international affairs

Everything We Know About the Saudi Oil Attacks and the Escalating Crisis in the Gulf

A satellite image of damage to Saudi Aramco’s Kuirais oil field in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia. Photo: DigitalGlobe

An attack on key oil installations in Saudi Arabia on Saturday has prompted fears of a major disruption in the world oil market and a wider geopolitical conflict in the Gulf. It was the most significant strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure — or any part of the global energy infrastructure — since the Gulf War nearly three decades ago. Though Yemen’s Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for the attack, the Trump administration is insisting that Iran is responsible, raising the spectre of U.S. military retaliation.

Much remains unclear about the attack and what might happen next. Below is what we know so far.

The attack and damage

According to Saudi officials, a predawn barrage of “projectiles” struck the Abqaiq oil-processing plant and the Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province on Saturday morning. Both are important facilities operated by Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant that is the world’s largest oil producer, but Abqaiq — the largest oil-processing plant in the world — is especially critical to the country’s oil infrastructure.

The strikes triggered large fires at Abqaiq and Khurais. There are no reports of injuries to Saudi Aramco personnel, but the extent of the damage still wasn’t clear as of Monday morning.

Who is responsible?

Yemen’s Houthi rebel group, which has been fighting Yemeni-government forces and their Saudi backers since 2015, claimed responsibility for the strikes on Saturday. On a television channel run by the group, a military spokesperson bragged of a “large-scale” operation using ten explosive-laden drones to attack the facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. A spokesperson called the attack a “legitimate and natural” retaliation against Saudi aggression in Yemen.

Though the Houthis have previously carried out drone and short-range-ballistic-missile attacks on targets inside Saudi Arabia, there have been doubts that the group is capable of conducting such a precise and destructive operation so deep within Saudi territory — and there have been unconfirmed reports that missiles, not drones, were used in the attack, as well as unconfirmed reports that the strikes were launched from Iraq.

The level of sophistication shown in the attack is one reason U.S. officials are saying Iran, and not the Houthis, is responsible. Retired colonel Cedric Leighton, speaking to CNN, explained: “The precise nature of the intelligence used to conduct targeting, the mission planning that went into this to avoid radar detection, as well as the selection of the targets shows a robust capability that would most likely be the work of a government or government-sponsored group.”

On Sunday, Trump-administration officials released satellite images of the attack in an attempt to further implicate Iran. The images, they said, show points of impact on the north and northwest sides of of the Saudi oil facilities. That suggests that the attacks originated from Iran or Iraq and not Yemen, which is to Saudi Arabia’s south. “It is very difficult to see how these things could have come from anywhere” else, an administration official told CNN.

The Saudis, unlike the U.S., haven’t settled on Iran as the culprit in Saturday’s attack. But the Saudi military is saying the attack was not launched from Yemen and, according to an early investigation, was carried out with Iranian weapons.

Iran has rejected the accusations that it carried out the attack. “Having failed at ‘max pressure,’ [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is] turning to ‘max deceit,’” Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted Sunday.

One military commander has also issued a thinly veiled threat to the U.S. “Everybody should know that all American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers around Iran are within the range of our missiles,” said Amirali Hajizadeh of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force.

Meanwhile, Houthi rebels in Yemen insist they were behind the attacks and have warned that more may be coming. Per the New York Times, the Houthi news organization reported Monday that a military spokesperson “warned companies and foreigners not to be present in the factories that were hit by our strikes because we may target them again at any moment.”

The U.S. response

Trump pledges support and threatens Iran
A White House spokesperson announced on Saturday that President Trump had called Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, the notorious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to offer America’s support following the attack. The statement also emphasized that the U.S. remained “committed to ensuring global oil markets are stable and well supplied.”

Pompeo blames Iran
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, swiftly blamed Iran for the strikes. In a tweeted statement, the longtime Iran hawk accused the Islamic Republic of launching “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” and insisted there was “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen” — though he didn’t provide any evidence to the contrary. Pompeo also sought to discredit the regime’s peacemaking efforts, contending that “Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while [Iranian president Hassan] Rouhani and [foreign minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy.”

