Oil markets were jolted Thursday, March 1, by a rumor that a crude transport line in the Eastern Provinces of Saudi Arabia had been set on fire and, even more worrying, the cause was sabotage of which the local Shiite population was suspected.
The initial reaction was disbelief that saboteurs could have penetrated the exceptional security measures put in place by Aramco – heavily reinforced in the wake of the botched 2006 truck bomb attack on Abqaiq, which processes roughly 7 million barrels per day of crude oil.
Riyadh took advantage of this disbelief to deny anything was amiss or that they had heard about any pipeline explosion. The next day, therefore, March 2, oil prices dropped back to their former level and the episode raised no more dust.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources, however, confirm that an explosion did occur at the key pipeline and it was indeed the work of saboteurs.
For the first time in decades, Middle East volatility, now at an unprecedented peak, had struck the sacrosanct Middle East oil sector, which keeps much of the world supplied with fuel. It targeted the pipeline section between Awamiya and Safwa and set it on fire, although Saudi government sources claimed belatedly that the blaze was not caused by an explosion and had occurred, anyway, one kilometer distant from the locaton of important pipelines.
Our sources add that the blast was very small – the attackers were apparently unable to get hold of a large quantity of explosives. It took Saudi firemen just a few hours to extinguish the fire.
Still, even a small hazard to one of the main Saudi oil pipelines is bound to set off major vibrations in many parts of the world.
Three potential threats to oil
The incident’s timing on the anniversary of the death of Fatima Zahraa, only daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, a date of importance to Saudi Shiites, suggested fresh Saudi Shiite unrest was simmering in the kingdom’s primary oil region.
Since the Shiite uprising erupted in neighboring Bahrain in February 2011, Saudi authorities have maintained a high level of security around their oil fields, installations and the network of pipelines running through the Shiite region in anticipation of trouble coming from three sources:
1. Iranian sabotage units especially trained to blow up oil fields could reach the oil kingdom by sea.
The Saudis believe Tehran has reserved them for action in the event that US and European sanctions cause the Islamic regime to sink under the weight of popular unrest, or its nuclear facilities are attacked by America or Israel.
2. Hizballah sabotage units already present in Bahrain and Iraq. They would stage attacks in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh presumes, should the Saudis underwrite and foment a serious conspiracy to undermine Hizballah on its home ground in Lebanon – or if the Saudi military units propping up the Bahraini king stamped hard on the Hizballah agents spearheading Shiite unrest against the throne.
More attacks in store – and so are soaring oil prices
3. Iranian and Hizballah agents of provocation have already infiltrated the Saudi Shiite community and are giving local troublemakers money, weapons and explosives to carry out terrorist attacks.
Their first attack on a Saudi oil pipeline was on a small scale, but it brought local Shiite cells in the pay of Tehran out in the open for the first time.
Riyadh fears that this was just the beginning and more attempted disruptions of its oil industry are still to come. They would cause sudden spikes in the price of oil.