The frightening rise in the number of terror attacks in Saudi Arabia appears to be aimed primarily at the expatriate community. This seems like a clear attempt to strike at the soft underbelly of the kingdom – its economy. Initially, it might seem the attacks are aimed at causing panic and claiming as many lives as possible. Or perhaps this is al-Qaeda’s promise to follow up on earlier threats to kill as many “crusaders” as they can. Closer analysis, however, reveals a more sinister motivation is driving the recent terror campaign. Its aim is to hit the kingdom where it would hurt the most.
Yes, it’s still very much about the economy. The terrorists, said Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and author of UNDERSTANDING TERROR NETWORKS, are applying the old communist logic, that “you wither away the state,” in order to have it fall. Sagemam is also a former CIA case officer for Afghanistan.
For the record, Saudi Arabia earns nearly $500 million a day, allowing the kingdom’s 7,000 princes and their assorted consorts – a total of some 24,000 royal household members – a healthy yearly stipend of $500,000 each. The grand total of that budget hovers around the $3 billion mark. Money that critics of the House of Saud say is wasted on luxury items, extravagant villas and apartments strewn across the Mediterranean.(A recent report circulating around Beirut these days has the crown prince reserving about 1,000 hotel rooms for him and his entourage in Lebanese hotels for the summer. If true, this would certainly give a boost to Lebanon’s economy.) But let’s return to the Saudi economy, which terrorists hope to disrupt. And this they can accomplish by targeting the petrochemical industry. There are basically three possible ways in which to obstruct the flow of oil. The first is to target the installations – the rigs that pump the oil from the ground, the refineries that process the crude, storage facilities and shipping terminals. But, all those locations are extremely well protected and hard to approach.
“The oil facilities are very well defended,” said Roger Diwan, managing director of the Petroleum Finance Co., a Washington, DC, firm specializing in analysis of oil industry trends. “There are armed troops, cameras, multiple levels of defenses, etc., that make it very difficult.”
The second option is targeting the oil pipelines, which carry the oil from the fields to the refineries and from there to shipping facilities. While also protected, these offer easier targets given the vast distances they cover. It is practically impossible to secure every mile of pipeline across the desert. In Iraq, for example, pipelines have become a favorite target of insurgents over the last year.
In Saudi Arabia the situation is far different, and security is far more stringent than in war-torn Iraq. Secondly, sensors, cameras and other devices closely monitor the pipeline network. Any interruption in the flow caused by an act of terror can be rapidly rectified. The oil flow can be quickly stopped from a remote monitoring station, the damage quickly assessed, minimized and repaired. And finally, the pipelines traverse remote desert regions where attacks carry little or no fear effect on the population. They have no propaganda effect.
That leaves the third option – the so–called “soft targets” – otherwise known as the civilian workers. Because civilians are less defended than the oil installations, they make far easier targets, and are therefore the “soft underbelly” of the kingdom’s economy.
Those behind the spate of attacks know only too well that if they manage to scare away the expatriate workforce, they disrupt the production of oil and in the process succeed in crippling the economy. That, in turn will paralyze the country, therefore weakening the government, allowing them to come all that much closer to achieving their ultimate goal: overthrowing the House of Saud. In the last month alone, armed gunmen killed six employees working for an American company in the Red Sea port of Yanbu, they murdered 22 civilians in a housing complex in the Eastern province city of Khobar, killed an American, an Irish BBC cameraman and wounded Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent and kidnapped an American in the capital Riyadh.
Civilian employees – particularly Westerners – easily stand out and make easier targets than the oil installations. Diwan pointed out that unlike the installations, terminals and refineries, “for the civilians, it’s far more difficult. In Dhahran, for example,” he said, “you have an entire city to defend. It’s very hard.” And what is hard for the authorities naturally becomes all that much easier for the terrorists. There are about six million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. Tens of thousands of them are employed in the country’s huge petrochemical industry. Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company that holds the world’s largest oil reserves, employs 56,000 people, of whom about 2,300 are US and Canadian citizens and about 1,200 Europeans. Striking them in their place of work, as in the Yanbu attack on the Houston-based ABB Lummus Global company on May 1, or in their homes, as in Khobar, is simple enough from a tactical point of view. Despite stepped-up security at all work and housing locations, there is, after all, a limited amount of security that can be implemented without making those places resemble maximum-security prisons. Additionally, with the use of Saudi military uniforms, as the terrorists were reported to be wearing in several of the attacks, fooling the real security personnel is even easier.
Following the latest attacks, a number of Americans have already stared to leave the kingdom, encouraged by their embassy in Riyadh who advised all US citizens to leave as soon as possible. The British issued a similar warning and the Foreign Office is warning of more attacks to come. In an e-mail made available to this reporter, an oil executive at Saudi Aramco voiced his fears that the “exodus of ex-pats has begun.”
The terrorists hope that carrying out additional attacks on foreign workers will eventually scare more away, thus creating a vacuum in the oil industry, crippling the economy, and in turn weakening the authorities’ grip on power. This, the terrorists hope will facilitate the overthrow of the regime. Alternatively, following a sudden exodus of expatriates, al-Qaeda and its affiliates could replace the vacuum with sympathizers, positioning themselves for an eventual “take-over” of the oil infrastructures in the country. While these scenarios may seem far-fetched, neither possibility should be brushed aside without considerable thought. Either way, the terrorists could seriously undermine the kingdom’s oil-based economy. To take a page from Robert Baer’s book, SLEEPING WITH THE DEVIL, where Islamic terrorists sabotage the oil installations, this situation could now become all too real. Baer, a former CIA Middle East operative, describes a hypothetical situation in which Islamic fundamentalist terrorists sabotage Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in the country’s eastern province, severely hindering the flow of oil to the West. Although imaginary, the scenario is nevertheless worrisome and the threat now very real.
The one positive outcome that may emerge from these frightening developments is that they should serve as a rude wake-up call for many Saudi officials who, until just recently, refused to believe that their country could be on the verge of serious civil strife.
For a long while the leaders of the kingdom refused to take the terror threat seriously. Lately, they have begun to say they would fight terrorism and crush it with “an iron fist.” But so far, the fist has failed to come down very hard, and the terrorists continue to operate and become bolder in their deadly endeavors. Prince Turki al-Faisal, who for decades ran Saudi intelligence and who is now ambassador to Great Britain, told the BBC that all but one of six al-Qaeda cells operating in the kingdom had been “dismantled.” But judging from the brashness – and the rise in number of attacks – one could easily assume the opposite to be true. After the Khobar attacks Abdulaziz al-Murqrin, a Saudi leader of a terrorist group known to be affiliated to al-Qaeda, published a statement on the internet calling for urban warfare and the toppling of the royal family. He promised that the remainder of the year would be bloody for the kingdom. Some analysts believe that the terrorists might have already infiltrated the security services. “The fact that most of the arrests have resulted in open gun battles suggests either that the Saudis are remarkably inept at security operations or that the terrorists know that security forces are coming,” reported MJ Gohel and Sajjan M. Gohel, terrorist analysts with the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation. “Riyadh’s ability and the loyalty of its security services, to break up the terror network now operating in Saudi territory is questionable,”
“Bizarrely, the Saudi Arabian government announced that the current three terrorists still on the loose after the Khobar attack are part of the last terrorist cell in the country,” said the Gohel brothers. “I am very worried,” said Sageman, who added that he feared Saudi Arabia could be in the midst of a “full-blown insurgency.”
Claude Salhani is the foreign editor of United Press International in Washington, DC.