WASHINGTON — When al Qaida suicide bombers tried on Feb. 24, 2006, to blow up Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil processing facility, arguably the world's most important petroleum hub, it was taken as a sign of strength that internal security had foiled the attack.
Secret U.S. State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and shared with McClatchy and other news organizations show otherwise.
Even though 70 percent of Saudi Arabia's oil exports flow through the Abqaiq facility, Saudi security forces were woefully ill prepared to defend it, investigations into the attack found, according to the cables. Efforts to fix the problems were hampered by bickering between the Saudi state oil company and the country's Ministry of the Interior, the cables indicate.
The security of Saudi Arabia's oil is still a concern five years later as neighboring countries sink into political turmoil and the kingdom confronts growing restiveness among its own Shiite Muslim population in the Eastern Province, the heart of the Saudi oil industry. U.S. officials didn't respond to requests for comment.
Never miss a local story.
Saudi Arabia, with 12 percent of the world's oil supply, remains the key to the West's ability to influence oil prices. Last week, when members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries failed to increase production in a move that Western officials had hoped would help curb rising crude oil prices, Saudi Arabia announced it would unilaterally pump more oil. Crude prices immediately dropped.
A successful terrorist attack on Saudi oil facilities would wreak havoc on the kingdom's ability to take a similar step in the future.
"We did not save Abqaiq, God did," Prince Muhammad bin Naif is quoted as saying in a secret cable that the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, sent to the State Department in Washington on Aug. 11, 2008.
After the attempted attacks in Abqaiq, the State Department cables show, the U.S. and the Saudi government set up a joint working group to find ways to improve security. The U.S. even drafted a team from the Energy Department's prestigious Sandia National Laboratories to conduct a wide ranging assessment of design and safety weaknesses throughout the Saudi oil industry.
U.S. officials soon found, however, that infighting between the Saudi state oil company Aramco — the kingdom's cash cow_ and the security-minded Ministry of Interior made improvements in security difficult.
A Dec. 4, 2006, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh recounts how a top Ministry of Interior adviser plotted to have the Americans exclude Aramco officials from decisions involving infrastructure protection because "the company does not pay enough attention to security issues."
Months later, an April 25, 2007, document highlights concerns about sabotage voiced by the Interior Ministry's chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Saad al Jabri.
"He stated there were Saudi Aramco employees known by MOI to be members of extremist groups," the cable said.
Two years later, Aramco fired back, complaining to U.S. officials in the summer of 2009 that Ministry of Interior personnel acted carelessly around combustible materials. Aramco handed a secret $1 billion contract to U.S. defense firm Northrop Grumman to design and install a perimeter surveillance system that the Americans suspected was intended to keep Saudi security forces away from Aramco facilities.
A secret June 17, 2009, cable sent from the U.S. consulate in Dharan described a meeting between Ambassador Ford Fraker and Aramco CEO Khalid al Falih, in which Falih complains about the way Interior Ministry forces behaved.
"He noted that after the terrorist attack on Abqaiq in 2005 (sic), Saudi soldiers deployed to protect the infrastructure were smoking cigarettes, driving their vehicles perilously close to equipment," the cable said
The cable said that Aramco was resigned to the idea that the interior ministry would be taking a greater role in security, but noted that "Aramco is currently undergoing a major upgrade to their perimeter surveillance system, in what may be an attempt to mitigate MOI encroachment on Aramco facilities."
While al Qaida was a top U.S. concern, Saudi security officials such as Jabri appear more worried about an attack from Iran, Saudi Arabia's rival across the Persian Gulf. The cables also show that Saudi officials often worried that the Eastern Province's Shiite Muslim population might side with Shiite-ruled Iran in a confrontation between the two countries.
"He stated it would not have to be a highly accurate missile to cause serious operational damage to Saudi oil operations, even a 'stupid' missile could do so," the June 17 cable said, referring to Jabri. "He expressed worries with a 'layered' attack by both military forces and terrorists, which could then be compounded by a Shi'a reaction in the Eastern Province. He stated, 'we would like to be prepared for worst case scenarios, we do not want any surprises.'"
The concern that extremists could be hiding in plain sight in the world's most important oil producer had been raised in an Aug. 25, 2008, document that gave voice to worries by Ministry of Interior adviser Khalid al Ageel.
"He recalled how Saudi Aramco's President Abdullah Jumah was convinced terrorists had detailed information about Abqaiq's critical nodes prior to the 2006 attack, when the attackers sought to sever the Shaybah-Abqaiq pipeline," the document said, adding that the ministry "is under intense pressure from the senior Saudi royals to improve security at the company's important facilities."
While the Saudi infighting was a negative, U.S. diplomats felt that discovering it was a big plus.
"This is CIP's first success," the June 17, 2009, cable noted, referring to the Critical Infrastructure Protection program by its initials. "The assessment provided useful information that, in the end, will help improve the security of Saudi Arabia's most critical oil facility."
Security concerns didn't stop with Abqaiq, the cables show. The Americans also studied the country's electrical generating facilities after the Saudis pointed out that damage to any of the nation's three largest power plants could idle far more oil production than an actual strike on any number of oilfields.
As the two nations worked more closely, the decision was made to begin using the same system to train Saudi forces as is used to protect nuclear power plants worldwide.
Despite all those efforts, a secret embassy cable from Aug. 11, 2008, provided a sober assessment.
"The continuing vulnerability of Saudi Arabia's strategic oil and gas production facilities represents an Achilles' heel for U.S. strategic interests in the kingdom and throughout the Gulf region, not to mention US economic security in general," the cable concluded. "In the estimation of the MOI, these facilities face a serious threat from both al Qaida and Iran."
Whether Saudi oil facilities are better protected today is unknown. There are no cables after early 2010, and analysts point out that despite improved technology, protection still depends on the people who man the gates, stand guard and operate the surveillance cameras and other equipment.
"I suspect it's a work in progress," said Simon Henderson, an expert on Saudi Arabia and energy security at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace. "Even if you install these things, you've got to constantly maintain them. You've got to make sure that people who are manning them are well trained, alert and ready for anything to happen. You can't guarantee that the guy stuck outside there is (ready)."
READ THE CABLES
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.