NEW YORK – Iraq has already lost over $1 billion in oil revenue from attacks on its pipelines. Saudi Arabia (search) could be next.
Guerrillas in Iraq have targeted oil pipelines as a way to slow reconstruction efforts and voice opposition to the presence of U.S. and other coalition troops. With Saudi Arabia and Iraq being the two biggest suppliers of oil in the Middle East, some experts say the Saudi pipelines are the next likely targets of terrorists and more needs to be done to protect that infrastructure.
"It's very easy to get on a camel or donkey … just ride into the desert and put a pound or three pounds of TNT there to blow up a pipeline and create millions of dollars in damage," said Ariel Cohen, research fellow with the Heritage Foundation (search) and an expert in international energy security. Cohen noted that the damage is easily repairable, but larger-scale attacks on loading facilities, major hubs and refineries would do more damage.
"There's no doubt that as long as Al Qaeda (search) sees oil as the vulnerable Achilles heel for the Saudi family, the more they're going to target it," said Fox News foreign affairs analyst Marc Ginsberg, who is also a former ambassador to Morocco.
Oil prices are up about 17 percent since the start of this year; recent violence in the Middle East fueled a hike in prices as traders feared oil facilities could be targeted. The concern is that if Saudi operations are attacked, it could affect the kingdom's ability to serve as a swing producer that has the extra production capacity to open and close the tap.
"We definitely see this as a target. There is an economic warfare capability being built up in Iraq" to attack such structures, Cohen said. "I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the jihadis in Saudi will emulate their Iraqi brethren and will start attacking their infrastructure."
But other experts say although recent kidnappings and beheadings of American and other contractors have occurred in the desert kingdom, the security situation there is much different than that in Iraq.
"In Iraq, there's widespread violence and conditions of something near chaos and that's very different in Saudi Arabia, where really the violence such as it's been has been pretty focused on foreigners and there haven't been any major operations targeting oil infrastructures — at least that have gotten to a very advanced stage," said Kevin Rosser, an analyst with Control Risks Group (search), which advises companies in the Middle East and around the globe.
There have been somewhat small attacks, such as those on May 1 where several foreigners working at a petrochemical complex in Yanbu (search), the biggest oil-export terminal on the Saudi Red Sea coast, were killed.
But outside of Iraq, only one major terror attack has been carried out on an oil target in the region — that of the French supertanker The Limburg (search) in October 2002 off the coast of Yemen. Some people involved in that attack were traced to Al Qaeda, Rosser noted, and some of the same terrorists helped plan the attack on the USS Cole (search), also in Yemen, in October 2000.
The state oil company says Saudi Arabia's energy infrastructure — which consists of more than 260 oil facilities and 7,000 miles of pipeline — is well protected.
"The Gulf countries, in particular, had always had their facilities secure but there was a big tightening of security after that attack, especially around tankers and export terminals," Rosser said.
The Lindberg attack, combined with the four suicide bombings in Riyadh in May 2003 that killed 34 people — including seven Americans — and wounded hundreds, was enough for many countries in the region to ratchet up their security in the first place, Rosser said.
The heightened tensions in the region of late and attacks on Westerners in Saudi Arabia have boosted security even more, he added.
"There's quite a bit of redundancy built into the [Saudi] network," Rosser added. "So even if you manage to stage a successful attack against a single node or maybe even more than one, it wouldn't be enough to disable the entire system. It's actually quite resilient to losing one piece."
John Pike, founder of Globalsecurity.org, said it could be because of this resiliency and ratcheting up of security that terrorists are targeting Westerners working in the kingdom.
"What we've seen in Saudi Arabia thus far appears to be the work of dozens of people and I think that dozens of people would have a real hard time making much of a dent if they went directly after the infrastructure," Pike said. "They're obviously doing a pretty good job of going after probably a more vulnerable part of the oil infrastructure, namely the foreign workers."
Most agree, though, that Saudi officials, despite their public statements about going after terrorists in that country, are not taking the threat seriously enough and that's endangering the pipelines that are of interest to the United States and other countries.
But Rosser said perhaps the recent crackdown on terrorism is causing more violence against foreigners inside the kingdom.
"I think part of the militants' strategy is to show that the crackdown isn't having an effect and that they're still able to strike in spite of the Saudi security forces," he said. "I think the current wave of violence is one symptom of the crackdown."
Even though the United States has a huge stake in ensuring the oil supply in Saudi Arabia is secure, no one thinks it's a good idea to send U.S. troops in to help monitor the infrastructure given the heightened anti-American sentiment there.
"Certainly, if the United States would visibly be involved in it, it could politically make things worse," Pike said.
"Putting more U.S. troops there is creating a target for the jihadis," Cohen agreed. However, "we should at least draw contingency plans … for the eventuality for when the infrastructure comes under attack. Until such times, I think we should provide training to the Saudis and the [oil] companies have to do more" to secure the pipes.
The threat to Saudi's oil supply is case in point, some experts said, as to why the United States needs to decrease its dependency on Middle East oil.
"Going beyond oil, we have to look at other sources of energy because many of these sources are complementary," Cohen said, referring to alternatives like clean coal and methanol (search). "But for now, we are addicted. This is the greatest U.S. chemical dependency — oil. And we have to kick the habit."