The Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs has issued a report highlighting security threats facing Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure in a domestic and regional context.
The report, Security Threats to Saudi Arabia’s Oil Infrastructure, calls on the government to enhance its security measures to ensure the protection of oil wells, refineries, export terminals and other facilities, despite an already "impressive array" of protective steps.
"As the world's oil 'super power', any threat to Saudi Arabia's oil security could significantly affect the international energy market," the report says.
As an example, the 71-page document refers to the "failed attack" on the Abqaiq processing plant in 2006 that saw a rise in Brent crude oil prices from $60.54 to $62.60 on London's ICE futures exchange.
Though mentioning the "ongoing conflicts" in Bahrain, Yemen and Iran's nuclear issue, the report highlights domestic issues affecting the kingdom.
"Sections of the pipeline network run through unstable population centres. Violence across the region demonstrates the facility with which attacks on pipelines can negatively impact crude oil output," it says.
The report says the interrelationship between domestic conditions and oil security has been rooted in widespread poverty and corruption in the oil-rich state that had led to the emergence of "vigilante groups and disaffected Saudi citizens unconnected to any particular religious or nationalist agenda."
The document devotes four pages to Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) role in endangering the country's oil industry.
Instability in Saudi Arabia would directly benefit Al-Qaeda because it would target the energy sector, undermine the Al-Saud monarchy and exploit the US dependence on Saudi crude oil, the report states, adding that there have been subtle strategic shifts in Al-Qaeda's paradigm since the death of its founder Osama Bin Laden.
"No longer is the terrorist organisation focused on large scale attacks against the United States but instead emphasising regional struggles at a time when that message is more likely to resonate with Muslims in the Middle East and specifically in Saudi Arabia," it points out.
The report says AQAP has been able to recruit members from "prominent Sunni families with high positions in government," referring to two suicide bombers who attacked the Abqaiq facility from the families of government ministers.
The first suicide bomber, Abdullah Abdulaziz Al-Twaijiri, is related to Khaled Al-Twaijri, King Abdullah's personal secretary and closest advisor, the report asserts, and says many members of the Al-Twaijiri family also enjoy senior positions in the military and security apparatus.
On the fifth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks, Al-Jazeera broadcasted a video message from Ayman Al-Zawahiri which reiterated this threat.
Zawahiri said: "There must be a focus on [the West's] economic interests and in particular on stopping the theft of Muslims' plundered petroleum."
The Shia factor
In a related context, the report says Lebanon's Hezbollah movement has "strong local organisational links" as it had previously attacked the Sadaf Petrochemical plant in May 1988, adding that the Shia movement receives funds from Iran.
The attack was followed by a huge crackdown on Shias working in the Saudi oil industry and the arrest of over 500 Shias. Four attackers were executed one year later without a trial.
"The atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust between the Saudi government and the country’s large Shia population since the rise of Saudi rule but especially after the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979 has been exploited by Iran to increase its geopolitical ambitions," says the report.
According to the paper, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah enjoys a "large following" among Saudi Shias.
"The generational political and economic marginalisation of Shias in Saudi Arabia has been long ignored by the Saudi government, although its former ambassador to Washington Turki Al-Faisal partially admitted in an October 2006 speech that Shias are alienated and that discrimination does exist," indicates the paper.
It underscores that they represent the majority of "original inhabitants" in the Eastern province, the oil region.
"They face severe discrimination that bars them from mid-level and senior government jobs, higher educational opportunities, and basic religious freedoms. As recently as 2012 and 2007, Saudi authorities, under heavy security, demolished Shia mosques in Khober and Awamiyah respectively," the paper concludes.