THE MAGAZINE

Target: Middle East Oil

By Robert Elliott

The Persian Gulf is home to two-thirds of the world's proven crude oil reserves. Protecting those resources is a top priority.

Despite all the talk about alternative fuels, the Middle East expects no letup in the world's increasing appetite for crude and gas, particularly in Asia, over the next decade or two. The International Energy Agency forecasts total energy demand to grow by 50 percent by the year 2020.

The need to protect the source of that crude will create a growth market for security firms, Dr. Flynt Leverett, former White House senior director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, told attendees at the ASIS International Middle East Security Conference and Exhibition 2006 in Bahrain.

The Persian Gulf is home to two-thirds of the world's proven crude oil reserves. Saudi Arabia alone contains about a quarter of the globe's reserves. Two of the three largest natural gas reserves around the globe are in Iran and Qatar.

The threat landscape in the region is, of course, challenging. Leverett reminded his audience that the United States-driven war in Iraq has resulted in a new type of terrorist threat rooted in part in a religious ideology that he preferred to call 'Sunni extremist' rather than 'jihadist.'

Leverett, who resigned his White House post in March 2003 as a result of disagreement with the Bush administration's Iraq policy, said the Sunni threat has become worse because the U.S. invasion sealed America's bad reputation in the region, and facilitated recruitment efforts by terrorist organizations. The war has also made the Middle East a new training ground for the next generation of Sunni terrorists, who before were training foot soldiers principally in Southeast Asia and Europe.

The war has also shifted the balance of power in the Middle East by removing Iraq as a natural check against Iran, heightening the latter's regional influence, according to Leverett - a view echoed by other experts.

"So we have this intersection of an energy-driven economic dynamism in the region with worsening security threats,"  Leverett told attendees. "That nascent framework will be in place in this part of the world for at least the next 15 or 20 years, and maybe longer than that."

Oil installations are natural targets because they are hard to fence, and they offer terrorists a lot of bang for the buck. "Energy installations are almost by definition highly vulnerable and high-value targets. If you can destroy or damage an important facility, you have really accomplished something as a terrorist," said Leverett. Underscoring that point were reports early in 2007 that terrorists in Nigeria are targeting oil installations there because of the potential economic impact on the West and the world at large.

The threat poses a need that security companies can fill. "It is going to require high-tech systems, and very sophisticated systems integration," said Leverett.

Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state oil company and the largest corporation in the world, will be focused on "bigger and better system security and physical security," said another speaker, H.E. Khalid A. Al-Falih, senior vice president of industrial relations at Saudi Aramco.

He said that the company's efforts would be focused on trying to anticipate and eliminate emerging threats through the gathering and sharing of intelligence and through the use of technology, such as gates, sensors, and surveillance systems.

The company will also notify employees that security must be a top, omnipresent priority. "All of our people become part of Saudi Aramco's security network, so in a way we have more than 52,000 security personnel," he said.

Leverett said increased cooperation between the Middle East energy industry and the global security community is a must, given that the current threats are not going to vanish. "We are going to be living with them in the foreseeable future," he said, and the failure to protect these critical installations "could have very dramatic and negative consequences, not just in this part of the world but in the global economy as a whole."

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