The heightened rhetoric following Saturday’s attack on Saudi Aramco oil infrastructure seemed more heat than light, as the United States accused Iran of being responsible – which Iran denies – and threatened retaliation in keeping with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s wishes. It’s still uncertain how much structural damage was done, who is responsible and what the impacts are on global oil supplies.
It’s also unclear how a regional escalation among longtime Gulf adversaries might impact African nations, and not just oil-producing Nigeria or the other six Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations from the continent.
The attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities – located between Riyadh and the Persian Gulf coast – were initially believed to be drone strikes by the Houthi rebels in Yemen who claimed responsibility for them. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on Monday said it seemed clear that the attack on Saudi Aramco was “a reciprocal response to aggression against Yemen,” a nation supported by Iran but destroyed by years of war against a Saudi-led coalition with which the U.S. has been aligned.
The Houthis recently have demonstrated their drone-strike capacities in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen. U.S. officials, however, say the Saturday attacks came from both drones and cruise missiles, which they believe were fired by Iran. Whatever their disputed origination, the explosions and fires shut down the production of 5.7 million barrels of crude oil per day, Saudi Aramco said. Amin Nasser, the company CEO, said there were no injuries and promised the repair and restoration work had already begun.
By Monday night, a third of the Saudi capacity was back up, according to industry data reported by Al Arabiya. That’s not before global markets reacted to the news that roughly 5 percent of global supply was compromised, since the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities are the world’s largest oil production centers.
Prices soared, with some nations including the U.S. concerned about the need to tap strategic reserves. Saudi Arabia was concerned about global reserves too, since its own are stored at the affected sites and the attacks took out roughly 50 percent of the company’s operational capacity, according to the Ministry of Energy. The attacks also raised fears over the looming deadline for Saudi Aramco’s initial public offering (IPO).
Beyond the border, however, the incident has the potential to both heighten regional tensions as well as deepen them among world powers with interest in the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn nations.
U.S. President Donald Trump – in a Twitter message, as is so often the case – warned Sunday night that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” to respond, while the U.S. defense chief told Agence France Presse (AFP) that the U.S. was ready to “address this unprecedented attack and defend the international rules-based order that is being undermined by Iran.” The U.S. position led to pushback from Russia, calls for restraint from China, and deep concern from the United Nations, NATO and other international bodies.
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy in Yemen, warned of a regional conflagration in a Monday briefing with the UN Security Council, even as the U.S. ambassador laid out a case blaming Iran for the attacks, which come at a critical moment for U.S. policy and against the backdrop of an increasingly aggressive Tehran angered by Western sanctions, at odds with Israel and always challenging Saudi regional power.
That power, however, tends to spill onto the African continent in Egypt and Libya, in the security of Horn of Africa nations including Somalia, or in the development demands of South Africa and Ethiopia.
Sudan, now dealing with the aftermath of the ousted Omar al-Bashir and a fragile democratic transition, sent Iranian diplomats home several years ago after aligning with Saudi Arabia against Tehran. Turkey, with its investments across the African continent and its clashes with Riyadh, also has raised diplomatic tensions for African leaders – most recently in Libya, where the Saudi-supported Khalifa Haftar called on Libyan National Army forces to target Turkish people and assets in his six-month fight to take Tripoli.
The Qatar crisis, which aligned most Gulf nations with Saudi Arabia in 2017, also meant African nations from Chad to Comoros were caught in the balance. What happens in the Gulf, particularly on security and terrorism, quickly affects North Africa, but also sub-Saharan nations where they are dealing with climate impacts in Gabon, migration drivers in Ethiopia, or grappling with their own Islamic extremists in Nigeria.
Some of them are oil-producing nations themselves; in addition to Gabon, Libya and Nigeria, the OPEC members include Algeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and the newest nation, Congo Brazzaville. So far they’re holding off on producing more in order to offset at least some of the lost Saudi oil capacity. Angola holds spare global reserve capacity, according to Reuters, but it’s much less than the kingdom’s.
It’s too early to say how the supply disruptions that are expected to affect mostly Asian nations will affect prices in the long term. In the meantime, the Saudi Aramco attacks elevate the security risks for the region, adding global powers to the complexity with implications for the African continent too.
Saudi officials haven’t yet blamed Iran directly for the attacks, with the foreign ministry asking the UN and international investigators to assist them. Yet they’re very clear on the potential for retaliation.
“The Kingdom will take the appropriate measures based on the results of the investigation, to ensure its security and stability,” the foreign ministry said late Monday. “The Kingdom affirms that it has the capability and resolve to defend its land and people, and to forcefully respond to these aggressions.”
Image: Khurais, Saudi Aramco