May 23, 2003

May 23, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Energy Security at Risk

Al Qaeda's recent attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the closure of the U.S. Embassy there, have exposed the weaknesses of the kingdom's security apparatus. These developments also further one of Osama bin Laden's goals - to drive the "infidels" from the "Land of the Two Mosques" and topple the monarchy.
 
Clearly, the global economy and the United States are at risk. If the Saudi regime falters, if the kingdom's vast oil infrastructure is damaged, or if a prolonged civil war erupts, oil prices are likely to skyrocket.

A deep economic recession would be triggered by the high cost of energy, with devastating consequences, particularly in an election season. The United States must draw the obvious conclusions and take precautions, and it has to act now.

Thus far, Saudi security cooperation has been unimpressive. The FBI investigation of the 1996 Khobar Towers attack by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen, was stalled by the Saudi Interior Ministry, requiring multiple interventions by then-FBI Director Louis Freeh and phone calls from President George H.W. Bush to Crown Prince Abdallah. This time, U.S Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley's and U.S. Ambassador Robert W. Jordan's desperate pleas for extra security went unheeded, as was reported in the media. This must change.

Oil is a highly emotional and political issue in the Middle East. In many monarchies, state budgets are opaque, and the population often has no idea how the petrodollars are spent. The opulent - and sometimes distinctly "un-Islamic" - lifestyles of the rulers are becoming increasingly unsustainable as the populations explode. It is not just the welfare economics of the Middle Eastern oil-producing states, but their demographics, corruption, incompetence and democratic deficit that are undermining the regimes' legitimacy. And there is more.

The oil bonanza funded the worldwide export of radical Wahhabi Islam, the ideological breeding ground of al Qaeda and the Taliban, over the last three decades. Government-sponsored foundations, supervised by members of the Saudi royal family, fueled Jihad from New York to Kabul, and from Miami to Manila, by funding brainwashing for violence in Wahhabi academies (madrassahs), and terrorism training under the guise of charity.
Hamas and Yasser Arafat's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which undermined the Oslo process and now are busily blowing the roadmap to bits with their weapon of choice - brainwashed Palestinian suicide bombers - are partially funded through Saudi telethons and hailed by preachers in Saudi government-supported mosques worldwide.

The "root cause" of violence against the United States is not the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the ideology of jihad against the West, which exhorts the "faithful" to shed the blood of "infidels." Israel is just a target of opportunity, a substitute for the Great Satan. For Islamist radicals, born and bred in Arabia, however, it is also quite permissible to murder "apostate" rulers, including the Saudi royal family. Hence the attacks in Riyadh. The jihad chickens have come home to roost.

Bin Laden understands both economics and the politics of terrorism. He has proclaimed that if he takes over his native land, he will drive oil to $125 a barrel, while his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, stated that U.S. economic targets are high on al Qaeda's hit list. In October 2002, the Limbourg, a French super-tanker, was hit by a suicide Zodiac boat in the Persian Gulf - just as the USS Cole was in 2000. And bin Laden's engineering and managerial skills can conceivably suffice to stage a super-attack on the kingdom's oil infrastructure, one that could neutralize Saudi Arabia's 2 million barrel a day surplus oil producing capacity, vital for price stability.

The sand in the hourglass is running out for U.S. energy security in the Persian Gulf. Bin Laden is riding high, claiming successes in striking at the heart of the "infidels" in the United States; taking credit for the announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi bases; and now, shutting down the embassy. His allies are striking almost daily from Morocco to Jerusalem. It is only a matter of time before a blow comes against the oil fields - or their Saudi royal guardians.

As Saudi oil is endangered, the United States needs to prepare comprehensive military and energy responses. It is important to diversify the U.S. supply, bringing more oil from such sources as West Africa and Eurasia. The energy basket must be more diverse, and should include more domestic oil and gas, coal, liquid natural gas and renewables.

It is vital to "get Iraq right." Iraq has reserves second only to those of Saudi Arabia - and a great need to rebuild after Saddam's misrule and three wars. It needs law and order, and rapid economic reform, including privatization and attraction of foreign investment. Securing Iraq must also include deterring Iran from destabilizing it.

The U.S. military must have contingency plans to rapidly secure the Persian Gulf oil infrastructure if al Qaeda attempts to severely disrupt it. Top U.S. policy-makers must ensure that the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies receive full cooperation from their Saudi colleagues in tracking down terrorist organizations, their financiers and supporters.

Saudi Arabia must become a force for peace in the Middle East, cutting funding to any and all jihad organizations around the world. Most importantly, the kingdom must dismantle its homegrown jihad infrastructure, with its anti-American clergy, anti-Western academies and hostile state-run media. This apparatus breeds terror, a terror that today threatens not just the United States and the West, but the very survival of the Saudi regime and its very blood - oil. President Bush said that Saudi Arabia is a friend. Friends don't let friends commit suicide through terrorism.

 Ariel Cohen is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The views expressed here are his own.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in the Washington Times