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Courtney Freer

Aramco attacks expose Saudi vulnerability and shaky GCC security

Saudi Arabia says Iran sponsored the strikes, but exact launch site is being investigated [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 September, 2019

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Comment: With the GCC in tatters, individual member states are feeling anxious about the lack of a regional support system and an unpredictable US president, writes Courtney Freer.
Since the strikes on Saudi Aramco facilities early Saturday morning, analysts have struggled to understand what exactly happened, and whether the drone came from Iraq, Iran, Yemen or elsewhere.

While the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack on Saturday and stated that their targets "will keep expanding," it is still unclear whether they actually perpetrated the attack. For it's part, the US has pinned the blame squarely on Iran, calling the attack "an act of war".   

Riyadh has invited the United Nations and other international experts to assess the situation on the ground, which it describes as "an unprecedented act of aggression and sabotage" as well as an "egregious crime which threatens international peace and security." On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia too, impliacted Iran in the attack, but stopped short of directly accusing it.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of being behind the attack on Sunday, and President Donald Trump has said that the US is "locked and loaded" pending verification from Saudi Arabia about the perpetrators.

Trump later said on Tuesday that he does not want a war yet, but that the United States would help its ally in Riyadh, citing that "Saudi Arabia pays cash."

Of course, much of the speculation about an escalatory US response derives from the American adoption of a policy of maximum pressure on Iran after withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last May.

Despite the US withdrawal, France has been leading an effort to revive a dialogue between Iran and the United States through a meeting between Presidents Rouhani and Trump at the UN General Assembly, but Iran has stated that this will not take place, making unclear what de-escalatory measures remain.

While it is still too early to draw major conclusions about the planning and coordination of the attacks themselves, much less how Saudi Arabia and the United States may respond, one interesting place to look is at the GCC itself.
Surprisingly, there has been no GCC statement on the attacks, not even to condemn them
Surprisingly, there has been no GCC statement on the attacks, not even to condemn them, indicating the extent to which the institution has become irrelevant after the blockade of Qatar began in June 2017.

The General Secretariat of the Arab League meanwhile condemned the attacks, dubbing them "serious escalations," while proclaiming solidarity with Saudi Arabia.

Absent a regional body to take a unified stance on this issue, individual member GCC countries are taking their own positions and appear to be feeling anxiety about the lack of a regional support system that existed in the past, and questions have been raised about the reliability of American protection in the region.

Nowhere are such anxieties clearer that in Kuwait, which of course has a very recent memory of military invasion, occupation, and ultimately military assistance from the United States.

Kuwaiti members of parliament have called on their government to enhance security measures after what they dubbed "a very serious breach" took place when the offending drone passed through Kuwaiti airspace on the way to Saudi Arabia.

The government has explained that an investigation has been launched about the drone sighting over the Bidaa coast and, according to some, at a low altitude of 250 metres over Dar Salwa palace. There is concern about whether such drones could easily attack targets within Kuwait. The cabinet has responded that additional measures have been taken "to protect Kuwait's security," and are working with Riyadh to determine the direction of the drone's origin.

The Kuwaiti press has described the measures taken as "maximum and unprecedented," although there is little detail about what these measures are exactly.

Despite being isolated from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs tweeted his condemnation of the attack, adding that "these wars and conflicts must stop and efforts must be united to achieve common collective security in the region."
These appear to be efforts to motivate at the least an emotional and nationalistic response among the Saudi public
The UAE is waiting to hear the conclusions from Saudi Arabia's investigation into the attacks. For its part, Oman expressed "deep regret" over the attacks and dubbed them "unnecessary escalation." It also asked for a UN-led investigation into the matter. Meanwhile Bahrain dubbed the attack "a terrorist and heinous act" as well as "dangerous escalation and threat" to global energy supplies and is said to have also taken additional security measures at home.

King Salman spoke at a cabinet meeting Tuesday to reinforce Saudi Arabia's ability to handle such threats, stating that they are "not aimed at the vital facilities of Saudi Arabia only, but also threaten the global economy."

Also on Tuesday, the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Dawa and Guidance called on all preachers in the country to focus their Friday sermons on the attacks to raise awareness and "rally around their leadership and work for the benefit of their homeland."

These appear to be efforts to motivate at the least an emotional and nationalistic response among the Saudi public, while also emphasising the extent to which Saudi security is linked to global economic security.

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At a time when there is concern about whether US security guarantees are becoming hollow and when regional security bodies have become inactive, there appears to be general hesitation to take a strong stance, at least before facts on the ground can be confirmed. 

Certainly, given questions in the Gulf about the Trump administration's willingness to come to the aid of its allies and given the demise of the GCC, waiting to react is a wise policy but can only be maintained for so long, especially if nationalistic feelings are stoked.

Dr Courtney Freer is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics and a research officer for the Kuwait Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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