The attacks on Aramco could hurt Saudi Arabia in the long term

The uncertainty after the attacks is causing some big buyers to look for alternative supply channels.

Aramco attack
Aramco's oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in the kingdom's Eastern Province were attacked on September 14 [AP/Amr Nabil]

The September 14 attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure delivered the most significant shock to the global market since the 1973 oil crisis. The drone strikes caused major damage to Saudi oil company Aramco’s facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, cutting Saudi oil output temporarily by 5.7 million barrels per day, an amount equal to around five percent of global production

The significant drop in output of the world’s second-biggest oil producer led some analysts to speculate that oil prices would surge to well over $70 per barrel and settle around that mark for an extended period of time.

This, however, did not happen. The spike in prices was temporary and the barrel price fell below $60 shortly after. The petrochemical industry was also affected by the attacks, but it, too, managed to recover rather quickly. Saudi Arabia, which is the world’s leading producer of ethylene, polyethylene, and monoethylene, announced that there would be only short-term disruptions of product deliveries, with delays expected in October. 

Saudi Arabia was quick to stave off an oil crisis by compensating for the partial loss of output with its own reserves and by giving assurances that export commitments will be met.

The fact that aggregated world oil reserves are sufficient to satisfy existing demand for up to four months – the period necessary for the global economy to adjust demand and bring additional production capacities online – also brought calm to the international market.

Although Saudi Arabia managed to stabilise the situation quickly and compensate for the damage done to its oil infrastructure, the September 14 attacks could still have a negative long-term effect.

Much of it has to do with consumers’ concerns about the possible repetition of such an attack. Consumer behaviour is mainly driven by perceptions and expectations – whether well-grounded or not – and it does not always conform to the rules and logic of economics. 

Much of the world now sees that the drone attacks on key oil facilities demonstrated that the Saudi oil and petrochemical complex is facing a new type of security threat. It is now conceivable that major damage and disruption can be done with relatively cheap and easy to obtain weapons which can defeat sophisticated air defence systems. 

On September 20, when commenting on the planned US response to the attacks, then US Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford made it clear that even a significant increase in the numbers of US personnel in the Middle East and the provision of new weapons to Saudi Arabia would not fully guarantee the security of its oil infrastructure. His admission confirmed and aggravated existing concerns among buyers of Saudi oil. 

The fear of another attack could affect oil prices every time the crisis in the Gulf escalates and the risk of another regional confrontation spikes. It could also compel some buyers to decrease their reliance on oil purchases from Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole and encourage them to secure alternative suppliers.

This perceived risk may have a particularly serious effect on Saudi Arabia’s Asian clients such as China, India, South Korea and Japan who import between 16 and 36 percent of their oil from the Gulf state. 

In fact, the attacks exposed their vulnerabilities, especially India’s, in absorbing supply disruptions with emergency stocks created for this purpose. According to some estimates, Indian strategic oil reserves are enough to sustain its economy for a mere nine days. This makes India extremely vulnerable to interruptions in oil imports, as any such incident could quickly disrupt the functioning of the country’s petrochemical facilities, cause a major price hike, and affect economic growth.

Signs that big Asian oil buyers are looking for alternative sources are already appearing and major oil suppliers are positioning themselves to accommodate increased demand from Asia.

Just two days after the attacks in Saudi Arabia, Jason Kenney, the premier of the Canadian oil-producing state of Alberta, tweeted: “Alberta is the most secure major source of energy on Earth … The strike on Saudi refineries should be a wake up call. The world needs reliable, stable energy, and Alberta can provide it.”

US producers have also emphasised the “safety” of their operations and signalled the potential for more growth in the aftermath of the Aramco attacks. Despite the recent negative tendencies in its shale oil industry, such as the weakening growth of production in the Permian basin caused by emerging operational bottlenecks, the US is still slated to become a net exporter of oil for the first time in recent history later this year.

The US already felt the benefit of the crisis in Saudi Arabia, with Asian countries turning to its petrochemical industry to compensate for the unexpected shortage of Saudi polyethylene.

Chinese companies were also seriously considering buying additional liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from the US to make up for potential delays in feedstock deliveries from Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, even the high tariffs which previously made US products too expensive for Chinese companies did not prevent them from considering US LPG as an option.

Russia could also use Asia’s shift in oil supply producers to its benefit. In the past 10 years, China has been occasionally increasing its oil purchases from Russian suppliers to make itself less dependent on Gulf hydrocarbons, and what happened on September 14 could solidify this trend. Yet, how much Russia ends up benefitting from this would depend on China-US trade dynamics and the ability of US companies to capture and accommodate Chinese demand.

Regardless of who attracts Asian buyers, if they continue to divest from Saudi oil, this spells trouble for Riyadh. The Saudi authorities recognise this danger and have already taken some measures.

They have prioritised the implementation of contract obligations with Asian buyers of petrochemical products.

However, such measures might not be enough in the long term. If Saudi Arabia wants to keep its positions on the oil market, it will have to take much more drastic measures to reassure buyers.

It will have to boost the defence of its oil infrastructure and demonstrate its effectiveness in staving off another attack. It will also have to shift supply routes away from the bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to close. Currently, about 90 percent of its oil exports pass through the strait; if their passage ever gets disrupted, this could cause a much bigger shock to energy markets.

The September 14 attacks should be a wake-up call for Saudi Arabia. Their long-term effects could have a serious impact on its economy. It needs to act quickly and decisively so it does not lose its positions on the global market and with that, a major source of funding for its Vision 2030.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.