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December 7, 2004 -- WHEN oil stocks are low and petrol prices high, governments across the globe repeat one magic formula: Saudi Arabia.

The desert kingdom sits atop 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves and is the only producer capable of raising its "off-take," the oil pumped out of the wells, by as much as 1.5 million extra barrels each day without a hiccup.

But what if the magic formula ceases to produce the effect desired? What if terrorist attacks manage to disrupt the flow of oil from the kingdom in any way?

Even a year ago, many would have regarded these questions as misplaced.

Yesterday's terrorist raid against the United States' consulate building in Jiddah, the kingdom's largest city, however, is bound to give such questions a fresh lease of life.

This was a military-style attack, rather than the "suicide-martyr" operations of the kind one sees in the Palestinian territories. Moments after the attack, security was heightened throughout the Eastern Province (Asharqiah), the heartland of Saudi oil. Is the world's biggest oil exporting nation in imminent danger?

The immediate answer must be: no.

The ruling family's enemies, especially the militants in various al Qaeda-style movements had shown no interest in damaging the oil industry either. At least until now.

In 1993, when the global Islamist terror movement planned its strategy at a conference in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, Osama bin Laden and Hassan al-Turabi, then the Sudanese "strongman," publicly stated that oilfields should not be attacked because the hoped-for pan-Islamist empire would need the revenues to finance the victory of Islam throughout the world.

"Oil is a gift from God to Arabs," said Abbasi Madani, the Algerian fundamentalist leader. "It should be preserved for the glory of Islam."

Since then the decision not to attack oil installations has been respected by all Islamist terror groups in the Arab world.

Even at the height of the decade-long Algerian war the Islamists did not attack oilfields. (There was one attack on a refinery in Skikda in 1996, blamed on rogue elements in the Islamist movement.)

The decision not to attack oil installations, however, has been criticized by many in the Islamist movement from the start. Earlier this year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's No. 2 in al Qaeda, announced a change of strategy.

In a taped memo to militants he said that "the holy war" should be transferred from the West to the Islamic heartland. He singled out Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as the main battlefields of his Jihad.

Nevertheless, experts still believe that the Islamists do not, as yet, want to damage the oilfields. What the Islamists hope to achieve is to disrupt oil production and, especially, exports to the West.

In Iraq, for example, the terrorists have carried out more than 100 attacks against oil pipelines, oil export terminals and even oil tankers in the past 12 months. But there has been no report of attempts to attack the oilfields.

There has been no attempt at attacking oilfields in Saudi Arabia either. The terrorists seem to be aimed at forcing expatriate workers, mostly engineers and managers, to leave the country in the hope that their departure would reduce production. The attack on the U.S. consulate is the latest in a series of terrorist attacks targeting expatriates.

"There clearly is a pattern [in the attacks] there," says Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the Saudi deputy Interior minister and the man in charge of the kingdom's war on terror. "The terrorists want expatriates to walk out of the oil industry."

In the past few months most of the terror attacks in the kingdom have targeted expatriates connected with the oil industry. So far, however, no more than a handful, mostly from India, has left.

Fears of a mass walkout were heightened last summer when the State Department advised all American citizens to leave Saudi Arabia.

"That was the dumbest thing to do," says a senior Saudi official on condition of anonymity. "The State Department is asking Americans to do what the terrorists want them to do. We don't see the logic of that."

But how crucial are the expatriates to the Saudi oil industry?

"They make a major contribution," says Adel Jubair, spokesman for Crown Prince Abdallah, the man in charge of the kingdom's day-to-day government. "But the industry can function without them."

Thanks to automation the kingdom manages to produce up to 10 million barrels of crude oil a day with a work force of no more than 45,000. Expatriates whose work is vital to the industry number no more than a few dozen. The special guard set up by Saudi-Aramco, the national oil industry, would have no difficulty protecting them.

But what if the terrorists decide to attack the fields?

"Our oil industry is safe," says Saudi-Aramco's chief executive, Abdallah Jumaa. "For years we have been planning and preparing for all eventualities, and I think we have the mechanisms needed to deal with any emergency."

More than 90 percent of Saudi oil is produced in the Asharqiah province, where Shiites form a majority of the population. Regarded by bin-Ladenists as "heretics," Saudi Shiites have no reason to show sympathy for al Qaeda and similar organizations.

For a terrorist group, attacking Saudi oilfields would be no easy task. Most of the fields are deep in the desert or offshore. They are ringed by a no-man's land that isolates them and only authorized access is allowed.

Apart from the special company security guards, the oil industry is protected by the 20,000-strong special units from the Interior Ministry. They, in turn, are supported by the 80,000-strong National Guard. The regular army of some 150,000 men represents the third ring in the kingdom's internal defense set-up.

Nevertheless, some in Washington still worry about the ability of the Saudis rulers to protect the priceless fields.

To deal with that some have suggested a seizure of the oilfields by the U.S. and the transformation of the Asharqiah province into a Shiite mini-kingdom.

The real, long-term solution, however, is to reduce the United States' dependency on Arab oil. But American thirst for imported oil is unlikely to be quenched any time soon while new gas-guzzling economies, including China, are entering the fray. Those desert oilfields are certain to remain a vital prize for some time yet.

E-mail: amirtaheri@benadorassociates.com

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