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Saudi oil supplies are safe and secure

By Nawaf Obaid, Special to CNN
  • Nawaf Obaid: Reports that Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure is vulnerable are deceptive
  • Obaid: This fear-mongering drives up price of oil, hurts markets and economic recovery
  • Two attacks on oil facilities were foiled in past, he writes, since then safeguards even stronger
  • Predicting such a crisis is irresponsible, he says; only oil traders benefit

Editor's note: Nawaf Obaid is senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and is pursuing a doctorate on the rise of Saudi nationalism at the department of war studies at King's College London.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- In recent weeks, the Western media provided a sensationalist run-up to the so-called "Day of Rage" in Saudi Arabia -- citing a Facebook campaign as evidence that the kingdom would be engulfed in the same turmoil that has swept the Arab world. As we now know, this uprising was a chimera of the press.

We are now facing another, more dangerous illusion: the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia's energy infrastructure. In recent weeks some pundits, oil traders and journalists have peddled a deceptive assessment of the threats facing the kingdom's ability to supply oil to the world, and this fear-mongering has had very real consequences, driving the price of oil to irrational heights, adding skittishness to the markets and threatening the nascent global economic recovery.

No system as vast as the Saudi oil complex -- with its scores of rigs, refineries, export terminals and pipelines -- is perfectly protected. But a brief overview of the safeguards built into this infrastructure -- the forces that protect it and the demographics of the region -- sheds light on the actual security situation and reveals the risks are much less serious than widely disseminated.

The first layer of security in the Saudi energy infrastructure is simply the design and construction of the facilities. Two failed attacks show this well.

For decades, during times of peace as well as war, Saudi Arabia has provided the world with a steady supply of oil.
--Nawaf Obaid

The first happened at the Yanbu petrochemical plant in 2004, where, because of the structure's layout, Saudi security agents were able to quickly cordon the industrial portions of the facility and isolate and neutralize the terrorists. The complex itself was never in danger, although several people were killed.

Another example is the failed al Qaeda attack on the Abqaiq oil processing facility, one of the largest and most important in the world, in February 2006. The terrorists were able to breach the outer perimeter and overrun the guards, but never made it to the operational areas of the plant itself. Beyond the first guard post is a large "no-man's land," designed as a moat to protect the functioning elements of the facility. The terrorists were trapped and forced to detonate their car bomb there. Although people tragically lost their lives at the first gate and the exterior portions of the center suffered some damage, at no time was the facility or its ability to process oil under serious threat.

In addition to safeguards and design elements such as multiple barriers and perimeters, thousands of sensors, cameras, sophisticated computers and world-class surveillance and security systems protect the sprawling energy facilities.

It is worth pointing out that the elements most difficult to protect, such as the thousands of miles of pipeline, are also the easiest to repair and quickly get back online. Saudi authorities have estimated that in a worst case scenario -- where an entire section of pipeline is destroyed -- repair teams could bring the pipeline back to normal operation within days. The key processing points and bottlenecks in the system are, by their centralized nature, much easier to defend.

It is also important to note that even though Abqaiq withstood the 2006 attack, since then the Saudi government has invested more than $10 billion to improve its energy security even further.

A key element of this initiative has been the creation of a 35,000-strong "facilities security force." These troops come from across the kingdom and receive extensive training through a U.S. technical assistance program. This specialized force, which did not exist before 2005, has the exclusive responsibility of guarding all energy installations against both internal and external threats.

Also, the Saudi government has stockpiled considerable quantities of oil through its Foreign Reserve Initiative. A sizable portion is in floating containment facilities near the kingdom's main export markets and can be released, if necessary, in emergencies, such as the tsunami in Japan or the civil war in Libya.

Another pillar of the misinformation surrounding the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia's energy industry posits that the kingdom's oil resources lay in a region inhabited by a restive Shiite majority.

Setting aside that in decades of Saudi oil production, there have been no serious Shiite attempts to sabotage the kingdom's oil facilities, it is worth providing some basic facts. Contrary to popular belief, Shiites make up just about 30% of the population of the oil-rich Eastern Province (around 1.1 million out of about 3.9 million), and about half are concentrated in villages in the coastal Governorship of Qatif.

At one time the Eastern Province was predominantly Shiite, but in the past several decades, more than 1.3 million foreign workers and almost 1.5 million Saudis from other parts of the kingdom have migrated there in search of economic opportunities.

None of this is to say that Shiites haven't faced legitimate grievances: The community lacks full religious freedom, encounters obstacles within the Sunni-dominated legal code, and has suffered economic discrimination for years.

But since assuming the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has taken steps to address these problems, such as ensuring that Shiites receive fair treatment and the same economic and social benefits as the majority Sunnis; increased employment opportunities in the public sector, and equal access to fully paid foreign scholarships.

For these reasons and others, the characterization of the native Shiite community as a "Fifth Column" representing a threat to the kingdom's oil infrastructure in the Eastern Province is far overblown.

For decades, during times of peace as well as war and turbulence, Saudi Arabia has provided the world with a steady supply of oil to meet the needs of a growing global economy. The kingdom has invested heavily, not only in the security of its energy infrastructure, but also in the development of the largest spare oil production capacity anywhere (more than 3 million barrels per day), to stabilize oil markets during times of crisis.

Since the unrest in Libya began, for instance, Saudi Arabia has increased its production considerably, playing the key role of the world's energy guarantor of last resort. Thus, while it is healthy to question the security of an asset so vital to us all, it is important to analyze risks based upon the facts.

Many journalists and analysts in the West, however, have resorted to innuendo and sensationalism in the discussion of the security of Saudi Arabia's oil industry. If this continues, they may find themselves in the same embarrassing position they did after Saudi Arabia's "Day of Rage," predicting a crisis that never came to pass. And aside from a few oil traders, no one profits from such irresponsibility.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nawaf Obaid.