Uncertain Future For Saudi Arabia-Iran Showdown

Speculation is rife on the course the showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran will take in the coming days. This is especially so after media reports emerged to allege the presence of links between Iran and the attacks on oil processing facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia in September this year.

According to the reports, Iran started preparing for the attacks four months earlier in its bid to punish the US for pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, on one hand, and world powers, on the other. Over five meetings, Iranian military commanders debated a list of targets, including US military bases in the Gulf, seaports in Saudi Arabia and Saudi oil installations, the reports said. Iran at the end opted for the oil installations and these were the state-owned Aramco oil processing facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia.

By picking these facilities as targets, Iran wanted to avoid a direct military confrontation with the US. It also wanted to avoid the possibility of a devastating American military reprisal in case American targets were at the heart of the attacks. Eighteen drones were used in staging the attacks on the Aramco processing plants on September 14. Three low-flying missiles were also used in inflicting damage on the facility. They temporarily brought Saudi Arabia’s oil production down to the half and caused world oil supply to drop by 5%. This caused a surge in world crude prices. Even before media reports in this regard, Saudi Arabia pointed accusing fingers at Tehran.

On November 23, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, said Iran was responsible for the attacks on the Aramco oil installations in September. Speaking at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Jubeir added that his country had asked the United Nations to send experts to investigate the issue. “We asked friendly states and the United Nations to send experts to investigate the attacks,” Jubeir said. “The results will be unveiled soon.” He said the drones and missiles that attacked the installations were manufactured in Iran and that the missiles and the drones arrived from the northern side of Saudi Arabia, not its southern side.

“This is why we hold Iran responsible for the attacks,” Jubeir said. “We expect the international community to take steps to bring Iran to account. We said repeatedly that we do not want war, but the Iranians cannot be allowed to evade being questioned for their wrongdoing.” The Iran-backed Houthi militia of Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks in their bid to absolve the Iranians from international blame and probably punishment. Nevertheless, the US and Saudi Arabia rejected this claim of responsibility. The sophistication of the attacks, they said, pointed to Iranian involvement.

True, Iran wanted to take revenge on the US for pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal and imposing sanctions on it by striking at a close ally. vNevertheless, the attacks on the Aramco oil installations were the latest development in a long ideological conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, one where religion comes at the center. Iran has been throwing its full weight behind Shiite regimes, forces, and groups in the region since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In a way, this destabilizes some Arab states with sizeable Shiite populations and tightens the noose around majority Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab Gulf. The two countries have spent tens of billions of dollars in the past nine years in backing rival political forces; militias; governments, and organizations. They are involved in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. They move the strings in Iraq and Lebanon.

Nobody knows for sure what Saudi Arabia will do in the coming days to make Iran pay for its alleged attacks on the Aramco oil processing facilities. Riyadh is now apparently consulting with its allies, especially the United Arab Emirates, where Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman arrived on November 27, on the most appropriate action. The coming few days will show what it will do.