What If Saudi Arabia Did the Unthinkable and Blew Up Its Oil Wells?

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Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is http://www.danielpipes.org. Click here for his HNN blog.

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Investigative writer Gerald Posner reveals something most extraordinary in Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection, his book to be published by Random House later this month: that the Saudi government may have rigged its oil and gas infrastructure with a self-destruct system that would keep it out of commission for decades. If true, this could undermine the world economy at any time.

Posner starts by recalling various hints that Americans dropped back in the 1970s, that the high price and limited production of oil might lead to a U.S. invasion of Saudi Arabia and a seizure of its oil fields. For example, in 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger murkily threatened the Saudis with a double-negative:"I am not saying that there's no circumstances where we would not use force" against them.

In response, Posner shows, the Saudi leadership began to think of ways to prevent such an occurrence. They could not do so the usual way, by building up their military, for that would be futile against the much stronger U.S. forces. So the monarchy – one of the most creative and underestimated political forces in modern history – set out instead to use indirection and deterrence. Rather than mount defenses of its oil installations, it did just the opposite, inserting a clandestine network of explosives designed to render the vast oil and gas infrastructure inoperable – and not just temporarily but for a long period.

That is the finding that Posner, author of ten books (including Case Closed, the definitive account of the John F. Kennedy assassination) details in a chapter titled"Scorched Earth," based on intelligence intercepts he gained access to. The Saudi planning began in earnest, he reports, after the Kuwait war of 1990-91, when the Iraqis left behind an inferno of oil-field fires … which, to everyone's amazement, was extinguished within months, not years. In response, the Saudis thought of ways to assure their oil would stay off the market. They began

exploring the possibility of a single-button self-destruct system, protected with a series of built-in fail-safes. It was evidently their way to ensure that if someone else grabbed the world's largest oil reserves and forced them to flee the country they had founded, the House of Saud could at least make certain that what they left behind was worthless.

This became a top-priority project for the kingdom. Posner provides considerable detail about the mechanics of the sabotage system, how it relied on unmarked Semtex from Czechoslovakia for explosives and on radiation dispersal devices (RDDs) to contaminate the sites and make the oil unusable for a generation. The latter possibilities included one or more radioactive elements such as rubidium, cesium 137, and strontium 90.

Collecting the latter materials, Posner explains, was not difficult for they are not useable in a nuclear weapon and no one had the creativity to anticipate Saudi intentions:

It is almost impossible to imagine that anyone could have thought a country might obtain such material … and then divert small amounts internally into explosive devices that could render large swaths of their own country uninhabitable for years.

Saudi engineers apparently then placed explosives and RDDs throughout their oil and gas infrastructure, secretly, redundantly, and exhaustively.

The oil fields themselves, the lifeline for future production, are wired … to eliminate not only significant wells, but also trained personnel, the computerized systems that seemingly rival NASA's at times, the pipelines that carry the oil from the fields …, the state-of-the-art water facilities (water is injected into the fields to push out oil), power operations, and even power transmission in the region.

Nor is that all; the Saudis also sabotaged their pipelines, pumping stations, generators, refineries, storage containers, and export facilities, including the ports and off-shore oil-loading facilities.

The sabotage was not finished at some date and left in place; rather, Posner emphasizes, it is an ongoing operation, disguised as regular upkeep or security enhancements. He recounts, for example, that the Saudis were"particularly proud when in 2002 they were able to insert a smaller, more sophisticated network of high-density explosives into two gas-oil separation plants."

Posner raises the possibility that this entire scenario is a Saudi piece of theater, meant to deter an outside force but without any reality. Until someone can check for explosives, there is no way of discerning if it is real or bluff. Another limiting factor: the Semtex explosive only has a few more years of useful life in it, expiring in about 2012-13.

That said, planners must operate on the assumption the sabotage system is in place and prepare for the consequences. If this single-button self-destruct system does exist and were used, what would be its impact? The U.S. and other governments hold about 1.3 billion barrels of oil and gas in strategic reserves, a stock that would last about six months. Disaster would follow, Posner posits."Once the strategic reserves proved inadequate, a nuclear environment in Saudi Arabia would create crippling oil price increases, political instability, and economic recessions unrivaled since the 1930s."

If such a system is in place, two implications leap to mind. Should the Saudi monarchy retain its grip on power (which I consider likely), it has created for itself a unique deterrence against invasion. But, should the monarchy be replaced by an Islamic emirate in the spirit of Afghanistan's Taliban (its main challenger for power), this ferociously anti-Western government would have at its disposal a cataclysmic suicide-bomber capacity; with one push of a button, conceivably, it could shake the world order. And it would be highly inclined to do just that.

Western intelligence services need urgently to do more than listen in on Saudi conversations; they need to find the truth out about those explosives. Should they exist, Western governments need profoundly to reassess their relationships with the kingdom.

