Lieutenant Talal al-Hajri guides his four-by-four slowly around the perimeter of the world’s biggest oil plant in the eastern deserts of Saudi Arabia. Motion detectors mounted over multiple tiers of fencing will capture any movement, he says, “even a bird.”
Al-Hajri is patrolling the Abqaiq installation as a member of the 35,000-strong Facilities Protection Force, which also guards oil pipelines and desalination plants. This month, with U.S. army officers watching from a grandstand, the unit deployed new remote-control devices for defusing explosives in exercises that simulated scenarios such as the hijacking by terrorists of a gasoline tanker. Some 2,600 Saudi troops were trained in the technology, the government said.
Upheaval in the Persian Gulf has amplified Saudi concerns. Regional leaders have exchanged charges of political meddling while tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have helped keep oil above $100 a barrel for most of this year. In Yemen, where U.S. and Saudi intelligence disrupted an al-Qaeda bomb-building plan, unrest has weakened the central government. That environment has prompted Saudi rulers to tighten security against the threat of the kingdom’s first major terrorist attack since a foiled suicide bombing at Abqaiq more than six years ago.
Another attack on Abqaiq “would be quite a shock,” said Paul Sullivan, a political scientist specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington DC. “An all-out hit that shut it down for weeks or months could bring the oil price to $250 a barrel or even much more. This would also change the psychology of the entire world oil market’s sense of risk and vulnerability.”
Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda tried to penetrate the southern gate of Abqaiq with twin car bombs on Feb. 24, 2006. The failed attack caused a surge of almost 4 percent in oil prices. In May 2004, militants attacked a residential complex for oil industry employees in the eastern coastal town of al-Khobar, killing 22 foreign workers.
Crude jumped more than 3 percent on March 1 this year when Twitter messages, internet blogs and an Iranian state news channel said an explosion had destroyed a pipeline near the Ras Tanura refinery. Prices dropped after a Saudi denial.
Oil is currently trading at about $94 per barrel after a 10 percent decline this month.
On his daily circuit around the facility to check perimeter defenses, Al-Hajri points out the site of the 2006 attack, which spurred Saudi Arabia to set up the protection force. He describes the location as the “Red Gate.” It’s now closed off by cement barriers, and a truck with a mounted machine gun sits outside under a shaded canopy.
Other patrols follow the route of the pipelines that carry crude to Ras Tanura. The refinery lies near al-Qatif in the Eastern Province where most of kingdom’s Shiite Muslim minority live.
Shiite protesters have clashed with Saudi forces this year in what the government has described as a new form of terrorism. Saudi troops entered Bahrain in March last year to help quell unrest among the Shiite majority there.
On the outskirts of Abqaiq, anti-aircraft guns sit behind sand bunkers. In front of the main gate, Colonel Bandar al-Harbi, in military fatigues with sunglasses to shield from the desert glare and an automatic handgun strapped around his upper thigh, directs a force that scans the undercarriages of trucks and trunks of cars as they head inside.
“We are mainly looking for explosives,” said al-Harbi, a native of Abqaiq and son of a retired employee of the state-run Saudi Arabian Oil Co. “We are looking for anything suspicious.”
Saudi oilfields hold a fifth of the world’s reserves and are key for the global economy. When 1.3 million barrels a day of Libyan output halted during the revolt against Muammar Qaddafi, extra Saudi output covered the gap.
“Saudi Arabia is the only place that has significant spare production capacity,” Paul Gamble, chief economist at Jadwa Investment Co., said. “If something eats into that there’s little scope for production elsewhere being raised to compensate.”
Saudi security forces detained more than 100 terror suspects in March 2010, and some were accused of plotting attacks on energy installations and military sites in the east. It was the biggest sweep since August the previous year, when authorities said they broke up an al-Qaeda-linked network of university graduates and businessmen who were organizing and recruiting for attacks.
The government has boosted defense spending, agreeing to a $29.4 billion deal in December to buy 84 Boeing Co. F-15 planes and upgrade its existing fleet.
The facility defense force is overseen by Prince Mohammed, the assistant interior minister and son of Crown Prince Nayef. Mohammed landed by helicopter on May 7 at a training center outside the oil hub of Dammam to preside over an exercise displaying the new protection system.
He watched remotely controlled buggies maneuvered by Saudi soldiers. They lowered its crane arm over a suspected bomb, placing a concrete tube around it that would contain the impact of a blast, before removing it to be disarmed. Another larger unmanned vehicle used a two-pronged fork-lift to carry away a truck stowed with explosives. One of the remote vehicles was powerful enough to tow a full-size gasoline tanker. Others were small enough to peek under vehicles for bombs.
Prince Mohammed has direct experience of the need to stay vigilant. In August 2009 he was injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the prince’s office in Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, after saying he wanted to turn himself in. Officials said the explosives were hidden in the assailant’s underwear.
Saudi authorities said that attack was planned in Yemen, where the government lacks control over much of its territory and is fighting al-Qaeda militants in the south. Earlier this month, the U.S. said that it had worked with Saudi Arabia to foil a plan by al-Qaeda in Yemen to build a potentially undetectable bomb and blow up an airliner. A Saudi agent inside the group played a key role, according to the Associated Press.
“Al-Qaeda has been deeply embarrassed that they have been penetrated so deeply by Saudi intelligence,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “They may want to respond by trying to target a Westerner or by attacking an oil installation.”
Saudi Arabia’s combination of intelligence and policing has been a success, Sullivan said.
“So far, so good,” he said. “But no protection is perfect.”