NATO concerned by attacks on Saudi oil facilities

18 September 2019

NATO is observing developments in the wake of the 14 September armed drone attacks on two facilities of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company Aramco. "Any disruption to global energy supplies is clearly of concern to NATO Allies. We are monitoring developments carefully and with concern," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on 16 September, during a visit to NATO’s Iraq Training Mission in Baghdad. Stoltenberg urged all parties to prevent further such incidents, which he said pose a "serious threat" to regional security.

Houthi rebels said they carried out the attacks with 10 drones, but US officials claim to have satellite images showing the attacks—possibly with drones and cruise missiles—had come from the north or northwest, rather than Yemen. Both Washington and Riyadh blamed Tehran. President Donald Trump said the US is "locked and loaded" to respond. Iran denies involvement, with President Hassan Rouhani calling the attack a reciprocal act by the "Yemeni people".

The Houthis have launched attacks on Saudi soil before, including on oil pipelines. The weekend strikes on Abqaiq—the world's largest oil processing facility—and the Khurais oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia shook global energy markets and caused a spike in prices. The attack halted the daily output of 5.7 million barrels or about 5 per cent of the world's oil supply. As a result, the oil price saw its biggest one-day rise since the 1991 Gulf War, rising by 20 per cent, but falling back later.

Russia urged "all countries to avoid hasty steps or conclusions that could exacerbate the situation" while the European Union stressed all sides should show "maximum restraint". In the UK, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also highlighted the uncertainty, while calling the act a "wanton violation of international law". (In June, the UK court of appeal ruled that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were illegal because they could be used in violations of international law in the conflict in Yemen).

Saudi Arabia and Iran are fierce regional rivals, and although the two countries are not directly fighting they are engaged in a variety of proxy wars in the region, including in Yemen. The Iran-backed Houthis have repeatedly launched rockets, missiles and drones at populated areas in Saudi Arabia. The UN says the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 7,290 civilians and left 80 per cent of the population of Yemen (24 million people) in need of humanitarian assistance or protection, including 10 million who rely on food aid to survive.

Iran and the United States have also been engaged in intense political, economic, informational and military competition for a long time, but the drift towards war with Iran has gathered pace since May 2018, when the United States withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal (between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers—the US, UK, France, China and

Russia plus Germany—and the EU) and reinstated sanctions with the aim of forcing the country to renegotiate the accord. In June President Trump approved military retaliation for the shooting down of a US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz but revoked the order at the last minute. The United States also accused Iran of being responsible for recent attacks on oil tankers in the region. Iran has rejected the accusation.

NATO Watch Comment:

So far, NATO has focused on seeking to de-escalate the conflict between Washington and Tehran. To avoid another catastrophic US-led war in the Middle East (circa Iraq in 2003) all peaceful options need to be explored. However, the Trump administration’s efforts to blame Iran for instability across the region is being echoed in many of the NATO Secretary General’s remarks. While Iran is not without blame, the increasingly tense situation in the Persian Gulf is a fairly direct result of the Trump administration’s decision to exit the rigorously negotiated Iran nuclear deal. Several NATO allies (and possibly even the alliance as a whole) risk being drawn into another unnecessary conflict by an ‘ally’ whose words and deeds are increasingly contrary to NATO’s interests and values. The last thing the region needs is another ill-conceived, unjustifiable and illegal armed conflict.

Another key factor in the crisis is Western dependence on oil. Energy security plays an important role in NATO’s common security. A stable and reliable energy supply increases the alliance’s resilience against political and economic pressure. Unfortunately, oil is not a stable and reliable energy supply, and NATO member states have not done enough to transition to clean energy. Both the climate crisis and the prospect of a war to protect Saudi oil should be reasons enough to accelerate such a transition. As Bill McKibben, Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College, Vermont, argues “a world that runs on sun and wind is a world that can relax”.