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Mother of Invention

Mother of Invention

“A century ago, petroleum – what we call oil – was just an obscure commodity; today it is almost as vital to human existence as water.” James Buchanan

“If you don’t have a refinery operating, it’s hard to use oil that’s available.”

 T. Boone Pickens

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Abraham Lincoln

It is becoming increasingly difficult to discern what is happening in the world. The facts and circumstances seem to be shifting daily. Someone once said, “Necessity is the mother of all invention.” Frank Zappa gave this phrase an extra lease on life when he chose the name of his inventive jazz/rock band in 1964: The Mothers of Invention. I like the band name, but my favorite band name remains: “Jiff and the Choosey Mothers.” I digress.

This past week the Houthi Rebels from Yemen admitted to doing something that no one saw coming. They allegedly dispatched up to ten heavily armed drones and crashed them, “kamikaze” style into two key Saudi Arabian oil refineries, effectively shutting down almost half of Saudi Arabia’s refined petroleum gas production. That sounds rather ominous to me. Doesn’t Saudi Arabia produce most of the world’s oil? I will address that.

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled “Distinction and Proportionality” which addressed the game changing days ahead of us concerning the use of drones by both state and non-state actors. Two weeks ago it was game-changing. Now the game has changed. That article now seems rather prescient as we saw this allegedly played out by the Houthi rebels in Yemen this past weekend. (I use the word allegedly, because there is an increasing body of evidence which reveals that Iran is more involved than anyone is prepared to admit, especially the Iranians.)  I am not trying to take sides in order to prove one side right and the other wrong. I simply want to address the methodology of the attacks and the implications of a weaker military force, using not only advanced technology, but uniquely modified modern ideas to defeat a superior foe. Pay attention. This will be a copycat-able event…I can almost guarantee it.

This week, I want to take a look at who did it, how they did it, and how it might implicate/complicate your life and mine in the near future. We will take a look into several reports that show that there is certainly more than meets the eye in both the execution and implications of these attacks.

*This briefing is a bit longer than most. I did not split it into two parts due to its timeliness. I think you will find the read pertinent and interesting.

Review.

I want to start by bringing some clarity to the oil industry and how it looks today. Most of us are probably under the impression that Saudi Arabia and the smaller states around it produce most of the oil in the world. When we think of oil production, most of us focus our thoughts on Saudi Arabia. The table below may surprise you:

Top 5 Producers of Oil Globally

Country 

Million Barrels/Day

Share of World Total

United States

17.87

18%

Saudi Arabia

12.42

12%

Russia

11.40

11%

Canada

5.27

5%

China

4.82

5%

 from: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Only one country from the Middle East is even in the top five. That of course, is Saudi Arabia. Global petroleum dynamics have changed world wide however, since the discovery of new mining technologies, such as fracking and lateral drilling. 

So when we learn that half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production has been interrupted by an attack, we probably ought to take notice. That is roughly 6% of global oil output, about 6.2 million barrels of oil a day. It is possibly not as devastating as it once would have been, when only 20 years ago oil production was dominated by the Middle East. In the 90’s, this news would have thrown the world into a tail spin immediately. Today, it elicits little more than an existential yawn. We should be concerned.

Fortunately,  there is a glutted global market. It is my opinion that the attacks on the Saudi petroleum facilities may cause a small blip on the radar of oil prices initially, but then a huge price jump will occur. Even as of today, (Monday 16th Sept) the price has jumped 13.3% to around $68 a barrel. As of Tuesday, 17 Sept, the prices has dropped back to around $62. This is the largest one day increase in oil prices in over 30 years.  Oil had jumped to 19%, but then eased after President Trump announced he would release U.S. emergency supplies to lessen the decrease in production.

On the good side, according to Bloomberg, OPEC assessed that commercial oil stockpiles in the industrialized countries of the OECD totaled 2.955 billion barrels at the end of June. That’s 258 million barrels more than the 2010-2014 average for the same month. There are a lot of oil and oil products for sale that nobody has been buying. This could ease that problem temporarily, but the world will burn through that excess pretty quickly with Iran’s oil being taken off the market, Venezuela’s oil production in turmoil and now 50% of Saudi Arabia’s oil removed from the street. Difficult times seem to lie ahead for all actors in this Middle East drama. In addition, the International Energy Agency (IEA) is forecasting a 30% increase in global energy demand. Imagine: About 99 million barrels of oil are currently needed each day. Stack another 30% on top of that and you’re close to 130 million barrels of oil every day. This is at the same time when countries are destroying one another’s oil production facilities.

So much for oil.

Let’s talk about the actions taken by the Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. I won’t go into the Yemeni war in detail, but I will say that it is a struggle that few understand or care about, unless you are one of the hundreds of thousands of Yemeni families who have been impacted by it. 

Some facts about the Yemen war:

  1. More than 15 million people, or 53 percent of Yemen’s population, are on the brink of starvation as access to food diminishes every day across the country.
  2. The conflict has threatened over 3 million lives. Seventy five percent of the population requires some form of humanitarian assistance.
  3. As many as 70,000 people have died as a result of the war in Yemen.
  4. Who is fighting who in Yemen? A civil war has torn Yemen apart since 2015, triggered by a toxic political crisis between a weak national government and an Iranian backed rebel movement known as the Houthis, who in 2015 took over the capital of Sanaa and ousted the president. 

