According to several local and international news sources, Saudi Arabia has informed the U.S. of an imminent attack from Iran. This warning follows a report on Iranian state television showing Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, telling a group of students marking the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that the modern U.S. is “very vulnerable” and that the country is no longer the world’s dominant power. These comments come at a time as well when Iran has been gripped by a wave of popular unrest following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, and when Iran has been censured by the U.S. for supplying drones to Russia for use in its invasion of Ukraine. What seems to have gone largely unnoticed, though, is that plans were already underway for Iran to launch such a strike against Saudi Arabia back at the beginning of October through its usual channel for such attacks – the Yemeni Houthis – against whom Saudi Arabia (together with support from the UAE, among others) has been fighting a de facto war since 2015. It is not, therefore, a question of whether such an attack will take place against Saudi Arabia, but rather, when, and what will the ramifications of it be?
There are comments from the Houthis themselves, in early October, about what they are going to do, and precedents of their previous Iran-backed attacks on Saudi Arabia to work with. Back on 2 October, Houthi military spokesman, Yahya Saree, wrote: “If the Saudi and Emirati [UAE] coalition continue to deprive our Yemeni people access to their resources, our military forces can, with God’s help, deprive them of their resources.” He added: “As long as the American-Saudi aggression countries are not committed to a truce that gives the Yemeni people the right to exploit their oil wealth in favour of the salary of the Yemeni state employees, the armed forces give oil companies operating in the UAE and Saudi Arabia an opportunity to organize their situation and leave.” These comments focusing on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure – the only basis of its global power and the money-making engine that allows it to fight its ongoing war against the Houthis – perfectly align with the targets of previous Houthi attacks on the country. Unfortunately for the Houthis, and for the global industrialised economies that are already trying to deal with rising inflation driven in large part by historically elevated oil and gas prices, such attacks have previously pushed oil prices higher in the short-term. Provided that the Houthi attacks did not completely obliterate Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, which is almost impossible, given their wide dispersal across the country, then Saudi Arabia would benefit ultimately from these higher oil prices, as would Russia, and as would Iran. Only the Houthis would not. Related: Saudi Arabia Cuts Oil Prices For Asia
Nonetheless, as political points go, previous Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia have been very effective – much more than the Saudis ever publicly admit. The last major attacks were on 14 September 2019 when 10 Iranian-supplied drones were fired by the Houthis on a range of oil infrastructure targets in Saudi Arabia, with the result being direct hits on the oil processing facilities at Abqaiq, and Khurais, in the east of the country. Saudi Arabia’s official response to the attacks was broadly along the lines of ‘everything is fine, we will be back to full production really quickly, nothing more to see here, please move along’. The reality was starkly different and, as Richard Bronze, cross-energy analyst for global energy consultancy, Energy Aspects, in London, exclusively told OilPrice.com at the time: “The Saudi statements may not contain any direct falsehoods as such but nor are they entirely being fulsome with the truth.”
The net effect of the combined attack on Abqaiq and Khurais caused the temporary suspension of 5.7 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil from Saudi Arabia. This equates to well over half of Saudi Arabia’s actual crude oil production capacity, not the capacity figure that Saudi has plucked out of nowhere for geopolitical power purposes in recent years, and resulted in the biggest rise in oil prices in a single day ever. It also set the stage for the same style of semantic trickery and obfuscation of true figures that have since become a noted feature of Saudi Arabia’s statements relating to its oil industry but were back then only in their relative infancy. Consequently, as the oil markets can expect exactly the same again whenever Iran thinks the time is right for the Houthis to launch similar attacks on Saudi Arabia – and that looks like being soon – it is apposite to look at what the Saudi reaction was in more depth.
One particularly striking comment came from Saudi Arabia’s then-new oil minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, just after the attacks. He stated that the Kingdom planned to: “restore [its] production capacity to 11 million bpd by the end of September and recover [its] full capacity of 12 million bpd two months later.” It was extremely telling that he spoke of ‘capacity’ and later of ‘supply to the market’, as these are terms that Saudi has tended to use in order to avoid talking about ‘production’, as capacity and supply are not the same thing at all as actual production at the wellheads. “What Saudi is trying to do by not revealing the true picture is to protect its reputation as a reliable oil supplier, especially to its target clientele in Asia, so we have to take all of these comments with a hefty pinch of salt,” said Bronze back in 2019.
As highlighted repeatedly by me in OilPrice.com, several other publications, and in my books on the oil markets going back to 2015, Saudi Arabia has stated for decades that it has a spare capacity of between 2.0-2.5 million bpd, implying – given the Kingdom’s fantasy 10 million bpd production figure during this time - total production capacity of 12.0-12.5 million bpd. This level, though, or anywhere near it, has never been even remotely tested, with Saudi Arabia having actually produced from 1973 to the end of last week, an average of 8.192 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil: that is it. Moreover, as analysed as long ago as the 2015 book, Saudi Arabia has only ever – in the history of the world, up to and including the end of last week – managed to produce 11 million bpd and sustain it for a month on two occasions. Even when Saudi was at almost existential points in its recent history – such as the all or nothing 2014-2016 Oil Price War it instigated to destroy or disable the then-nascent U.S. shale oil sector, or when former U.S. President Donald Trump threatened withdrawal of military support for it if it did not increase oil production – Saudi still could not increase oil production above just 10.5 million bpd for long. These real production figures are crucial in determining the actual truth behind Saudi Arabia’s ‘spare capacity’. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) itself defines spare capacity specifically as ‘production that can be brought online within 30 days and sustained for at least 90 days’, whilst even Saudi Arabia has said that it would need at least 90 days to move rigs to drill new wells and raise production to the mythical 12 million bpd or 12.5 million bpd level.
In any event, and as can be expected in the case of the next Houthi attack on the country, there is no way from either a technical or an engineering perspective that Saudi Arabia can have made any accurate assessment of how long it would take to get back to any particular capacity level back in 2019 either. As Energy Aspects’ Bronze said at the time: “Engineers we have spoken to have said that following an incident like this it would take several weeks just to assess the damage, never mind to begin doing anything about it, rather than the few days that the Saudis have taken and then announced the actual timeline – and a very short timeline at that – to bring back various stages of capacity.” Instead, in order to keep their exports up, the Saudis in 2019 drew down supplies to its domestic industry and reduced the amounts it sent to domestic refineries. Additionally, some buyers were warned of delays, and others were offered swaps with other grades. Another measure that Saudi Arabia took, denied by it at the time but which OilPrice.com confirmed from various oil trading sources and from sources in the Iraq Oil Ministry, was to buy Iraq oil grades in the spot market. The supreme irony to this, of course, was that Iraqi oil is very frequently actually Iranian oil, given the long-running practice of rebranding oil from the shared fields of the two countries so that Iran can bypass international sanctions.
By Simon Watkins for Oilprice.com
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