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Financial Times: Saudis set up force to guard oil plants

By Andrew England in Cairo
Published: August 26 2007 22:04 | Last updated: August 26 2007 22:04

Saudi Arabia has begun setting up a 35,000-strong security force to protect its oil infrastructure from potential attacks.

The move underlines the kingdom’s growing concern about its oil installations after threats from al-Qaeda to attack facilities in the Gulf, as well as rising tensions between Iran and the US.

The force already numbers about 5,000 personnel, a Saudi adviser said on Sunday. They are being trained in the use of new surveillance equipment, countermeasures and crisis management under a programme managed by US defence group Lockheed Martin, according to the Middle East Economic Survey in Nicosia.

The recruits are learning about laser security and satellite imaging from Lockheed on behalf of the Sandia National Laboratories’ Defense Systems and Assessments Unit – a US government run unit in New Mexico, said MEES.

Lockheed said it did not have information on the initiative.

The kingdom, which is the world’s biggest oil exporter and has 25 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves, is investing an estimated $4bn-$5bn in the new equipment and the force.

The force is expected to reach 35,000 within two or three years.

Saudi Arabia has a 75,000-strong army, an air force of 18,000, a navy of 15,500 and an air defence force of 16,000. Its oil installations are protected from within by 5,000 agents employed by Aramco, the state oil company. It has more than 80 oil and gas fields and an estimated 11,000 miles of pipeline.

Members of the new force, responsible for external and internal security, are being heavily vetted and largely recruited from outside the security forces because of the nature of its task, but it will include members of the existing forces.

Saudi Arabia has intensified a crackdown on Islamist militants since attacks against western residential compounds in 2003.

Washington announced a proposed arms deal last month, estimated to be worth $20bn, with the six countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, to boost security in the region.

Several attacks have targeted Saudi oil infrastructure but terrorists have failed to disrupt oil shipments and have been successful against only “soft” targets, such as residential compounds and office blocks.

A failed suicide bomb attack in February 2006 highlighted the need to accelerate improvements in hydrocarbons security.

The attack did not interrupt exports but oil prices jumped $2 a barrel amid fears that militants were planning a new offensive in their fight against the industry.

“The attack in 2006 was a wake-up call to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It saw what it did to the markets, so what would have happened it if had succeeded? Saudi Arabia would have lost all its credibility as the ultimate guarantor of oil stability,” the Saudi adviser said.

Additional reporting by Javier Blas in London and Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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