Opinion - Politics

After Iran's strike on Saudi oil, US, China and Russia must join forces to prevent drone terror attacks

Carlos Pascual
Smoke is seen following a fire at Aramco facility in the eastern city of Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, September 14, 2019.
Stringer | Reuters

It may have cost a few million, but the Sept. 14 drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia exacted immediate economic damages measured in billions. The burning fields and twisted metal illuminate risks that could cost the world trillions.

That very asymmetry, and the ability to circumvent traditional military defenses, may open a new era of global terrorism. In the long run, the United States, China and Russia may have the most to lose – and the greatest incentive to create a new regime against drone and cyber terror.

The attack on the Abqaiq processing facility and Khureis field knocked out production of 5.7 million barrels a day, 60% of Saudi Arabia's production. In a day, the world oil price jumped 15%, to over $69 per barrel. Yet, with Saudi Aramco's assurance to meet market commitments and restore full production, oil crawled back to the mid-$60s.

This seeming resilience in oil markets obscures a new era of global insecurity – in the Middle East and for the world's global powers.

Start with the Middle East. Many expected Saudi Arabia to retaliate immediately against Iran. Iran has announced it would respond in turn. Washington has gone from "cocked and loaded" to seeking a "peaceful resolution." Some question whether America is abandoning commitments to protect energy flows in the Gulf.

These seeming prevarications reflect the uncertain impact of further actions. If a retaliatory cycle starts, where does it stop? What is the risk that it spills to soft targets in the United States or Europe?

It is hard to imagine much on which Presidents Trump, Xi and Putin might agree, but this is clear: none of them wish to see their military prowess undermined by easily accessible technology that can penetrate sophisticated defenses.

The United States – and open societies with readily available drone technology and easy access to infrastructure – may have the most to fear. On Amazon you can order drones capable of small payloads for less than $300. For $250,000 you can buy professional drones that carry payloads of 500 pounds. Even a small payload could disrupt a refinery, power transformer, or dam.

China should shudder from a cycle of Middle East violence. It imports more oil than any other nation – about 50% of it from the Middle East. Disruptions in oil supply not only exact a financial price – they could literally bring parts of China to a standstill.

Russia, for its part, has a history of terrorism in the North Caucasus region. Vladimir Putin's punishing attacks on Chechnya as interim Prime Minister in 1999 helped bring him to Russia's presidency. In the wake of the Saudi attacks, President Putin made clear that Russia feels well protected from cruise missiles by its S300 and S400 air defense systems. Targeted drone attacks on remote infrastructure may pose a different risk.

Beyond these threats, the United States, Russia and China face an irony of asymmetry from the low cost of drone and cyber attacks. Drawn into such a conflict, major powers lose their traditional military superiority. Instead they fall into a narrower band of capabilities where many actors play, including non-state actors.

Put cyber and drone threats together, and we see a reverse asymmetry. The cost to disrupt is low. One hit can spread political fear and, with a careful strike, economic chaos.

Ironic as it may seem in a new era of "great power conflict," the attack on Saudi Arabia should be a wake-up call for the United States, China and Russia to seek global action to set rules for drone and cyber warfare.

When seen in the context of the Middle East, Russia and China – allies of Iran and clients of Saudi Arabia – could prove most effective to preempt a cycle of debilitating retaliation.

The first step may be modest – the United States, China and Russia using their dominant roles at the UN Security Council to call on all nations to join them in a new global initiative to control drone and cyber military uses and protect against terrorist threats. The three will need to create a credible secretariat to harness international participation and frame potential rules on technologies, how they are licensed or sold, and eligible military use.

It is hard to imagine much on which Presidents Trump, Xi and Putin might agree, but this is clear: none of them wish to see their military prowess undermined by easily accessible technology that can penetrate sophisticated defenses. Perhaps most immediately a joint call for action might implore Saudi Arabia and Iran to resist a deadly retaliatory cycle that would drag the Middle East closer to war.

Carlos Pascual is senior vice president for global energy and international affairs at IHS Markit. He served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico (2009-2011) and Ukraine (2000-2003) and U.S. coordinator for international energy affairs (2011-2014).

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