Amid the escalating turmoil, a coalition of nations led by Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign against the Houthis, expanding the war into a regional conflict and deepening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. More than 70,000 people — at least half of them civilians — have already been killed, with the United Nations alleging that the Saudi-led coalition is “responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together. Yemen again appears to be developing into a proxy war, the latest battlefield in the conflict between Iran and the “moderate” Arab states.  Perhaps this puts this little-understood struggle into perspective, which would lead Iranian backed Houthi’s to launch drone attacks against Saudi Arabian petroleum processing facilities. 

You may ask why I continue to couch the Houthi rebel group as “the Iranian backed Houthi’s.” First and foremost, the Houthis are Zaydi Shiites, or Zaydiyyah. Shiite Muslims are the minority community in the Islamic world and Zaydis are a minority of Shiites, significantly different in doctrine and beliefs from the Shiites who dominate in Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere (often called Twelvers for their belief in twelve Imams). For more on the Zaydi Shiites, click here.

How will the drone attack on Saudi Arabia this past week effect the war and the global situation? Several realities immediately come to mind.

The Saudi’s are very upset. They are doing all they can at this moment to rally global support against the Houthi’s and their Iranian benefactors. This is a difficult tactic for several reasons. First, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is currently very unpopular due to the implications of his involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This has not yet died down for him. The lack of global support is due to the seeds that he is implicated as having sown in that whole affair.  Secondly, the Saudi’s have been targeted by the global community as the primary cause for all the deaths and misery caused among the civilian community in Yemen. 

The world’s ears are deaf towards their calls for unity right now because of the accusations that the Saudi’s are facing concerning the careless bombing of civilians. The Houthi’s have done a good job of painting the Saudi’s as merciless aggressors towards the plight of children and women in Yemen. Third, with the glutted stockpiles of oil in the world today, Saudi Arabia’s voice has diminished in importance and is now considered an egregious aggressor, not as the victim for which they would like to be perceived. Most of the world is looking at Saudi Arabia right now with an eye towards, “you are reaping what you have sown.” 

How does a rebel band such as the Houthi’s obtain and deploy weapon systems such as heavily explosive-laden UN manned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), big enough to cause much damage to a huge processing facility? I should mention that there are other hypotheses being put forth as well. Some are saying that missiles were also fired. I have my doubts. Saudi Arabia has the third largest defense in the world, behind the USA and China. They are equipped with the same Patriot radar systems as the Israeli’s. Having seen personally the capability of those systems I do not believe that they failed to pick up at least one missile. 

Everybody is pointing the finger at Iran right now, except the Iranians of course, who deny that they have anything to do with the situation. Forensic analysts are looking at the debris and are concluding that it indeed shares some similarities with Iranian built drones. The world may never know.

This is how the Intelligence community works. Iranian intelligence will neither confirm nor deny that the drones were built by Iran so as to escape implication and retaliation. The Saudi and US intelligence community will neither confirm nor deny it because they do not want to compromise the source of information so that they can use it for a later date. So for now, it is mostly conjecture, remaining in the realm of uncertainty residing in the domain of being more than meets the eye, but nobody will be willing to tell us exactly what it is we are not seeing.

What makes one think that these drones are of Iranian origin? The drones which were recently found appear to be identical to one of four aerial drones the Houthis said they had manufactured domestically, which they called the Qasef-1. The Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a UK-based arms transparency organization primarily funded by the European Union report said they are in fact versions of the Ababil-T drone produced by Iran’s Airca Manufacturing Industrial Company. “These findings strengthen a body of evidence compiled by CAR, which links weapons captured from Houthi and Saleh-aligned forces to transfers from Iranian national stockpiles,” the authors of the report said. What makes this claim problematic is the distance between Yemen and the eventual targets that were struck. The distance was almost 1.000 miles. That would represent a new capability for the Houthi’s.

I might go on record as saying that this has the potential to be a game changer as the 9/11 attacks were. They were able to use relatively cheap 21st century technology to defeat very expensive 20th century defense technologies. It will cause all who are in the defense industry to stop and re-evaluate research and development dollars. Having seen these tectonic technological innovations before throughout history, I can be pretty sure that within three months a new anti-drone technology will hit the battlefield, rendering this technology much less effective. Necessity is the “mother of all invention.”

Where does all this leave the Saudi’s, its regional neighbors and the West? According to Norman T. Roule, former National Intelligence Manager for Iran, ODNI, “Iran has paid an insufficient price for its regional actions. The architecture of deterrence is thin. Thus, the issue is less what happened with the latest drone strike over the weekend, but more about why this won’t happen again tomorrow. Iran has plenty of surrogates to throw against the region. Just as there could be no nuclear deal until hardliners saw they would benefit from the same, there can be no reduction of Iran’s regional actions until hardliners directly suffer for their actions.” 

