Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen, encouraged by the US, have joined hands in a vast new project to crisscross Arabia with a net of oil pipelines. It is called the Trans-Arabia Oil Pipeline project. Its object is to bypass the Straits of Hormuz at the throat of the Persian Gulf and so remove Gulf oil routes from the lurking threat of Iranian closure.
Before the first pipeline had been laid in Nov. 2007, Tehran struck Thursday, Aug. 9, with lightening speed, announcing negotiations with Baghdad on a deal to build a pipeline to carry 200,000 barrels per day of southern Iraqi crude to refineries in Iran.
The first Trans-Arabia pipeline will carry 5 million barrels of oil a day, almost one third of the 17 million barrels produced by Gulf emirates. The crude will be pumped through pipes running from the world’s biggest oil terminal owned by Saudi Aramco at Ras Tannura (see attached map – http://debka-net-weekly.com/pics/map3/Pipes03.html), south to S. Yemen’s oil port of Mukallah and west to the Red Sea port and industrial town of Yanbu north of Jeddah.
Investment in the first stage of an estimated $6 billion will come from the participating governments within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council – GCC.
Rising regional tensions and the vulnerability of the Straits of Hormuz, the only maritime outlet for Gulf oil, to hostile blockade has galvanized the partners into urgent action to get the project up and running.
The Straits of Hormuz are a chokepoint in every sense.
Only 37 km wide, they consist of only two lanes able to accommodate oi tankers entering and exiting Gulf ports. Every 24 hours, an average 30 vessels transit the straits loaded with roughly one-quarter of the world’s oil consumption.
This volume varies according to weather conditions, currents and whether it is day or night. The traffic during the navigable hours tends to be heavy, no more than 6 minutes between each vessel. Even if the US Navy and Air Force deployed in the Persian Gulf succeed in keeping the Straits of Hormuz open to shipping in an emergency situation, their very presence must slow the traffic down. The flow could be reduced to about half its regular capacity.
Rerouting Iraqi oil, resurrecting Tapline
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources report that the Trans-Arabia Oil Pipeline project’s second stage for rerouting South Iraqi oil will start without waiting for the first to be completed in early 2009.
Consisting of about 60% of Iraq’s oil product, the oil from the Basra terminal will be diverted from the Shatt al-Arb outlet to the Persian Gulf, which Iraq shares with Iran, and flow into pipes crossing the Iraqi Desert directly into Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, the Tapline pipeline will be resusciated. The story of how this pipeline fell into disuse mirrors half a century of Middle East conflict.
Tapline, the Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company started operating in 1950 as the largest oil pipeline of its time, a joint venture of Standard Oil of New Jersey (Esso), Standard Oil of California (Chevron), The Texas Company (Texaco) and Socony-Vacuum Oil Company (Mobil). It transported Saudi oil from Persian Gulf fields to Tripoli, where it was shipped to Europe and the eastern United States.
The conflict in Palestinian in 1946 caused the Tapline Company to seek alternative routes, which went through Jordan, over the Golan Heights and up to the north Lebanese port of Tripoli on the Mediterranean. The section running across Golan was discontinued after the 1967 war.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s oil sources report that Kuwait and Qatar, though members of the GCC, have opted out of the Trans-Arabia pipeline project. Southern Iraq’s oil will therefore flow directly into Saudi Arabia and bypass Kuwait.
The two emirates are deeply involved in building a gas pipeline network which is a higher priority for them than the transport of oil – especially Qatar which has large gas reserves but not much oil.
The Trans-Arabia Oil Pipeline network will consist of five main branches:
Pipeline No. 1: Work begins on this section in November. It will run 350 km from Ras Tannura on the Saudi easern coast to Al Fujairah in the United Emirates, also collecting cruide from Abu Dhabi’s Habashan oil field. Its 48-inch diameter provides a capacity of 1.5 million bpd.
Pipeline No. 2: This will link Ras Tannura to Musqat, Oman.
Pipeline No. 3: This will run southwest from Ras Tannura through Hadhramouth and onto Mukalla, on the Yemeni shore of the Gulf of Aden.
Pipeline No. 4: This pipeline will will also terminate at Mukalla, but will also circle round from Ras Tannura to the UAE before turning back into Saudi Arabia and on to Yemen.
Pipeline No. 5: This line will slice across Arabia from Ras Tannura in the East due west to Yanbu on Saudi Arabia’s western coast on the Red Sea.
This route is already occupied by two older pipelines. They were laid in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war for the very same purpose as the contemporry project, namely to circumvent the Straits of Hormuz. One was built to carry Iraqi oil out to market away from the war zones of the Iranian-Iraqi frontier.
Syria stands to profit
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and counter-terror sources report that the governments taking part in the Trans-Arabia Pipeline project are fully alive to the danger of attempts by Iran or al Qaeda to sabotage the system.
They will therefore sink large sections underground and secure the system with such obstructions as fences, earthworks, moats and roadblocks.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s estimates, even after the US pulls its army out of Iraq, it will retain troops for securing both the northern and southern oil fields and installations. They will be there to keep Iran at a distance, especially from the the Basra oil center.
A pipeline shipping Basra’s oil directly into Saudi Arabia will inevitably serve to strengthen ties between the Shiite rulers of the Basra region (See DNW 308 of July 6, 2007: Basra Is Poised to Secede from Iraq under Saudi Protection) and the oil kingdom.
The project also fits into the preparations underway in the Gulf oil-rich countries, led by Saudi Arabia, to step up oil production by 4 millions bpd in order to cramp skyrocketing prices before they hit $100 per barrel.
On the inter-Arab plane, Riyadh hopes Syrian Bashar Assad will appreciate the benefits accruing to his country from the pipeline across its territory – enough to draw away from his close clinch with Iran and mend his fences with Washington. The Saudis are pinning their hopes on Tapline’s resurrection helping to put Damascus-Washington relations on a new footing.
There appears to be some tentative motion in this direction already, as the next article reveals.