June 21, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East
The brutal killing of American defense worker Paul Johnson last week is the latest iteration of al Qaeda's plan to destabilize Saudi Arabia - this time by driving out highly-skilled "infidel" technocrats from the Muslim holy land.
This most recent act of treachery allows al Qaeda to inflict short-term pain on the West through likely higher oil prices and shake the royal Saudi family to the core. Though the terrorist may be reluctant to attack the Saudi oil industry directly in order to preserve it for its own future use, it's likely that al Qaeda will have to target it in order to have any chance of toppling the Saudi regime.
The recent sabotage on Iraqi oil assets hints at the consequences.
When it comes to messing with the world's oil supply, Saudi Arabia is an even more enticing target for al Qaeda than Iraq. While Iraq has the world's second-largest oil reserves, the desert kingdom is No. 1, with a quarter of the planet's known oil under its sand.
As such, Riyadh is the world's largest oil producer and the key oil supplier to the world's indispensable economic growth engines - the United States, Japan and Europe. (In 2003, Saudi Arabia provided America with over 15 percent of its crude oil imports.)
Experts say that well-placed attacks on key Saudi oil wells, pipelines, refineries and export terminals could put Riyadh out of the oil business for two years. For instance, the huge Saudi oil facility, Abqaiq, processes a whopping two-thirds of the kingdom's crude.
Here's the rub: Saudi Arabia is the only oil producer with excess capacity. Other world oil producers are pumping flat out; only Riyadh can increase its output. So if Saudi production is crippled or shut down, no one can pick up the slack.
The result of a major attack on the Saudi oil industry would be an unprecedented world oil and economic crisis. The oil market is already jittery - al Qaeda's killing of 22, mostly foreign, oil workers at Khobar, Saudi Arabia last month shot crude to an all-time high of $42 a barrel.
Al Qaeda has so far realized that killing Saudi Muslims is counterproductive to their cause. But killing the "infidel" expatriates - in even more grizzly ways - may cause many of the 8 million foreign workers (35,000 Americans) to leave Saudi Arabia, including the several thousand primarily American and British expats who run the Saudi oil industry.
The Saudi national oil company, Aramco, reportedly employs 5,000 guards for physical security, but there are serious concerns about their ability to protect the oil industry from willing martyrs. (Just look at the challenges in protecting Iraq's pipelines with 150,000 Coalition soldiers . . . )
Plus, al Qaeda is suspected of having recruited sympathizers inside the Saudi petroleum establishment. It has also considered crashing airliners into large refineries.
The current situation in Saudi Arabia is unacceptable, even with the take down of a key al Qaeda cell over the weekend. The international community must press Saudi Arabia hard to do more against terrorism, including cracking down on radical preaching in the mosques and terrorist financing.
To gird itself for a stunning blow to the oil markets, the United States must continue to diversify its sources of energy, both at home and abroad (e.g., West Africa and Central Asia) to reduce our reliance on Saudi (and Middle Eastern) oil.
Oil politics are never popular or pretty, but the introduction of terrorism makes them uglier than ever. The unfortunate fact is that oil, for now, is critical to our economic well-being and the American way of life.
Both of which al Qaeda wants to damage in any way it can. We better be ready.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
First appeared in the New York Post