In two deadly attacks here in the past month, analysts see Al Qaeda-linked groups adopting new tactics and targets - encouraging self-organizing cells to hit soft targets in an effort to drive away Western oil workers, damage the Saudi petroleum industry, and slow the US economy.
Despite the weekend attack in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern province in which 22 people were killed, oil operations continued uninterrupted Monday amid heightened security.
Oil prices hit 20-year highs of $41.85 per barrel in May but eased last week after Saudi Arabia pledged to increase production and urged OPEC to do the same. Oil markets, closed Monday, are expected to experience a slight spike because of the Khobar attacks. Saudi Arabia is the world's No. 1 oil producer and provides for more than 10 percent of worldwide consumption.
"Hurting the US economy is a longtime Al Qaeda goal and is one of the reasons the World Trade Center in New York was targeted. They're now striking these oil- related sites in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to keep oil prices high and hurt the US economy," says Saud al-Sarhan, a Saudi writer and researcher who follows Al Qaeda closely.
A statement posted on the Internet and signed by the Saudi Al Qaeda leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Miqrin, claimed responsibility for the Khobar attack.
"Our heroic fighters were able, by the grace of God, to raid the locations of the occupying American oil companies ... which are plundering the Muslims' resources," it said. Mr. Miqrin also criticized the Saudi government for "supplying the United States with oil for the cheapest prices, according to their master's wish, so that their economy does not collapse." A Westerner killed during the operation was dragged though the streets, the statement said.
In a 25-hour standoff with police Saturday in Khobar, a group of armed men attacked an office building housing major oil companies, an Arab Petroleum Investment Corporation compound, and a compound housing oil company executives and employees. The militants killed four Saudis, an American, and workers from Asia, Africa, and Europe before three of them escaped and one was captured.
The attack in Khobar was an attempt to create another exodus of foreign workers, like the one following the Yanbu attack May 1. A group of armed young men entered the offices of ABB Lummus killing six Westerners and a Saudi. All 90 employees working on a refinery project jointly-owned by Saudi petrochemical firm Sabic and Exxon-Mobil chose to leave the country with their families.
But oil industry analysts say the Khobar attack would not have the same effect. National Saudi oil company Saudi Aramco has been through 70 years of wars and demonstrations and unrest, says Hassan al-Husseini, an oil analyst and former senior planning consultant at Aramco. "Very few people, if any will quit. A few wild-eyed fundamentalists are not going to push this war-hardened workforce away." The company has not shut down its operations for even one day since the 1950s, Mr. Husseini says.
Saudi Aramco employs some 54,000 people including 2,300 US and Canadian citizens and about 1,100 Europeans, the Saudi Aramco's chief executive, Abdullah Jumah, told Arab News. The expatriates are in top management and in the medical and highly specialized engineering and technical fields, says Husseini. But if they all left, oil production would not be affected he says.
"It's a highly automated industry, there's a highly skilled Saudi labor force, Western expatriates are a small minority, and they would be replaced within a short period," he says.
The crackdown by Saudi security forces since an attack on Western housing compounds in Riyadh last year has also resulted in the terrorist group prompting go-it-alone operations and providing how-to tips on the Internet, Al Qaeda expert Mr. Sarhan says.
Since last May, hundreds of militants have been arrested and dozens killed in suicide attacks and in shootouts with police. Increased security and checkpoints in all major cities and the relentless pursuit by police of some 30 trained Al Qaeda- linked fighters has netted huge weapons caches and hampered their movements. Police have found more than 10 booby-trapped cars set to explode, tens of thousands of dollars, and dozens of fake identification papers.
Some analysts say that going after "soft" targets, such as housing compounds rather than oil production facilities, is evidence of a terror group on the ropes. They also note that the militants are now relying on the Internet to gain and train new recruits.
In a statement on a militant website several weeks ago, the head of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia encouraged young men to join Al Qaeda's jihad, or holy war, against "the enemies of Islam" and said they did not need to get in direct touch with group members or get permission to carry out jihad. Those interested in jihad need only "create a cell that prepares itself and chooses targets approved by God and then carry out the operation," the statement by al-Miqrin says. Training tips on attacks could be found in some of the group's literature on the Web, he adds.
Al-Miqrin also praised the Yanbu attack. "The Yanbu cell which this month carried out the daring and successful operation is one of the best examples. They hit the enemy in an important economic facility which had a big effect on world oil prices which continues to this day."
"Oil is the blood of the world economy and Al Qaeda want to strike at it through the Saudi facilities," says Abdullah Bjad al-Otaibi, a writer at al-Riyadh newspaper.
The attacks will likely lead to a terror and security premium on oil prices of between $5 to $10, says Ali Dakkak, a professor of petroleum economics at King Abdul-Aziz University.
"Though OPEC's goal is currently about $25 per barrel, oil prices of $30 to $35 dollars are more realistic given the extra costs of security and fighting terrorism," Dr. Dakkak says.
The Qatari oil minister, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiya, told reporters upon arrival in Beirut for Thursday's OPEC meeting that the oil price already reflects anxiety about production security in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. "I can say that the equivalent of $8 of a barrel price is the result of the factor of fear," Mr. al-Attiya said. "We at OPEC have done our best to remove this factor through our assurance that there won't be any supply crisis."