US international security officials said Washington’s embassy in Riyadh has suspended all consular services in three major Saudi cities because of concerns that an unnamed “terrorist organization” may be intent on violence against Western oil workers in the country.
The State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) issued a statement on its website on March 14 that consular offices would be closed on Feb. 15 and 16 in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dhahran due to “heightened security concerns.” It said that even the consular section’s telephone lines won’t be open during the suspension.
Further, all US citizens in Saudi Arabia were urged to “be aware of their surroundings, and take extra precautions when traveling throughout the country. The Department of State urges US citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia and limit non-essential travel within the country.”
In Washington, the State Department said it could not elaborate on the message.
The warning was issued a day after the OSAC warned that Western oil workers in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, including US citizens, could be the targets of attacks or kidnappings by “individuals associated with a terrorist organization.” Neither message identified the suspected terrorists.
In the initial warning, the US Embassy in Riyadh said it “has information stating that, as of early March, individuals associated with a terrorist organization could be targeting Western oil workers,” including Americans. It said there was no further information on the “timing, target, location, or method of any planned attacks.”
Citizens of several foreign nations have been the targets of attacks in Saudi Arabia since it joined a coalition led by the United States in 2014 to oppose the militant group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
In one incident in October, a disgruntled Saudi-American, recently fired by a US defense contractor, opened fire on two former co-workers in Riyadh, killing one and wounding the other. The next month a Danish citizen was shot in wounded in the Saudi capital.
Saudi Arabia has previously been the scene of terrorist violence. Between 2003 and 2007, militants associated with al-Qaida mounted attacks in an apparent effort to destabilize the country’s monarchy, which has close ties with the West. The attacks included the 2003 fatal bombings of residential areas in Riyadh built exclusively for foreigners living in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has responded to the most recent US warning by tightening security in areas frequented by foreign workers, and as limited access to the neighborhood in Riyadh where the American Embassy is situated.
Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is not only rich in oil but also suffers sectarian division because it has a large community of Shia Muslims in a country with a majority Sunni Muslim population. Some high-ranking Sunni clerics, who are members of the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, have accused the country’s Shias of being heretics.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com