Graham urges U.S. strikes on Iran
Fellow Iran hawk and GOP senator Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, made it clear that he saw the attack as an opportunity to justify a U.S. military strike on Iran. “It is now time for the U.S. to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment,” Graham wrote on Twitter. The regime in Tehran “will not stop their misbehavior until the consequences become more real,” he added.

The president and his administration have remained steadfast in their support for bin Salman, the Saudi regime, and its brutal intervention in Yemen’s civil war, despite growing opposition among U.S. lawmakers and allies, which reached a tipping point after Trump shrugged off the gruesome assassination of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey last year.

Trump’s threats of war and the congressional response
On Sunday, President Trump began to escalate the rhetoric, tweeting that the U.S. has “reason to believe we know” the source of the attack and that forces are “locked and loaded” once that source is verified by the Saudis.

Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. is waiting on orders from Riyadh drew condemnation from many Democrats and at least one (former) Republican.

“Mr. Trump, the Constitution of the United States is perfectly clear,” Bernie Sanders tweeted. “Only Congress — not the president — can declare war. And Congress will not give you the authority to start another disastrous war in the Middle East just because the brutal Saudi dictatorship told you to.” Connecticut senator Chris Murphy tweeted, “It’s simply amazing how the Saudis call all our shots these days.” And Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic candidate for president, tweeted: “Trump awaits instructions from his Saudi masters. Having our country act as Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not ‘America First.’”

Former Republican congressman Justin Amash, who recently left the Republican Party, tweeted, “Under our Constitution, the power to commence war lies with Congress, not the president and certainly not Saudi Arabia. We don’t take orders from foreign powers.”

The impact on Saudi oil production and the world oil market

Saturday’s attacks struck the very heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. The country produces 10 percent of the world’s oil supplies, and Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq facility is the largest crude-oil-processing plant in the world and critical to the country’s production capabilities. On average, Saudi Arabia exports roughly 7.4 million barrels of oil per day, and after the attack, Saudi Aramco officials announced that they would be forced to reduce that output by 5.7 million barrels because of the damage to Abqaiq. That means a single strike was able to knock out roughly 5 percent of the world’s oil supply.

Saudi officials have claimed that the disruption will not last long and that they could recover a third of the lost output by as early as Monday, but some energy-sector experts have speculated that it could take weeks for the country to recover full capacity. “This could take a longer time than the authorities initially are claiming,” oil-market analyst Bjørnar Tonhaugen explained on Sunday. “Saudi Arabia has also depleted its crude-oil stocks to the lowest levels in ten years, so the country alone does not have the same robustness to Middle East interruptions as it used to have,” he added.

Oil futures in the United States, meanwhile, responded with the largest one-day price jump in almost four years, with the cost of a barrel of West Texas crude growing by 10 percent. While gas prices could to spike in the aftermath of the attack, the U.S. economy is expected to emerge from this episode unscathed. On Sunday night, President Trump announced the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve “to keep the markets well supplied.” The last time the SPR was tapped was after a supply disruption following violence in Libya.

Other variables remain. As MarketWatch noted, “The threat of further escalation involving the U.S. also holds the potential to drive crude prices higher still.” As of early Monday morning, oil prices were at their highest levels since May. Tom Kloza, a chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service, told CNN that the drone strike is “the biggest shock to the oil markets since [Hurricane] Katrina. And like Katrina it will likely haunt us for months, at least weeks.”

What’s next?

The most significant response to Saturday’s strikes would be a retaliatory attack on Iran by the U.S. While Trump’s tweets indicate that he’s ready to give the go-ahead, the minor issue of congressional authorization stands in the way.

Next week, both Trump and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will be at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. The U.S. has previously said the two leaders could meet on the sidelines, but now Iran says that won’t happen. “Neither is such an event on our agenda, nor will it happen. Such a meeting will not take place,” Abbas Mousavi, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, said Monday. He added that if the U.S. “stops economic terrorism and returns to the nuclear deal, then they may sit at a corner and be present within the framework of the nuclear deal member states.”

Everything We Know About Saudi Oil Attacks