This article first appeared at frontpagemag.com and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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Andrew D. Todd - 5/25/2005

In the first place, the cited article

Sanjiv Singh, The State of the Art in Automation of Earthmoving

is eight years old. That is a very long time in terms of electronics. In the second place, the author is talking about peacetime economics. He is mostly concerned with the extent to which computers can replace human labor, and save money. Wartime economics are something different. So are disaster economics. There are helicopters rusting on the ground beside the power plant at Chernobyl, and they will never leave Chernobyl. They were used as mobile cranes to dump gravel on top of the reactor, in order to seal it off. By the time it was over, of course, the helicopters were much too "hot" to be removed. It is not generally considered economic to use helicopters in that fashion, but, you will agree, there were special circumstances.

I think I would be inclined to take exception to your denigration of "toy" robots. In the film, Flight of the Phoenix, a German model airplane engineer says to a stubborn American pilot (as near as I can remember): "Mr. Livingston, a toy airplane is something you wind up and it rolls along the floor. A _model_ airplane is something entirely different. It flies. If anything, the stability requirements are greater because there is no pilot to correct for errors." If the kind of robot one buys at Radio Shack lasts for five minutes in the field, it may still have done enough work to justify its modest price. One good question to ask about cheap, expendable systems is: if one fails completely, are you any worse off than you were before? If the answer is no, then a ninety percent failure rate might be perfectly acceptable.

To the extent feasible, one would bypass as much infrastructure as one could. One would use slant drilling to intercept oil wells a few hundred feet underground, rather than fighting fires at the surface. One would use a self contained piece of equipment, basically similar to an offshore oil rig, except that it would ride on a massive array of small trucks. You would have a system of leveling beams which is fairly tolerant of any one truck failing, and the system might only be good for one mile an hour, but that is enough. Most of the well sites are not more than a hundred and fifty miles from the sea, and it's a one-way trip. The idea behind this system is that as much as possible of the assembly gets done in Singapore or Korea. You try to design in enough redundancy so that most malfunctions can be coped with by shutting down the afflicted component, and using another one. That's the sort of design approach that the U.S. Navy takes to building warships. It's just that the oil industry has traditionally been rather more tight-wadded.

Back in 1991, the conventional wisdom was that oil fires were hard to fight, because you were supposed to fight them in heroic Texan fashion, a la Red Adair, with minimal equipment. The clever Hungarians didn't think so. They took a surplus Soviet tank, a surplus Mig fighter jet engine, and a non-surplus American industrial robot arm, and fitted the whole business up for remote control. The tank drove up to the burning oil well, the jet engine blew the fire away from the tank, and the robot arm fitted a plug over the well top. That was the real secret-- that the Hungarians didn't feel compelled to prove that they were more Texan than the Texans.

Another point: you do not have to attain perfection. You merely have to get the quantity of onsite work down to the point where it can be done by the inevitable "danger junkies."

Rob Cash - 5/24/2005

Regarding the comments by Andrew D. Todd on robots and virtual reality, your views are very well taken, as that strategy would circumvent the need for workers in a radioactive environment. However, teleoperated robots (telepresence) are not ready for primetime. Your examples in Slashdot are but mere toys. NASA is working on a humaniod telepresence robot called Robonaut to replace spacesuited humans in outside activites. this is what you should have cited.

See here and you will be amazed: http://vesuvius.jsc.nasa.gov/er_er/html/robonaut/robonaut.html

Bulldozers with multiple television cameras? Absolutly!

The State of the Art in Automation of Earthmoving

What Mr Todd envisioned is certianly to be a possibility in the future, but not the near or immeditate future. Why?
Because even the NASA Robonaut's dexterity is that of a spacesuited human. EVA activited are designed for people in Michellin suits. Replacing well heads, complex valve systems, and electronics of all sorts from a distance is "magical thinking". It's not going to happen. Not anytime soon. So if the Saudis did blow up thier wells, we can be assured that they'd stay that way for a long time.

Bill Heuisler - 5/20/2005

Taking pity on the old, infirm and handicapped is merely a Corporal Work of Mercy one must indulge to demonstrate proper noblesse oblige in troubled times. It's a burden I gladly shoulder for one so sorely tried by a lifetime of shattered dreams and vain endeavors.

You have not, "waisted enough "examples"" on me to convince me you can come up with even one example.

Hence my attendant good works.

Arnold Shcherban - 5/20/2005


First, I waisted enough "examples" on you, to come to firm conclusion that it is not the facts and/or honest debate your after, but the defense of the respective positions/actions of your partisan buddies, by all means.
One more would not make difference to anyone of us.

Second, before defending a person or a country, it is commonly a good idea to ask them whether they need your "altruistic" interference...
What you would normally discern from their response is the following:
Heaven, protect us all from such a defense!

Andrew D. Todd - 5/19/2005

Here's a grab bag of stuff. This list is by no means comprehensive. Robots are taking off the way personal computers took off, circa 1980. By comparison, merely industrial tasks are relatively simple.

