Yep - its the oil !
America is protecting its corrupt, theocratic dictatorship, democracy repressing Saudi Arabian oil whore.
Finally only a small number of facilities would have to be hit to cause substantial damage and disruption to global energy supply. In Saudi Arabia the oil and natural gas processing complex of Abqaiq handles more than 5 million bbl/day, close to 70 percent of Saudi daily output, making it one of the most important energy nodes in the world. Close by is Ras Tanura the largest refinery in the Kingdom which handles 550,000 bbl/d. Targeting just these two facilities, and putting either of them offline even for a short period of time would greatly impact global energy supply and prices. Putting them offline for a sustained period of time could be potentially catastrophic.
The pickings are just as easy if not quite as lucrative elsewhere in the neighbourhood. The UAE relies primarily on two major refineries: the Jebel Ali, and the Al-Ruwais which have a combined capacity of 400,000 bbl/d. North along the Persian Gulf, Kuwait has its Mini al-Ahmadi refinery with 470,000 bbl/d. These facilities, and more, are relatively unhardened and within easy range of Iranian missiles.
In addition it is possible that Iran could choose to strike not only at primary production and processing facilities on the Gulf, but expand its operations to include alternative export facilities. Saudi Arabia has two major refineries on the Red Sea coast at Yanbu with a third under construction. These refineries and the corresponding East-West pipeline that pumps crude to them figure prominently as the Saudi Arabian trump card in the event of a Gulf crisis. Allowing them to potentially bypass a blockaded strait, or extreme disruption, they would pump to these refineries to continue exporting, albeit at a significantly reduced rate.
However, all of these facilities lie under the shadow of the Shahab-3's estimated range, and certainly within the ranges of more advanced models. Worryingly, they are also relatively bare of anti-missile batteries.
It may not be an immediate priority, but the possibility that Iran would follow up a successful missile offensive in the Gulf, with a secondary offensive aimed at crippling alternative export infrastructure is a threat that cannot be ignored.
Despite the palpable danger posed by these missiles, far too much attention has been lavished on other concerns such as the Strait of Hormuz. The commitment to provide the UAE with the THAAD batteries should redirect some much needed attention on this issue. Indeed while these deals have just been completed they will likely prove to be only the beginning.
It seems likely that the Saudi Naval Expansion Program-II which has been under discussion for several years will be accelerated to completion this year. The $23 billion deal would provide Saudi Arabia with as many as 10 Aegis equipped ships, substantially enhancing their ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability.
The Iranian missile threat and the effort to create defensive counter-measures will form an increasingly prominent part of the energy security narrative in the Gulf. The current crisis demonstrates how quickly these issues can arise. What it ought to also demonstrate is how urgently they need to become a part of our discourse; sooner rather than later.
Joshua Jacobs is a Gulf Policy Analyst with the Institute for Gulf Affairs.