Opinion | The mystery of an aerial attack on Saudi oil supplies4 min read . Updated: 14 Nov 2019, 10:07 PM IST
As Saudi Aramco gets set for its IPO, the circumstances surrounding the high-precision strikes of 14 September on its oil installations remain shrouded in a pall of smoke
Saudi Arabia sleeps early and wakes up with the muezzin’s first call to the faithful at about 4.00am before they offer “fajr" prayers 44 minutes later. On 14 September, between 3.30am and 3.41am, a few minutes before the muezzin would have stirred believers in Khurais and Abqaiq, known for its oil installations, there were a series of deafening explosions. By the time the light of dawn added to the glow of burning crude to wake managers up to the enormity of the mysterious attack, the kingdom had lost 5.7 million barrels of daily oil output, or about 5% of the world’s total.
The drone attack on the Khurais oil field and Abqaiq refinery came 45 days before Saudi Aramco announced its final decision to hold what is billed as the biggest initial public offer (IPO) in world history—going by the state-owned oil producer’s valuation, estimates for which range from $1.5 trillion to $2.2 trillion. The actual figure will only be known once the IPO closes.
The strike displayed the vulnerability of Saudi oil infrastructure and its much-vaunted $67.5 billion defence systems, which have been subjected to a barrage of missile and drone attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels; one such projectile even struck Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, located next to the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where most rich oligarchs are jailed for corruption. The flip side of the violence was Aramco’s amazing ability to restore oil supplies to India and the world in a matter of days.
Just a few days before the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman announced his government’s decision to have an IPO of the world’s most profitable company—with $111 billion in profit recorded for 2018—Aramco took a group of Brazilian and Indian journalists to the two sites of the attack, for which Houthi rebels had claimed responsibility. The US and other Western powers rejected their claims and blamed Iran for it, even though the satellite pictures presented by Washington failed to strengthen their assertion. Immediately after the refinery attack, US President Donald Trump had said that US forces were “cocked and ready to shoot" at Tehran, but he held their fire. In Riyadh, a Saudi defence spokesperson displayed to our delegation broken pieces of missile parts and drones that had some Persian inscriptions to show US sanction-ravaged Iran’s hand in the Houthi attack.
While the jury is still out on who primed the drones for the attack, what is apparent is that the perpetrators were not non-state actors. It had the imprimatur of a nation state that had the technological capability to breach Saudi defences with a swarm of drones and missiles, and make precision strikes on 25 targets in the Abqaiq refinery and oil collection centre of Khurais.
Khurais is not far from Riyadh. From an Aramco jet flying at low altitude, it’s possible to see the swirling winds sweeping the red sand of an unforgiving vast expanse of desert that holds billions of barrels of oil. In summer, it routinely touches 50 degrees Celsius, and sandstorms last for days. As the aircraft lands at Khurais’s geolocation, Al-Dahnā desert 36,571, which lies adjacent to the world’s largest Ghawar oil field, one realizes how big the oil infrastructure is. Aramco officials are business-like with visitors: Don’t quote us and don’t venture beyond what is shown. With helmets, we are driven to a plant that separates oil from water. The tower we’re shown is a mangled mess of iron. A giant spheroid meant to maintain the appropriate pressure in pipelines was also blown up.
“Why did no worker die?" I asked an Aramco official. He said there were only 200 people on duty when the cruise missiles hit these structures. In all, there are only 1,200 people working in Khurais, which has a capacity of 1.5 million barrels per day. He lent credence to the view that technological progress has ensured that the oil business is no longer vulnerable to a workers’ strike. Only violence crimps it.
Abqaiq is the world’s largest refinery. It’s closer to the city of Dammam and takes about an hour from Aramco’s airfield to reach the refinery. This is far more inhabited than Khurais. An Aramco official explained to me: “Saudis love to buy land and build houses. Some have more wives, so they need still more houses." As we enter the refinery, same rules were repeated. Abqaiq was damaged far more by the attack. Here again, stabilization towers and spheroids were targeted.
All the giant metal spheres were hit at the same point, making it clear that it was no random bombing, thus raising the same question: Who found an open window in the skies for cruise missiles, and weaponized drones to enter these heavily fortified oil fields? Were local spotters involved? The authorities had put up posters to show the damage. Now the refinery looked normal. There was just one spheroid that still needed to be patched up. In Riyadh, a diplomat told me: “What was blown up by the missiles and drones was just iron and steel. This can be fixed within no time. What hurt Aramco more was the reputation of a secure installation before it went public. Will that be impacted? Only when the public issue closes will we get to know."