Saudi Arabia's Doomsday Plan

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Saudi Arabia, bracing for the possibility of an attack either by an outside power or restive Shiite residents, implemented an intricate doomsday plan in the 1980s giving officials the power to blow up their own oil wells, according to a new book by journalist Gerald Posner. In the event of an attack, says Posner, the Saudis would trigger a series of "dirty bomb" explosions designed to destroy use of the kingdom's oil supplies for decades. Posner's account, related in his new book, Secrets of the Kingdom (Random House), which is due out on May 17, is based on both Israeli and American intelligence.

The doomsday scenario, dubbed by the National Security Agency, Petroleum Scorched Earth (PSE), would give the Saudis the ability to fend off attacks by threatening to blow up the prized oil facilities and oil supplies which the attackers presumably would want to get their hands on. In the event an attack was carried out, the Saudis would be able to guarantee that little of value fell into the hands of their enemies. (During World War II Adolf Hitler adopted a similar strategy to prevent German infrastructure from falling into the hands of the advancing Soviet army.) The Saudis reportedly were worried about attacks from both Iran, Iraq and the United States as well as internal attacks staged by the oppressed Shiite minority.

American intelligence first picked up hints of this plan in 1986 using sophisticated eavesdropping technology, says Posner. His footnotes indicate that he reviewed a secret file by Israel and confirmed what he learned by discussions with American intelligence officials.

Posner traces the origins of the plan to events in the early 1970s when OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) began to limit the sale of oil to countries that helped Israel during the Yom Kippur War. In 1973 the British were told by American Defense Secretary James Schlesinger that the United States might use force to maintain open access to the key oil fields of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. Two years later, in 1975, the Sunday Times of London published an account of a classified American plan, "Dhahran Option Four," which provided for an American invasion to seize the oil wells of Saudi Arabia. In an interview with the media in 1975, Henry Kissinger publicly acknowledged that the United States might use force to free up oil supplies in the Middle East to save the West from strangulation.

Posner provides significant details about the Saudi doomsday plan. He says that it includes the use of Semtex, the durable plastic explosive made in the former Czechoslovakia, in combination with Radiation Dispersal Devices (RDD). The explosives have reportedly been placed at key critical junctures in the kingdom's oil infrastructure and concealed from the employees of Western corporations working in the oil fields. The risk of radiation would be small, but enough to deter rebuilding of the oil infrastructure. In any event, the radiation would contaminate supplies for years. "All 8 of the Kingdom's refineries are part of the destruction grid," says Posner, who warns that the collapse of the kingdom's oil network would lead to worldwide instability and the most severe recession since the Great Depression.

Posner's last book was Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11. It was also based on secret documents concerning Saudi Arabia.

Disclosure: Mr. Posner is a member of the HNN board of directors.

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    Andrew D. Todd - 5/11/2005

    The radioactive materials in a "dirty bomb" are radioactive metals, which are metals before they are radioactive. Normal oil refining separates all kinds of metallic and mineral gunk out from the gasoline, and concentrates it in the "residual oil" or "petroleum coke" residue. Residual oil is so gunky that there are restrictions on using it in gas turbines. The dissolved metal sinters itself to the turbine blades, and ruins their aerodynamics. The navy uses number two oil (substantially similar to home heating oil or the diesel oil used by railroad locomotives) and uses gas turbines instead of steam plants in all its more recent ships. The major cruise ship operators have adopted the same practice, on the grounds of greater reliability, going to the length of retrofitting existing ships with gas-turbine-electric-drive powerplants. The big users of residual oil are oil tankers themselves, and they burn most of their oil out on the high seas, where any contamination would be dispersed anyway.

    The pressure at the bottom of an oil well, thousands of feet down, is on the order of thousands of pounds per square inch. A mere chemical explosion is not going to spread anything very far against that kind of pressure. The balance of probabilities is that a smart drilling rig could easily route around a contaminated zone.

    As for disrupting work in the oil fields, well drilling, etc. is almost a textbook case for robotics. Robots can be controlled remotely, and there is a good case for netting them in and controlling them at very long distances, simply to avoid the expenses of maintaining men in godforsaken places. If one were trying to replace the Saudi oil infrastructure after extensive sabotage, one would want to do as little work on-site as possible. Instead, one would arrange to have things built in shipyards all over the world-- floating refineries, floating loading terminals, etc. In the oil fields themselves, one would make a much great use of slant drilling than was the case when the wells were originally drilled, thus reducing the length of pipeline to connect everything up and avoiding contaminated former wellsites.

    In short, the Saudi "dirty bomb" is nothing more than an inept bluff, even if the Saudis have the resolve to explode the bombs. It is only given credence by people who are technologically illiterate. The fact that our technologically illiterate leaders have not sought out an engineer, and asked, "can you think of a way to call their bluff?" indicates that they really don't want to call the bluff. It gives them an excuse not to deal drastically with Saudi Arabia, the actual state sponsor of 9-11.

    Oscar Chamberlain - 5/11/2005

    Think of it as a nation state version of a corporate poison pill to deter hostile takeovers.

    The question about radioactive materials in Saudi hands is important. One can make such bombs using radioactive materials that cannot be used to produce fission. But as this NRC site notes, such weapons would probably not be radioactive enough to do significant real harm.

    mark safranski - 5/10/2005

    Thanks ! I'll take a look at what Posner is reporting.

    Edward Siegler - 5/10/2005

    I assume that the existence of "dirty bombs" means that Saudi Arabia has radioactive weapons of some sort. This is an explosive (pardon the pun) charge.

    Under what circumstances would the Saudis really want to go through with this plan? After all, it's designed to eliminate the Saudi's main asset - their only real source of power and income outside of the God knows how many billions or even trillions in financial assets they've accumulated over the years. Isn't this, in effect, a plan by the Saudis to shoot themselves in the foot? Surely after an American takeover the Saudis would eventually gain some control over, or at least the rights to some of the income from those oil wells, seeing as they are the rightful owners in the first place.

    HNN - 5/10/2005

    The bombs are reportedly placed in some cases below ground.

    mark safranski - 5/10/2005

    " 2. The oil below ground will also be contaminatd."

    Well...not from a " dirty bomb" detonation at the surface level and in any case the oil well fires would by themselves take quite some time to put out resulting in a catastrophic disruption in global oil markets and, most likely, another Great Depression.

    KSA's function as the " flex" in global oil markets is itself a deterrence to invasion by a Core power

    HNN - 5/10/2005

    What is critical here is the use of dirty bombs. 1. Employees won't want to rebuild facilities contaminated by radiation. 2. The oil below ground will also be contaminatd.

    Davy Jones - 5/9/2005

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    John H. Lederer - 5/9/2005

    This seems to speak of a plan to destroy refineries and pipelines.

    Yet the Saudi's principal export is unrefined oil, and pipelines are relatively easy to rebuild or replace.