Here's an example of something difficult:





I've an idea you might be the kind of guy who goes deer hunting in the fall, in which case you will probably consider this next item dirty pool:



Here's something from your area:









Ordinance disposal:










Bill Heuisler - 5/19/2005

Mr. Todd,
Many years ago I was a demolitions instructor with EI Company at Quantico. Blowing up an oil production or refining or storing facility means destroying well-heads, pumping stations and valves. You try to bend, break and put holes in specific, hard-to-fix-or replace equipment. Then you set fire to everything.

Are you saying a robot can reassemble or fabricate a valve or a pump? Can a robot put out interlocking well-head/pipeline fires? You know best, but I'm sceptical.
Bill Heuisler

Andrew D. Todd - 5/19/2005

I am not greatly interested in whether Pipes and Posner are liars or ignorant fools. The latter are more dangerous. As one commentator remarked about sincerity: "Everyone's sincere! Easiest person to fool is yourself. "

I think you haven't quite grasped the whole concept of "virtual reality" and "telework." The workers would not be in the oil fields. The workers would probably be in India, fifteen hundred miles away. They would be operating the machinery via electronic controls and long-distance telecommunications, experiencing the whole business as if they were playing a video game. They would no more be afraid of the radioactivity than you are afraid of the fire-breathing dragons in the more conventional variety of video game. A bulldozer might have twenty or thirty little video cameras mounted on it, enough to give the driver a better view than he could ever have from the driver's seat. The bulldozer would probably be fitted with "fly-by-wire"-type controls similar to those in advanced airplanes, designed to keep it pointing in the same direction until specifically directed to turn. The workers would probably be safe enough in Abu Dhabi, but if they feel more comfortable back home in Mumbai, why not accommodate them? Robots are used to repair nuclear reactors now. Of course they get contaminated, but they never leave the reactor enclosure. If they break, they are simply replaced, and shoved off to the side. It is better to be wasteful of machines than of men.

You understand, the things I'm saying about your people, I've also said about Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone ("De-Industrialization of America, " etc), so it's not a partisan thing. The Neo-cons are basically sixties leftists, and they all think about the same way, whether or not they changed sides. There is a certain technophobia which runs through their thinking. It's not just ignorance, but a pervasive resentment of people who know how to control technology well enough to adapt it to their needs. If you are making an argument which hinges on technology, then of course you do have to understand technology.

Bill Heuisler - 5/18/2005

Mr. Todd,
Your knowledge of engineering is suitably impressive. Pipes and Posner probably don't understand oil production and radioactivity as well. That said, how can you accuse either writer of lying or distortion as Mr. Shcherban did? They're presenting educated opinions about politics and economics. This is lying? Distortion?

Do you object to "political journalists pontificating" in general? Should writers avoid writing about subjects not their specialty? Thucydides never served in an infantry unit and was supposedly a poor sailor; should he have written The History of the Pelopponnesian War? Homer was blind and wrote about rivers and clouds and tall Hector of the shining helm. Was he lying or distorting? Should Pipes and Posner be prohibited from writing about the geopolitics of Saudi Arabia because they don't understand the niceties of radioactivity? (On that point, btw, the radioactivity wouldn't confine itself to the metals in the oil, but would contaminate the soil and equipment, causing realistic - or unrealistic - fears among the oil-field workers and slowing/stopping rebuilding.)

Cite a Pipes or Posner lie or a distortion please.
Bill Heuisler

Andrew D. Todd - 5/18/2005

All right, I'll bite. Look at this previous post:


The root issue is that Gerald Posner and Daniel Pipes are political journalists pontificating about what is in essence an engineering problem-- how to get usable oil from a damaged/contaminated oil field. To the best of my knowledge, neither Pipes nor Posner has any identifiable claim to be considered an engineer. Furthermore, the statement of impossibility, being inclusive, is one which only the most distinguished of engineers is entitled to make. It implies that the speaker knows all there is to know about engineering. Quite frankly, the problem does not seem as difficult as the Manhattan Project, or the logistic aspects of Operation Overlord.

Bill Heuisler - 5/18/2005

Mr. Shcherban,
You should know: Defending Mr. Pettit is similar to dusting the Augean stables. And now defending you is becoming a problem for me.

Unless you can come up with a lie or a distortion made by Mr. Pipes or the article he cites by Mr. Posner, your perpetual stream metaphor sort of dribbles. One example of a lie would be nice.
Bill Heuisler

Arnold Shcherban - 5/17/2005

If one can make something "useful" of the perpetual stream of lies and distortions coming out of those Pipes, apparently filled with the best stuff from his former Afghan/Saudi buddies...

Daniel Philip Iggers - 5/16/2005

typo: "itously" was supposed to be "gratuitously"

Daniel Philip Iggers - 5/16/2005

Chris pettit (sic.) really should try to make an intelligent substantive comment, rather than just itously insulting an HNN contributor whose political orientation he dislikes.

I certainly think Pipes' article is "useful", for highlighting the allegation that the Saudis have rigged their oilfields for destruction with radioactive materials.

chris l pettit - 5/16/2005

just asking...