Constraint Urged after Attack on Saudi Oil Refineries

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Tensions in the region are high following drone and cruise missile attacks on two of Saudi Aramco’s major oil facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq, thus temporarily disrupting five percent of the global oil supply and leading to a spike in oil prices. Saudi government representatives and Aramco officials have vowed to return the facilities to their full function within the next few weeks. However, many are worried about what the attacks mean for the long-term security of the oil supply as well as what actions, if any, Saudi Arabia and the United States will take in response to drone attacks. What is clear, though, is that few, if any, want to see a military conflict break out in the region.

Iran has, according to a Press TV report, disavowed any responsibility for the attacks, while warning against military or any other action against Iranian interests in response to what it considers ‘false accusations’: “Iran has warned the United States via Switzerland that any action taken against the country over the false accusation that Tehran was behind the recent attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities will be met with an immediate response. In an official note passed to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents American interests, Iran reiterated that it was not behind the Saturday attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. It condemned and rejected claims by US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Iran had been involved.”

Arab News’  Cornelia Meyer focuses mostly on the economic impact that increased uncertainty regarding the security of the oil facilities will have on the world economy, but is quick to point out that much of that uncertainty can be mitigated by Saudi Aramco’s response in the aftermath of the  attacks: “[W]e need to drill down on what these attacks mean in the longer term. Firstly, there is the immediate shortfall because Saudi Aramco’s flagship processing plant is out of commission. This is resulting in a temporary price spike…. The second issue has longer-term ramifications…. Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf Cooperation Council are islands of stability in a sea of turmoil and armed conflict. The events that unfolded on Saturday show how easily the conflict can hit home…. When the hype is over, price developments in the medium term will depend on how both Saudi Aramco and the country deal with the situation and how the supply-demand balance looks over the next year.”

Characterizing the  attacks ‘a game changer’, a recent Jordan Times editorial identifies three ‘lessons’ resulting from the attacks on the oil-processing facility, none of which bode well for the region: “[T]he implications of the drone attack go beyond the US and Iran. As the EU said in the aftermath of the attacks, the implications reach to global security and economy. The first lesson to be drawn from the attack could be that the war in Yemen is simply unwinnable….The second lesson to be drawn could be that Iran is not about to succumb to military pressures from President Trump. If anything, the Iranian authorities seem bent on increasing their hostile profile towards the US. The third conclusion is that the Middle East could be on the verge of more turbulent times ahead. Jordan could certainly be affected as well.”

How ‘turbulent’ the weeks and months ahead may be remains to be seen, although if carrots are no longer effective in the case of Iran, as Salman Al-dossary argues in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, then it’s likely that a military confrontation may well be in the cards: “Statements launched by countries around the world to condemn and denounce a criminal or terrorist act are no longer enough or convincing, following the Iranian attacks that hit the backbone of the global economy. The time has come for the world to move to a higher level than mere repetitive statements. Curbing the Iranian threat to the world economy is more dependent on actions than words…. If these acts of aggression are overlooked, the world will turn into a jungle with even more insecurity, especially after the failure of the carrot-and-stick approach with the Iranian regime…. Just as Saudi Arabia has fulfilled its responsibilities as no one else has done, the major powers have a shared duty to respond collectively to Iranian aggression against their economic interests.”

Writing for Khaleej Times, Abdulrahman Al Rashed adopts an equally bellicose tone as he also makes the case for a more muscular response against Iran, which he holds fully accountable for the  attacks: “Should we blame ourselves for failing to confront Iran, directly or by proxy, in recent years?… Is the attack on Abqaiq a result of the US sanctions on Iran? No, it is not. But the opposite is true. One of the reasons behind the economic sanctions, and the rejection of the nuclear agreement… was Iran’s insistence on expanding its power and threatening regional states. The pro-Iran rebel armed militias in Iraq and Lebanon emerged years before the nuclear agreement and the sanctions, not vice versa. Iran is an evil state with a large project. Its ideology and ambitions resemble those of Al Qaeda and Daesh; its danger threatens everyone. Without a united front determined to confront it, it will only expand and flourish.”

Despite such calls, the majority of the commentators and observers in the region have recommended a more cautious and conciliatory approach to resolving the current stand-off. For example, The National’s editorial on the subject urges restraint vis-à-vis Iran, even though it readily admits that “these attacks have achieved only one thing: they have struck at the heart of the world’s largest oil exporter and disrupted oil prices and supply, exposing Iran’s true motives: to take the global oil supply hostage and deal a blow to the world’s economy in an attempt to push back on US sanctions…. Saudi Arabia has acted with level-headedness and avoided blaming one actor for the attacks before the investigation is complete…. In the meantime, and until the perpetrators of the attacks are found and held accountable, world leaders must stand united behind Saudi Arabia to help safeguard the world’s oil supply and avoid an all-out conflict.”

Arab News’ Dania Khatib also recommends what she calls ‘confidence-building measures’, rather than a military conflict, despite some misgivings about the likelihood for success: “[T]here is one small problem facing Trump: Diplomacy cannot work without good faith. The Iranians do not trust him or the US generally…. Though the Arab Gulf has a wide range of thorny issues with Iran, and its ballistic missile program is only a fraction of this, the trust-building has to start somewhere and this is a feasible area. Other more crucial issues — such as Iran’s support of non-state actors such as the Houthis and Hezbollah — might be difficult at this point. However, once a certain level of trust is built up, then talks can migrate to those issues. Such confidence-building measures are a long shot, but they are worth trying and are definitely a better option than war.”

Perhaps the strongest appeal in favor of a diplomatic solution between Iran and the United States is issued by this Khaleej Times’ editorial, calling on all the parties to lower the tensions and find a political solution before it ‘spins out of control’: “Fresh US sanctions on Iran will not only make the country’s economic crisis worse but could also provoke further misadventures from a regime that is feeling the heat on all sides…. The Gulf cannot afford any conflict at a time when predictions for the global economy appear gloomy. The Middle East needs a clear shot at economic resurgence. War is not even the last option on the table under the circumstances; diplomatic engagement is…. A global diplomatic response is needed while keeping the pressure on Tehran with sanctions. The goal is to avoid a wider conflict by shoring up local defenses while drawing up the courage to engage with the enemy.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top