When Fadel Gheit first warned of his "nightmare scenario" that Saudi Arabia's main oil export terminal at Ras Tanura could be wiped out by terrorists, he was dismissed as an alarmist. \nIt was the week after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, where he is based. But the oil analyst began to think there was another target that would have an even more devastating impact if hit. \nAs fears of upheaval in Saudi Arabia helped set world crude oil prices to 21-year highs of US$42.45 per barrel ahead of an OPEC ministerial meeting last week, there were fewer willing to scoff at Gheit. \n"I cannot think of any more logical target for terrorists. It [Ras Tanura] is the nerve center for the Saudi oil trade, but also for global exports. If you can blow up the Pentagon in broad daylight, then it cannot be impossible to fly a plane into Ras Tanura -- and then you are talking US$100 [per barrel] oil," he says. \nSaudi Arabia is the linchpin for world crude supplies, a key to setting prices and yet sitting on a political tinderbox due to internal dissent and having trouble securing itself against terrorism. \nThe repressive desert kingdom is the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, provided 15 out of the 19 attackers on 9/11 and its future problems could ultimately make petrol too expensive for us to take our cars out of the garage. \nNot only is Ras Tanura or the refining center of Abqaiq dangerously exposed to being knocked out of action by militants, but Gheit also believes regime change in Saudi Arabia to a more hostile Islamic government is as inevitable as it was in Iran a quarter of a century ago. "Its only a matter of time," he claims. \nBut this is no headline-grabbing polemicist. The Egyptian-born American is employed by investment house Oppenheimer & Co to provide sober assessments of future oil supply and demand to investors sitting on billions of dollars worth of Wall Street financial funds. \nNor is he an armchair theorist. The 58-year-old worked in Saudi Arabia as a chemical engineer for Mobil [now ExxonMobil] while it was building facilities at Yanbu in the 1980s. \nYanbu, on the Red Sea, was attacked barely a month ago and six Western expatriate oil workers were killed; in a further attack in Khobar last weekend 22 civilians were killed. Last week shots were fired at US military personnel outside the capital Riyadh, adding to the tension and forcing a Saudi foreign affairs spokesman, Adel Al-Jubeir, to admit the oil industry was being targeted. \nAn assault on Ras Tanura, however, would be vastly more serious. As much as 80 percent of the near 9 million barrels of oil a day pumped out by Saudi Arabia is believed to end up being piped from fields such as Ghawar to Ras Tanura in the Gulf to be loaded on to supertankers bound for the US and the west. \nRas Tanura and other terminals are heavily patrolled and protected, the energy ministry is ringed by concrete and the streets outside patrolled by tanks and armored vehicles. But that seems to have done little to reduce a growing number of attacks on key installations. \nSaudi Arabia is vital because it sits on the world's largest oil reserves, exports much more than anyone else and even more importantly has consistently acted as "swing producer" inside OPEC to try to iron out supply-and-demand blips. \nThe Saudi royal family -- traditionally supportive allies of the US and the UK -- promised ahead of the Western assault on Saddam Hussein that it would pump out more crude to make up any temporary shortfall should Iraqi oilfields be knocked out of action. \nSimilarly, Saudi Arabia promised to increase its output unilaterally when its plan for OPEC to increase production was turned down by some other OPEC ministers ahead of the meeting in Beirut last Thursday. \nBut this role of being friends to the west causes tension inside the country with religious and other conservatives opposed to social liberalism and Western culture. \nAgainst this is a growing number of young, highly educated Saudis who want to throw off what they see as the semi-feudal rule by the House of Saud and adopt democracy and a new openness. \nSo what would happen if either Ras Tanura was put out of action or the country was taken over by an anti-Western fundamentalist movement which decided to turn off oil to the west? \nJulian Lee, senior energy analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies think tank in London, does not dismiss out of hand the US$100 per barrel oil scenario. \n"I think it would be difficult to put an upper limit on the kind of panic reaction you would see in the global oil markets following the loss of Saudi supplies," he explains. \nAnd US$80 plus could be a more likely guess according to Lee, but he also believes it would be a relatively short-lived spike because the west would take special reserves out of storage to try to stabilize the market. \nThe US has close to 700 million barrels of oil in its strategic petroleum reserves while many European countries, plus Japan and South Korea, have similar stocks. \nThe UK is still a net exporter, so in theory is self-sufficient but even if the direct impact of a loss of Saudi oil was not felt directly for say half a year, the shock would produce serious disruption and probable economic recession. \nAnd if an extreme Saudi regime produced oil but refused to sell it to the west? Lee suggests an invasion by the US could not be ruled out but seems pretty unlikely given the difficulties in Iraq. \nSaudi exports would be sucked up by China, Asia and others but in turn a lack of demand for non-Saudi supplies from those nations could then be passed on to the west, he argues. But that is not to say there would not be a problem even if Russia, Angola and the Caspian nations are all busy providing new sources of crude. \n"There is no one who could step in and take over from Saud after six months, one year or even two," says the analyst from the Center for Global Energy Studies. \n"But the world has lived with being dependent on politically shaky countries: look at the coup after coup in Nigeria, strike after strike in Venezuela," he argues. \nNot everyone is willing to even consider the "nightmare scenario." Gerald Butt, an editor with the Middle East Economic Survey (MEES) newsletter, is dismissive of suggestions that the country is in a politically fragile state. \n"The royal family is very large and very influential. It will stand together to face a common threat and sees al-Qaeda as a security issue and not a political one," he says. \nAs for the threat to oil installations, Butt believes they are well guarded, pushing terrorists to attack softer targets such as compounds of Western workers. \n"Even with all the anarchy in Iraq, that country is still able to pump out huge quantities. It's pretty difficult to stop oil in very large countries with a huge number of oil installations," he says. \nBack over the Atlantic, Gheit remains convinced that there is a real and continuing threat which would cripple the global economy. \nHe was in the past accused of being irresponsible by critics who said doom mongers had been predicting regime change in Saudi Arabia for 20 years, but the current situation frightens economists and consumers alike. However, there is one group that is happier than others. \nOil giants such as BP in the UK and ExxonMobil in the US have been making corporate history by notching up the largest profits ever. \nAs Gheit puts it: "Oil executives must be pinching themselves every morning when they wake up. They are not making money, they are printing it."
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