When problems with Iran flare up, the focus is mostly on threats to the critical Strait of Hormuz, often described as the world’s economic artery, through which 18mn b/d of crude exports pass. This is not surprising given that if it feels cornered politically, Iran will typically threaten to block the waterway. But in reality US military superiority means any closure of the strait would be difficult to achieve and probably short-lived. The real threat to the global economy is more likely to come from any serious damage to vital energy infrastructure – the Gulf is home to both the world’s biggest crude export hub, Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura, and its largest LNG exporting site – Qatar’s 77mn tons/year Ras Laffan plants.

Oil installation security has long been a priority for the Gulf. But the failed 2006 attack on Saudi Arabia’s giant Abqaiq oil processing complex galvanized the region’s leadership into further stiffening of security around vital installations and woke Washington up to the damage a successful attack on oil infrastructure could do to the world economy. Saudi Arabia created a 35,000-strong oil Facilities Security Force (FSF) with the help of the US government’s New Mexico-based Sandia Labs (MEES, 27 August 2007). A US congressional report describes Saudi Arabia’s military build-up as “extraordinary.” The kingdom spent $33bn on US weapons in 2011, making it the world’s leading importer of US arms. Last year the US also sold missile defence batteries, radars, helicopters and fighter jets to Oman and the UAE. The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency has said it expects to sell more weapons to Qatar and Oman. (CONTINUED - 1997 WORDS)