November 14, 2003

November 14, 2003 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

Riyadh Attack Threatens U.S. Energy Security

Al Qaeda's massive November 8 attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killed 17 and wounded over 120. This attack targeted the Saudi royal family as well as foreign presence in this kingdom, which is vital to the oil economy. It also gave a boost to the ultimate goals of Osama bin Laden: driving the "infidels" from the Land of Two Mosques and toppling the monarchy. As the result, Western oil supply is at risk.


Three devastating scenarios may endanger the flow of oil:

  • Faltering of the Saudi regime;
  • A catastrophic attack on the Kingdom's vast oil infrastructure;
  • A prolonged civil war between the status quo supporters and Islamist revolutionaries.

In any such event, oil prices are likely to skyrocket.


Terror Economics

Bin Laden and his henchmen understand well political economy of terror. They aim for maximum ripple effect: banking and insurance losses for the 9/11 attacks have exceeded $55-60 billion. Bin Laden has proclaimed that if he takes over his native land, the oil price will hit $125 a barrel, while his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri stated that U.S. economic targets are high on the 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 like USS Cole was in 2000. Four incidents of "pirates" taking over large tankers and piloting them for four hours have been reported in South East Asia. Tim Spicer, the British terrorism expert has called this a maritime equivalent of a pre-9/11 flight school. Blown up tankers can paralyze vital waterways, such as the Panama and Suez canal, or the Bosphorus Straits. A tanker full of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) blown up at port can devastate an oil terminal in the Gulf.


Bin Laden's engineering and managerial skills and his familiarity with his country's infrastructure will serve him well in staging a mega -attack on the Kingdom's oil fields. For example, a radiological weapon (dirty nuke) could paralyze vital nodes of the Gulf oil infrastructure. Such an attack may neutralize the Saudi two million barrel a day surplus oil producing capacity vital for price stability. If this occurs, gas price may hit $6 a gallon for several months, and a deep economic recession will be then triggered by expensive energy, which may be worse than the 1973 and 1979 oil embargoes. This may have devastating results to President Bush's economic recovery strategy.


Boosting Anti-Terror Cooperation

Since May 2003, Saudi government has improved its anti-terrorism efforts. However, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell, it must do more to fight terrorism and halt funding to Al Qaeda and other terrorists. Many in Washington remain critical of the 1996 investigation of the Khobar Towers attack on U.S. soldiers, which was stalled by the Saudi Interior Ministry. In May 2003, Saudis ignored pleas for additional security before the first attack from Deputy National Security Advisor Stephnen J. Hadley and U.S. Ambassador's Robert W. Jordan.


Oil is a highly emotional and political issue in the Middle East. In many monarchies, transparency and accountability are lacking. Opulent lifestyles of rulers are becoming unsustainable as the population explodes. Today, the Jihadi chickens are coming home to roost. It was Saudi-sponsored foundation, supervised by members of the Saudi royal family, which funded terrorism from Miami to Manila. The oil bonanza funded the largest expansion of the radical Wahhabi Islam, which bred Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas and Yasir Arafat's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which have blown up the Oslo process and the Roadmap.


Israel, however, is just a target of opportunity, a substitute for the Great Satan, which is the U.S. The "root cause" of violence against America is not the Arab-Israeli confrontation, but the ideology of Jihad, which allows the blood of the "infidels." For the Islamists, born and bred in Arabia, however, it is also permitted to murder "apostate" rulers, such as the Saudi royal family. 


What the Bush Administration Should Do

It is only the matter of time when the blow against the oil fields' Saudi royal guardians - or the fields themselves -- may come. As the oil is endangered, the U.S. needs to prepare comprehensive energy and security responses. Specifically, it should:


  • Expand sources ofU.S. supply, bringing more oil from such sources as West Africa and Eurasia.
  • Diversify the energy basket, to include methanol/ethanol-blended fuels, more domestic oil and gas, such as from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and continental shelf, as well as coal and LNG. 
  • Expand Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPRs). U.S. has 700 million barrels of oil, or 90 days worth of supply. ). Europe and Japan have even less, and China's SPR barely exists. Industrial economies should build up their supplies to last about six months. 
  • Get Iraq right. Iraq has reserves second to those of Saudi Arabia - and a great need to rebuild after Saddam's misrule. It needs security, law and order, and a rapid economic reform, including privatization and foreign investment.
  • Prepare military contingency plans to rapidly secure the Gulf oil infrastructure if Al Qaeda attempts to severely disrupt it or monarchy is toppled.
  • Ensure that intelligence community and law enforcement receive full cooperation with their Saudi colleagues.
  • Encourage Saudi Arabia to become a force for peace in the Middle East, cutting funding to all Jihadi organizations around the world, dismantling its Jihadi infrastructure, cutting off anti-American clergy, Islamic academies (madrassahs), and those parts of the state-run media which incite for terror.

The threat today is not just to America and the West, but to the very survival of the Saudi regime and its blood supply -- oil. The United States should be ready to counter it.


Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. is a Research Fellow at The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation. His expertise includes international energy security.

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