RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 14 -- As governments around the world brace for Iraqi-sponsored terrorist attacks once a Persian Gulf war erupts, Saudi officials say their oil installations are adequately protected and that even if hit by Iraqi missiles, production would not be seriously interrupted.
Officials have reinforced security precautions at oil fields, refineries and storage facilities, which are mainly located in the Eastern Province just south of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. Spare parts, fire-fighting equipment and medical supplies have been put in forward positions, easily at hand in the event of any attack.
"I don't think there is a chance of them doing great damage, but of course, you can never be 100 percent sure," said a top Saudi oil industry official. He said he was going to sit out the United Nations Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to quit Kuwait at one of Saudi's largest oil refineries and "hope nothing falls on my head."
Saudi officials list several reasons a terrorist or missile attack on petroleum facilities is unlikely to result in a long, major disruption in oil supplies:
Oil fields have hundreds of wells. If a few wells are crippled, many others will still operate. Even then, "it's very unlikely and exceedingly difficult to hit an oil well," said one Saudi oil industry source. "The Iraqis do not have the electronically sophisticated targetable rockets to do this."
Each oil rig has a self-triggering shut-off valve 300 feet below ground that automatically closes the well when there is trouble, leaving only the top 300 feet of oil to burn off. The valves can also be shut off manually or by remote control.
Oil storage tanks are each encased in a concrete wall so that in case of one catching fire, the spilled oil does not spread.
U.S. and Saudi air defense systems are protecting key oil facilities.
During Iraq's eight-year war with Iran, despite repeated Iraqi bombing of Iran's principal loading facility of Kharg Island, Baghdad was unable to stop Iran totally from exporting. Iran's main problem, said one Saudi oil industry source, was transportation because supertankers, fearful of mines, refused to enter the Persian Gulf. He acknowledged that transport could also become a problem for Saudi Arabia in the event of a protracted war, and that temporary disruptions could result from major damage to a pipeline or loading platforms.
But Saudi officials say that even then, enough oil is already stored by Western governments and major oil companies to avert a major shortage. These reserves currently total 3.5 billion barrels of oil, a Saudi government economist said, the highest stock since 1982. "So, even if a crisis erupts, in terms of physical supply, there is enough," he said.
Saudi Arabia, which was producing 5.4 million barrels of crude oil a day prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, has boosted its output to 8.5 million barrels a day to compensate for the loss of Kuwait's and Iraq's former output of 4.3 million barrels a day.
Western governments, including the United States, have taken seriously Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's threat to strike against Western interests in "the whole world" if he is attacked. But despite Saudi Arabia's front-line position in any war launched against Iraq, some diplomats believe the threat of terrorist strikes here is less than elsewhere.
"There are places in Saudi Arabia to do things, but the bulk of the targets are in other parts of the Arab world, Asia and the United States," one envoy said.
One reason for this assessment is that Saudi society is highly controlled. Tourism is not encouraged, and non-Saudi visitors must have a Saudi "sponsor" to get a visa. In addition, Saudi installations are closely guarded: Even U.S. Ambassador Charles Freeman has been turned away by punctilious military guards on occasion, an informed source said.
There is more apprehension, sources said, among American employees of the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil company because, as Americans, they are a more attractive target to Iraqi-inspired terrorists.
The U.S. embassy, however, has not upgraded its previous advisory warning against "unnecessary travel" to the Eastern Province or indicated that Americans may be a special target of terrorists at this time.
There is concern that pro-Iraqi saboteurs may have slipped into the country with massive waves of Kuwaitis who fled their homeland last fall. And soon after the crisis began, Saudi authorities expelled a number of Jordanian and Yemeni diplomats believed to have been working for Iraqi intelligence.