It will probably never be possible to gain a clear picture of events at Abqaiq on 24 February, when militants attacked one of the key oil processing complexes in the kingdom, a centrepoint for the infrastructure that feeds off the enormous Ghawar oil field. Even the initial news reports were confused. A pipeline had been damaged - or was completely untouched. The attackers had either been shot before they could pierce the main security cordon - or they had leisurely driven around the compound before blowing themselves up. And an unspecified number of guards - Mujahideen, National Guard or Saudi Aramco security* - variously failed to intercept the intruders or died heroically in the line of duty.
TargetWhatever the truth of the matter, the outcome is not in doubt. Handling some 6 million-7 million barrels a day of crude, Abqaiq is one of the biggest targets available, and there is evident relief in the industry that the attack failed. 'It had to come sooner or later, so it's almost a relief when it does happen,' says one analyst. 'In the end, they did no damage, and that's what matters.'It is hardly a time for local security services to rest on their laurels, however. Spending on oil security is expected to be increased from its already considerable base. The overall domestic security budget was estimated at about $8,000 million in 2004, with about $1,200 million introduced between 2002 and 2004 to increase security at all national oil and gas installations. At any one time, an estimated 25,000-30,000 troops are on duty protecting national energy infrastructure. This is backed up by air surveillance from helicopters and round-the-clock F15 patrols.The most vulnerable element of the oil industry is the estimated 17,850 kilometres of pipeline in the kingdom, although security sources say that, in a worst-case scenario - where an entire section of pipeline is destroyed - repair teams could bring it back to normal operations within 36 hours. In addition, while security at installations and terminals may seem like a daunting task, six tankers a day are all that is needed to export 9 million barrels of crude.*There are numerous branches of the military and security services. Saudi regular forces total some 124,500 men, plus 95,000-100,000 in the National Guard and a further 130,000 in various paramilitary forces, including 75,000 in the Regular Army. In addition, there are 30,000 in the Border Guard, 20,000 in the Drug Enforcement Agency, 25,000 in the Civil Defence Administration, 30,000 in the Special Emergency Forces, 5,000 in the Mujahideen, 10,000 in the Petroleum Installation Security Force and 10,000 in the Special Security Forces. These figures exclude the various intelligence and police forces, as well as the Royal Guard and General Intelligence Presidency.Sources: Saudi National Security Assessment Project; MEED