodletting in this regard, albeit lacking equivalent arms and material.) 

The campaign has been well supported by western armaments, a point made in leaked documents from the French Directorate of Military Intelligence in April this year. The documentation also revealed assistance supplied by the US, France and the UK in targeting, a damning point in a conflict marked by the destruction of schools, mosques, hospitals and critical infrastructure. Such arms have also been transferred, in breach of agreements with Washington, to a range of factions fighting in Yemen distinctly opposed to Western states, including Salafi militias and al-Qaeda linked groups.

The signals from the White House remain erratic. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway claimed that the attacks may not have helped; nor did they spell an end to a potential meeting between Trump and Rouhani at the UN General Assembly. The fear here is that Trump might yield to the jingoistic advice of such figures as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has openly suggested that the time has come 'to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries'.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Stock photo of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Credit: 3dotsad / Getty)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Middle East, oil, Iran



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Existing comments

Rather than attacking an unidentified/presumed enemy, wouldn't you thing the USA could install a missile defence system over the facility????? and perhaps a radar command post??.

Erton O'John | 17 September 2019  

A very good article, thank you, Binoy, exposing a lot of the murkiness behind this. Ansar'ullah ("the Houthis") have got a lot better at this sort of thing of late, so their claims of responsibility should not be dismissed out of hand. Iran's backing of them is, of its nature, limited (since Saudi and the UAE have a full-blown naval blockade of Yemen, which has also helped to starve the population). It is also interesting that: (a) at least some of the (conflicting) video evidence suggests that whatever the things were struck the facility from the west - suggesting an attack from within Saudi and (b) lots of players have reasons to make noise about Iran - the US, trying to ratchet tensions while distracting from its own ripping up of the nuclear deal and Israel, where a fairly unpopular Bibi is facing reelection. There is much smoke and yelling but facts on this one are hard to come by - and likely to stay that way for a while yet. Erton has a good point but, ironically, the people who do this kind of close air defence system best seem to be the Russians - their Pantsir systems have a good record, especially in Syria, of defending against just this sort of attack.

Justin Glyn | 17 September 2019  

Well said Binoy, Having personably worn the consequences of our involvement in Vietnam with continuing health issues; witnessing the issues now facing the son of our friends, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, I fear once again we will be drawn into the messiness of the Middle East with consequences too horrible to contemplate, mainly the collateral damage caused to the long suffering innocent civilians. I just hope that the U.S. and its Allies will this time correctly interpret the identity and motives of those who are targeting Saudi Oil installations and shipping in the Persian Gulf.Maybe this time the intelligence people will get it right, but I will not be holding my breath.

Gavin A O'Brien | 17 September 2019  

An important article which, like so many of Binoy’s essays on contemporary political crises, deserves a second reading. Well researched and full of insights which help to shake us free of the echo-chamber of lazy thinking and failures of moral imagination. The attack on Saudi Arabia’s ability (abetted by the United Emirates) to wage proxy wars to protect America’s commercial and hegemonic interests in the Middle East is an astonishing display of asymmetric warfare. The Houthis had made similar drone attacks in previous months to prove the concept, no doubt with this in mind. In the last few minutes the Saudis tried to shoot down the drones but failed abysmally. This is despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has for many years been the mainstay of the US arms exporting industry, with hundreds of millions in annual purchases. Western nations, including Australia, face a global crisis because, if trump decides to ‘let loose the dogs of war’ the Houthis may well destroy the remaining half of the Saudis’ oil industry Meanwhile, former Clinton Labor Secretary, Robert Reich warns against media complacency in ignoring the evidence that Trump is now ‘dangerously unstable’.

Max Atkinson | 17 September 2019  

Unfortunately, Gavin, I fear that Trump, a deluded, heavily armed sheriff of dubious ethics, hasn't progressed since the days of the Wild West. He needs to keep his shootin' hand in with a bit of practice every now and then - "For a Few Dollars More"!

john frawley | 17 September 2019  

Shadow Defence Minister and deputy Labor leader Richard Marles shows a lack of realism in his interview with Hamish Macdonald on ABC Radio National today. Two matters stand out: the first is Labor’s repetition of the myth that we must ‘assist’ the US to enforce free passage in the Hormuz Straits. Given the presence of the US Pacific fleet, reinforced with bombers and tomahawk missiles, the US needs no assistance. Ditto the pressure to participate in US adventures in the South China Sea. What the US does need is overt support from Australian, British, Canadian and other Western Governments, because it helps an obsessive US President sell his financial war against Iran to the US public. The second problem is a far more serious failure of realism, also evident in Marles’ response: analysts and commentators now habitually refer to “US” policy, “American” strategy and “how Washington sees things” with no apparent sense that these must be euphemisms for Donald Trump’s latest tweet because - since the last round of dismissals and resignations - no one can now point to a more reliable authority to justify this (often ponderous) speculation.

Max Atkinson | 17 September 2019  

I agree with you John. We live in dangerous and unstable times. I lived through the "Cold War "era, so I am not too happy, particularly for my children and grandchildren's futures.

Gavin A O'Brien | 18 September 2019  

As with others making comments, I too want to pay tribute to Binoy Kampmark's well written and well researched article. Like others too, I am concerned that Trump might well be blaming the attack on the Saudi oil facilities on Iran to have an excuse to launch hostilities against Iran. We can be certain that if Trump decides to invade, the Morrison government will be sending our young people off to fight in yet another US instigated war. This will be with the full support of the so-called ALP. "Opposition". It would be immoral in the extreme for Australian leaders to involve us in a war to support the Saudi regime one of the most undemocratic, illiberal and women hating regimes in the world that is committing gross war crimes in Yemen. No doubt, former defence and defence industry minister Christopher Pyne will be rubbing his hands together as another war will present more opportunities to send even more Australian defence equipment to the Saudis. I too am very worried for my grandchildren and future generations if Australia continues to support the US military. Those in the weapons industries might well think that "war is good business", but it leads to much death, suffering, waves of refugees and destruction to infrastructure and the environment.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 18 September 2019  

America is always quick to blame Iran while papering over the role of Saudi Arabia in exporting terrorist activity. If Iran is the major purveyor of terrorism, why are the recognised terrorist organisations all Sunni Muslims, not Shiite, the Islam of Iran? ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Boko Haram in Africa, and Jemaah Islam in Southeast Asia, are all Sunni. These terrorist organisations are all centred on Salafist religiosity driven by an extremist interpretation of jihad - the religious duty to fight against one's own spiritual failings, but in the Jihadi Salafist mindset, it is the duty to fight violently against those who do not live the Salafist faith. The Salafist model is propagated by the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, developed in Saudi Arabia, and now being exported all over the Muslim world, facilitated by the flood of Saudi money into schools, mosques, and government departments in Muslim-majority countries. While the Saudi royal family is often presented as a bulwark against extremism in the Middle East, the Al ash-Shaykh family is rarely mentioned. Al ash-Shaykh are the family of Abd al- Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi sect. They control religion in Saudi Arabia, while the Al-Sa’ud family control the political and social life of the nation.

Ian Fraser | 20 September 2019  

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