September’s strikes on Saudi oil facilities initially caused fresh fears of war breaking out with Iran, but tensions between the two Gulf powers have eased. The attacks may also have kick-started a peace process in Yemen, where Saudi and Iranian proxies have been engaged in a four-and-a-half-year war. Nicholas Nugent assesses the evidence
On September 14 drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Abaqaiq oil refinery and the nearby Khurais oil field, both in the Eastern province, reduced the country’s oil output by a massive 5.7 million barrels a day, more than half its total production,causing a surge in global oil prices.
Although Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia claimed responsibility for the attacks, Saudi Arabia and the United States were quick to point the finger of blame directly at Iran. The cruise missiles and drones utilised were made in, and almost certainly fired from, Iran, the Saudis claimed. For its part, Iran denied any responsibility.
The political impact of the strikes was to torpedo any prospect of face-to-face talks at the United Nations between President Trump and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Both sides had expressed a willingness to meet to try to break the impasse between the two nations since President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the seven-nation Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – known as the Iran nuclear deal – in May 2018. But President Rouhani has demanded that the US first end its ‘maximum pressure’ policy, which has severely hit the Iranian economy.
The strategically timed attack on Saudi’s Aramco oil facilities shook the region, heightened the diplomatic stand-offs between the US and Iran, between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as between Saudi and Iranian proxy forces in Yemen.
However, it also appeared to kick-start a number of more positive initiatives.
The most surprising was an apparent softening of positions on Yemen, where a bloody war has resulted in such high loss of life and severe malnutrition that the UN has dubbed it ‘the world’s worst humanitarian disaster’. Both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran want to bring the war to an end and, six days after the drone strikes, the Houthis announced they were ceasing all attacks across the border into Saudi territory. In response, Saudi Arabia halted its own air attacks on Houthi positions in Yemen, which had elicited severe international condemnation.
Days later it was reported that the two opposing sides had started talks, a hopeful sign that a solution could soon be found.
Yemen is apawn between its two powerful neighbours, Saudi Arabia, which supports the internationally recognised Hadi government, and Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels who have taken control of large parts of the country, including the capital, Sana’a.
Meanwhile, President Rouhani’s little reported address to the UN General Assembly was surprisingly moderate towards Saudi Arabia and its Gulf ally states, proposing what he called a ‘Hormuz Peace Endeavour’ –with the acronym ‘Hope’ – under UN auspices to solve regional differences.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif followed up by saying that ‘competing interests and ideologies’ in the region should be addressed by ‘meetings of experts, think-tanks, the private sector, senior officials, ministers and heads of state to deliberate on common objectives’. This suggests Iran does not want its continuing differences with the United States to impede peace initiatives in the Gulf region.
Since the ayatollahs came to power in Iran in 1979 there has been little love lost between the Shia Islamic state and the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia, which confront one another across a gulf, both literal and metaphorical, that they name respectively the Persian and Arab Gulf. The world quivers when Iran and the Kingdom appear to be gearing up for a fight across that Gulf, as one fifth of the world’s traded oil exits it through the Strait of Hormuz.
Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, made his own reciprocal gesture, inviting the leaders of Iraq and Pakistan to ‘speak with Iranian counterparts to defuse tension’. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, immediately travelled to both countries. According to a senior Saudi official quoted in The New York Times, on a previous visit bin Salman had told the Pakistani leader, ‘I want to avoid war’ while, according to that same paper, Iran has welcomed bin Salman’s move and is ‘open to talks’. Fearing that it might become a battle-ground between its two big neighbours, Iraq has offered Baghdad as a venue for peace talks. In a separate but significant gesture, the Saudis offered help to astricken Iranian oil tanker in the Red Sea.
Analysts say that Iran wants Saudi Arabia to relinquish its close dependence on the United States and behave more like a regional power than an agent of US oil diplomacy. After all, both the United Arab Emirates, which in July withdrew its forces from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and Kuwait have already begun to solve their differences with Iran, suggesting the time is ripe for the Kingdom to follow their lead.
President Trump’s reluctance to strike at Iran, despite his fighting talkblaming it for the September attacks, has been critical to these new initiatives. Yet if tentative confidence-building measures across the Gulf make headway, they could undermine the US president’s bid to channel Gulf Arab states into an anti-Iran coalition, illustrated by his recent commitment of extra US troops to the defence of the Saudi kingdom.
Following the September strikes, Saudi Arabia has been quick to restore its oil output, which it said would be back to normal by the end of October. It confirmed that its plan to float oil major Aramco on international stock exchanges would not be derailed, though the IPO (Initial Public Offering) has been delayed from late November for reasons unconnected to the oil facility attack.
In the meantime, a key question being posed by military experts is how Saudi Arabia, which spends more on defence than any other nation except the US and China – $68bn in 2018 –failed to stop attacks on its most vital national resource. Is it any wonder, they ask, that the Kingdom is now trying to find ways to reduce both its financial dependence on oil exports and its heavy defence burden?