US deploys forces to protect Saudi oil facilities

  • Market: Crude oil
  • 09/21/19

The US plans to deploy air defense systems and military personnel to help protect Saudi oil installations and will expedite sales of defense equipment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The planned deployment follows a request from Saudi Arabia to protect its critical oil infrastructure, US defense secretary Mark Esper said tonight at a Pentagon briefing. The UAE has also requested assistance.

US president Donald Trump "has approved the deployment of US forces which will be defensive in nature and primarily focused on air and missile defense," Esper said.

"We will also work on accelerating the delivery of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to enhance their ability to defend themselves," he said.

Details of what systems will be deployed are yet to be determined, and the number of new personnel sent to the region will be in the hundreds, not thousands, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, general Joseph Dunford said. The US Central Command, which oversees US military presence in the Middle East, will determine the size and types of equipment following consultations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Dunford said.

Esper said the action is justified in the wake of the 14 September attacks on key Saudi oil installations. "The US has a responsibility to protect our citizens and our interests in the region," Esper said.

But Trump earlier this week said "that was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that was not an attack on us."

Esper and Dunford stopped short of saying that the planned deployment amounted to a blanket US protection guarantee for the Saudi and UAE oil production and export capacity. Trump's response to the attacks highlights the US rethinking of its decades-old unconditional guarantee of ensuring the flow of oil from the Mideast Gulf.

"What we will be deploying to the theater is what would be necessary to support the kingdom's defenses," Esper said.

Trump earlier this week said that he expected Riyadh to carry the financial burden of whatever US military support he agrees to provide.

Esper and Dunford also stressed that the US will ask its international partners to step up involvement, while leaving the primary responsibility for protecting Saudi oil installations to Riyadh.

The US at the same time will continue to lobby its international partners to join a US-led coalition to protect oil shipping through the strait of Hormuz, Esper said. The coalition so far has signed up Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the UK, with none of the countries pledging resources beyond what they already have in the Mideast Gulf.

The lackluster response to the US call for joint efforts to protect oil shipping in the Middle East reflects concerns among potential participants about what they see as a confrontational US policy against Iran.

The same concerns are likely to surface in response to the latest US request to help jointly defend Saudi Arabia's oil installations, a reality Esper acknowledged today.

The US has attributed the attacks to Iran, even though Yemeni Houthi rebels have taken responsibility for it. Iran denies involvement but says that Tehran-backed Houthis are justified in targeting Saudi Arabia because of Riyadh's involvement in Yemen's civil war.

"Regardless of where you think it came from, you have to reflect on the fact that the Saudis were attacked by drones and cruise missiles and are still vulnerable to attacks," Esper said. "Asking them to help defend Saudi Arabia is not much of an ask," he said. "The international community has a responsibility to protect global economy and rules and norms."

Esper said the US will wait for the official conclusions of the Saudi inquiry into the attacks, even though he noted that "all indications are that Iran is responsible for the attacks."

The Pentagon said yesterday that the earlier deployment of 500 US military personnel and air defense system helped protect Saudi Arabia against attacks from Yemen. But it said that the attacks on the Abqaiq oil processing plant and the Khurais oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia were carried out by drones and cruise missiles coming from a northern direction.

Dunford conceded that even the additional deployment of air defense systems may not be sufficient to protect the Saudi oil infrastructure against the type of attacks that he said took place on 14 September.

"No single system will be able to defend against a threat like that, but a layered system of defense capabilities will mitigate the risk of a swarm of drones and other attacks that may come from Iran," he said.

Esper and Dunford stressed that the deployment is not an offensive action aimed at Tehran, in line with Trump's comments earlier today that he is not looking to escalate the conflict with Tehran.

"We do not seek conflict with Iran but we have other military options available should they be necessary," Esper said. "We urge the Iranian leaders to cease their destructive and destabilizing activities and move forward on a peaceful and diplomatic path."


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