The drone missile attacks on two oil installations in Saudi Arabia, on 14 September, threw more incendiary material into the volatility and instability of the Middle East. The world’s biggest crude oil processing plant was hit, immediately disabling over half of Saudi crude output – equivalent to about 5% of the global supply.
US president Donald Trump immediately blamed Iran for being behind the attacks, as did the Saudi regime.
The drone attacks came as a massive shock to the elites in the Gulf States and others across the globe. It brought home how vulnerable their energy supply and economies are to disruption arising from such sudden, unexpected attacks.
Certainly, it seemed unanticipated by the Saudi regime. This, the biggest arms purchaser in the world, did not have the necessary defences at the ready to stop the destructive attack, despite the fact that it was carried out by fairly low-tech missiles.
The Saudi authorities were able to release reserve supplies of crude to temporarily make up the export shortfall, but the infrastructure damage was severe and will take time to fully repair.
As well as an economic shock, this was a major humiliation for the Saudi monarchy, and the more so because it did not dare make any immediate military response.
It has already, over years, used a massive amount of hi-tech weaponry to ferociously bombard Houthi civilians and armed opponents in Yemen, the latter claiming responsibility for the attack.
But it feared triggering an escalation that could draw in Iran, potentially leading to other infrastructure being hit and risking the outbreak of a wider regional war.
However, following the attack, at the UN general assembly Saudi representatives were seeking support from other countries for some kind of action against Iran, without having evidence that Iran – an ally of the Houthis – was directly involved in the attacks.
Saudi Arabia’s superpower ally, the US, has held back from a military response too, as it also did in June when one of its surveillance drones was brought down by Iran. Trump made bellicose remarks, but has been heeding the advice of advisors who have urged caution, fearing yet another intervention failure in the region and the possible unleashing of a regional war.
Holding back militarily has been made easier for Trump after having sacked earlier in September US national security advisor John Bolton, who had pushed for harder action against Iran.
Instead, Trump decided just to send extra US troops and missile shield equipment to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); he needed to, at least, be seen to be doing something. And UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, refused to rule out sending British forces.
US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo hastily visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE, stressing that Trump wanted a “peaceful resolution”. Part of this resolution, though, is more sanctions on Iran, which will further devastate its economy and the health and wellbeing of the population.
So, for now, it’s a military ‘stalemate’ but one in which more clashes are likely. As well as the hit on a US drone in June, there were several explosions on oil tankers in the Gulf area in May and June.
US military bases and ships in the region are vulnerable to attack, as are oil-carrying vessels in the Strait of Hormuz which runs between Iran and Oman. Over a fifth of world oil and a quarter of liquefied natural gas pass through a bottleneck of just a few kilometres of navigable water in that strait.
Any further significant disruption to oil exports from the Gulf region could tip the already slowing world economy fast into recession.
Also, part of Trump’s calculations will be that although the US has become self-sufficient in oil due to its shale industry, sustained damage to global supplies would sent the oil price rocketing and increase the cost of fuel at US petrol stations.
Meanwhile, the terrible war in Yemen goes on. A possible trigger for the attacks on the Saudi oil plants was the worst yet Saudi air force attack on Yemen on 31 August, which killed 156 civilians.
The Houthis claimed to have fired the missiles on the Saudi oil plants from inside Saudi Arabia itself. This could have been the case, maybe with help from the heavily oppressed minority Shia population in the east of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi regime has been unable to achieve a victory, so far, in Yemen despite its far superior military resources. To add to its problems the international coalition it assembled for the onslaught is gradually falling apart: Morocco has withdrawn from it and the UAE has largely done so too.
This is part of the shifting balances and alliances of the ruling classes in the region, in competition over trade, influence, prestige and connections with the world imperialist powers.
The Iranian regime gained in influence across the region as a result of the failed interventions of the US and other western capitalist governments in Iraq and Syria.
It wants to maintain and build on that position but at the same time is facing a deepening economic crisis made worse by US-led sanctions – inflation has risen to 40%, making it an increasing struggle for most Iranian people to make ends meet.
An outbreak of protests in Egypt over the last week, defying heavy repression to demand the resignation of president al-Sisi, is a strong reminder to the elites across the region of what they fear most.
The Iranian regime has been carrying out a vicious crackdown to try to curb the increased number of workers’ struggles in that country this year. Workers who have protested against unpaid wages, poverty-level wages and privatisation have faced arrest and in some cases prison sentences of ten years of more.
None of the capitalist governments across the region are able to satisfy the basic needs of working people and the poor, including in Egypt and Iran, and increasingly in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. It is only a matter of time before massive protests again spread as they did on a vast scale in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.
As part of building such mass movements it is crucial that working-class based, democratic organisations are created which must be independent of pro-capitalist representatives. Capitalism has proved over and over again its rottenness. The movements will need to turn to socialist ideas to chart the way forward.