What Norman T. Roule is effectively saying is that it is unlikely that the Iranians will stop their regional destabilization efforts until the pain of it is more than they are willing to tolerate. Nobody wants a war. It appears that diplomacy won’t work, so the only option is economic pressure and isolation. In order for this to happen, the US needs to get its European neighbors on board, which appears to be a mammoth undertaking considering that the current administration has little apparent influence on the leadership in Europe today. 

I fear that the logical result of this action will be a retaliatory strike by Saudi’s with the support of the US, its allies and Israel.

Why.

What does this mean for the Yemeni people and all the people of the region? It seems that there is no end in sight for the immediate future. I don’t want to be a pessimist, but as long as Iran can keep Saudi Arabia tied up in Yemen through its subversive backing of the Houthi’s, they can keep them from interfering into Iranian internal affairs. As long as the Iranians can continue to back Hezbollah, they can keep the Israeli’s at bey. It appears that the Iranians are interested in tying up US allies in regional struggles just long enough to cause this administration to remain so locked up that it cannot go deeper into its sanctions and actions against Iran. 

The Iranian’s gamble appears to be that once the current administration is voted out of office, another administration will emerge who will re-enter into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Iran will be allowed to go on with its business of waiting out the world so that it can continue to develop as a global power joining the elite nuclear weapons club. This is a reality that simply does not need to happen. Iran clearly sees itself as a global power as in the model of the old days of Cyrus and Darius. The Iranians are a proud people with a long-standing memory of their days of regional dominance. 

This will go on for a while. The goal is not to straight jacket the Iranian people. It is to invite them back into the fold of cooperating civilized nations. So far they are resisting their place at the table. Iranian affairs will be at the forefront for a while until this plays itself out. My prayer is that the fine Iranian people will see this for what it is and search for a leadership who will lead them into prominence as a global leader in concert with the rest of the world.

Action.

Pay close attention to what is happening in the future. This is not time for knee-jerk reactions. The global leadership will need to measure their responses to Iranian and Iranian backed aggression.  War is not the answer. What is needed right now is for Iranian leadership to see that remaining at odds with the global community is a far more painful solution than simply learning to cooperate with other nations.The current regime believes that the only way it can be a full partner with the global community is to gain a nuclear weapon, thus securing itself a seat at the table of global power brokers. This is an illusion. There are many examples of countries who are full partners in the global community who do not possess nuclear weapons. Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, Brazil, Spain, Italy and Australia are good examples.

Iran is living under a false hope. How can the rest of the world somehow help Iran to see that it can exist as a full partner within the global community without needing a big stick?

Lastly, buy a bike. Gas prices could rise over the $100 a barrel mark again before this is over.

The follow-up.

What’s happening in Sudan?… https://www.theweek.co.uk/100725/what-s-happening-in-sudan

A Guide To What’s Happening In Hong Kong… https://www.npr.org/2019/08/20/752368384/a-guide-to-whats-happening-in-hong-kong

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:  david@morethanmeets.co

Resources.

https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/US-Has-Worlds-Largest-Oil-Reserves.html

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-09-08/the-world-s-oil-glut-is-much-worse-than-it-looks

https://www.unrefugees.org/emergencies/yemen/

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/whos-who-in-the-fight-for-yemen/

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/12/18/who-are-the-houthis-and-why-are-we-at-war-with-them/

https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/middle-east/the-drone-attack-on-oil-and-the-larger-iran-problem?mc_cid=5b28f933ca&mc_eid=5c234a7378

https://pro.moneymappressinfo.com/p/EADROL/EEADV9BR/?_ga=2.202801745.1108421542.1568661255-934543951.1560797028&h=true

https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/in-saudi-arabia-world-oil-supplies-are-in-flames?source=EDT_NYR_EDIT_NEWSLETTER_0_imagenewsletter_Daily_ZZ&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_mailing=TNY_Daily_091619&utm_medium=email&bxid=5c46198020122e4aa3197191&cndid=55997804&esrc=&mbid=&utm_term=TNY_Daily

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49699429

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2019/08/drone-attack-yemen-rebels-sparks-fire-saudi-oil-field-190817132916661.html

https://www.gulf-times.com/story/641682/Houthi-drone-strikes-disrupt-Saudi-oil-flows

https://english.alarabiya.net/en/business/energy/2019/08/17/Saudi-Aramco-says-fire-at-Shaybah-oil-field-did-not-stop-gas-supplies.html

https://beta.washingtonpost.com/world/drone-attacks-on-saudi-oil-facilities-spark-explosions-and-fires/2019/09/14/b6fab6d0-d6b9-11e9-ab26-e6dbebac45d3_story.html

http://jcpa.org/houthis-drones-to-attack-senior-officials-in-yemenite-and-saudi-armies/

https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2019/09/02/attacks-causing-grave-civilian-harm/

https://www.uasvision.com/2017/03/23/iran-sends-kamikaze-drones-to-yemens-houthi-rebels/

https://oilandenergyinvestor.com/2019/05/were-throwing-the-dice-again-in-the-persian-gulf/

© 2019 • More Than Meets