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Saudi Arabia's "Most Spectacular Target" Dangerously Close to Civil Unrest

Ian McKinnell | Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is bracing for protesters to take to the streets on Friday—in what they are referring to as a 'Day of Rage'.

Yesterday, police opened fire on protesters in the Eastern Province city of Qatif.

Here is why that location may be significant: In 2003, Robert Baer, a former CIA officer with twenty-one years service in the Middle East, wrote about his views on the Saudi state.

Most of Baer's analysis was political in nature. But a few short paragraphs refer to the region surrounding Qatif in the chilling detail associated with declassified intelligence briefs.

Baer begins the section by writing "The Saudi system seemed—and still seems—frighteningly vulnerable to [terrorist] attack."

Specifically, he observes: "Various confidential scenarios have suggested that if terrorists were simultaneously to hit only a few sensitive points 'downstream' in the oil system from these eight fields—points that control more than 10,000 miles of pipe, both onshore and offshore, in which oil moves from wells to refineries and from refineries to ports, within the kingdom and without—they could effectively put the Saudis out of the oil business for about two years. And it just would not be that hard to do."

Baer maps out the case for such an attack—and where it might begin: "The most vulnerable point and the most spectacular target in the Saudi oil system is the Abqaiq complex—the world's largest oil-processing facility…"

Satellite imagery of the region reveals Abqaiq to be about 90 miles away from the unrest in Qatif—a distance which presumably can be rapidly traversed via a modern highway through the desert, as the satellite images depict.

But even closer to the unrest in the city of Qatif than the refining center of Abqaiq are the shipping terminals used to distribute Saudi oil to the world.

"Oil is pumped from Abqaiq to loading terminals at Ras Tanura and Ju'aymah, both on Saudi Arabia's east coast. Ras Tanura moves only slightly more oil than Ju'aymah does (4.5 million barrels per day as opposed to 4.3 million barrels), but it offers a greater variety of targets and more avenues of attack."

Both shipping terminals are just a few short miles away from Qatif—but Ras Tanura, the terminal more vulnerable to attack, is nearly contiguous with the city's urban population centers.

Baer details the potential structural damage an attack could cause the Kingdom—and puts it in perspective for an American audience:

"All petroleum originating in the south is pumped to Abqaiq for processing. For the first two months after a moderate to severe attack on Abqaiq, production there would slow from an average of 6.8 million barrels a day to one million barrels, a loss equivalent to one third of America's daily consumption of crude oil. For seven months following the attack, daily production would remain as much as four million barrels below normal—a reduction roughly equal to what all of the opec partners were able to effect during their 1973 embargo."

The proximity of the unrest to the heart of Saudi Arabia's oil refining and shipping capacity is undeniable.

What role it will play going forward remains to be seen – but it is a point presumably not lost on the Saudi leadership.

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