Oil & gas installations: What are the potential threats for the Gulf region?

by  — 23 March 2016

Statistics indicate that the measures put in place to mitigate sea-borne terrorism south of the Arabian Peninsula are working, with fewer attacks on merchant vessels and tankers recorded. But as the well-patrolled ‘high-risk areas’ in the Arabian Sea shrinks, potential threats can actually increase. Oil and gas industry security consultant, Peter McKinley explores the ebb and flow of the threats to shipping and offshore installations.

With the potential increase in terrorism and possible threat of missile attacks, oil installations should be protected in the same way as military bases and other critical infrastructure by deploying air defence equipment.

The potential threats from maritime terrorism and piracy are magnified as the entire region is dependent on only three main sea lanes to fuel its economy – the Strait of Hormuz, Bab al Mandeb and the Suez Canal. While security is always uppermost in the minds of the oil and gas industry, the reduction in the number of acts of piracy is no basis for complacency, especially in these vulnerable and strategically critical areas.

The Arabian Peninsula is the largest in the world with a landmass of 3.2 million square kilometre. It is home to 78 million people in seven countries, most with long coastal borders, huge ports and industrial installations, especially in the waters of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). From the Gulf of Aqaba, down the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and into the Arabian Gulf – this huge expanse of water is the conduit for more than 30 percent of all crude oil shipments generated by 169 oil rigs channelled through 19 oil terminals – excluding a further nine in Iran.

Apart from the shipping lanes themselves, the boundaries of the Arabian Peninsula are shared with some of the world’s most volatile nations where rule of law is compromised by terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, ISIS and Al Shabab.


Threats to oil & gas installations

According to a paper published by industry expert Dr. Mikhail Kashubsky, attacks on oil installations are nothing new, in fact they date back to 1899. Dr. Kashubsky identifies a total of eight threat categories, of which at least four or five are tangible risks today in the Gulf waters.

Over the past 25 years, an average of two attacks have occurred every 12 months. That statistic aside, anticipating future risks is altogether more complex, with the potential increase in terrorism and possible threat of missile attacks. Therefore, oil installations should be protected in the same way as military bases and other critical infrastructure by deploying air defence equipment.

This scenario is made more hazardous as no equivalent to Operation Atalanta (a counter-piracy military operation at sea, off the Horn of Africa and Western Indian Ocean, first undertaken  by the European Union –EU – naval forces) exists in the Arabian Gulf.


Fishing to funding terrorism

Nowadays, conflicts occur at any time and threats are getting increasingly unpredictable. The motivations for former fishermen to become pirates, and risk life and limb, have been well documented. Furthermore, they are potential recruits for terrorist groups and can be groomed to become suicide bombers.

It is worth noting that much of the revenues generated through ransoms paid for release of crews, cargoes and vessels, were ostensibly directed to fund terrorism augmented by Al Shabab through the Horn of Africa and beyond.

This cynical evolution prompted much political soul searching and legal analysis. One early consequence was a working code known as ‘Best Management Practice 4’ (BMP-4) developed and refined by the merchant shipping industry. This is a document designed as a reference guide to ship owners and seafarers alike.

Oddly, no such code was established by the oil and gas industry, other than those implemented by individual rig operators.


Naval defence strategy

In addition to BMP-4, a military strategy was deployed through Operation Atalanta which was launched in 2008, largely to protect aid shipments. But by 2012 its scope had expanded significantly to coordinate counter- piracy operations.

Under EU Council Joint Action 851, which is based on various United Nations (UN) resolutions, Operation Atalanta’s mandate was to:

  • Protect vessels of the World Food
  • Programme (WFP), African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and other vulnerable shipping;
  • Deter and disrupt piracy and armed robbery at sea;
  • Monitor fishing activities off the coast of Somalia;
  • Support other EU missions and other international organisations working to strengthen maritime security and capacity in the region.


High-risk areas

With continued unrest surrounding the Arabian Peninsula, it brings into question what the high-risk areas should actually look like? Historically, it was based on a set of circumstances, which are highly dynamic and offer opportunity to those willing to cause collateral damage in less protected areas.

Quite recently the entrance to the Red Sea at the Bab Al Mandab Strait has witnessed some significant military activity from the joint forces engaged in fighting Yemen’s Houti rebellion, especially towards the port of Hodeida. In the north, it appears ISIS is spreading its influence in Sinai thus threatening the Suez Canal.

In response, Egypt is investing heavily on upgrading its naval defence capabilities to ensure protection of its borders and this crucial shipping lane. Doubtless, other countries in the region are reviewing their own capabilities to secure critical national infrastructure.


Expert  consensus

The countries of the Arabian Gulf host a regular calendar of high-profile maritime and defence conferences, such as the Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (DIMDEX) that is taking place in Doha this month, which consistently encourages defence readiness.

Senior defence and naval experts from the West and East all seem to agree that sea-borne terrorism has not gone away and that the Gulf’s dependence on safe and open sea lanes is best guaranteed by a proactive approach to defence. One example of how the international community is collaborating with the GCC countries on this is Britain’s re-establishment of its naval base in Bahrain. After more than 40 years, the United Kingdom (UK) has an agreement with Bahrain for the UK’s largest naval operations base outside of mainline Britain.

The 25th anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation from Iraqi occupation on February 26 is a stark reminder of the economic, environmental and human cost of the first Gulf War. For many in the region, the memories of blazing oil fields and acrid smoke – the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s first incursion – remain hauntingly palpable.

By putting in place the measures that expert consensus advocates, hopefully such recurrences can be prevented.


Protecting the industry’s future

It is obvious that the oil and gas industry is being affected by supply and demand scenarios of the energy sector. It is also true to say that there has been a decline in offshore oil and gas exploration globally, but 70 percent of the region’s oil rigs are still active and should be properly protected.

The possibility of suicide attacks similar to that on the USS Cole in the Port of Aden in October 2000 remains another major concern. Ports, production and exploration oil and gas installations, ocean-side refineries and naval bases are all vulnerable to suicide bombers using high-speed skiffs or rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) as a means of delivery of improvised explosive devices. The simultaneous suicide boat attacks allegedly by Al Qaeda on the Al Bashrah Oil Terminal and Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal in 2004 are indicative of this threat.

To mitigate against such incidents, the use of fast maritime defence assets in combination with powerful warships will be an essential part of the management of security for maritime operations, with trained armed maritime security personnel.

Any disruption to this critical national infrastructure offers huge financial, political and human implications.

While piracy was seen as a major threat to the wellbeing of the oil and gas industry, the relatively calm waters of maritime security and defence could quickly be replaced by more turbulent conditions offshore caused by global terrorism and related instability.

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