"These militants want to send a message that the kingdom is not safe for westerners."
-- Jamal Khashoggi, media spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London
And they're sending it loud and clear.
An attack over the weekend, which left a BBC cameraman dead and a correspondent in critical condition, was just the latest in a series of attacks on foreign workers that has left a bloody trail of deaths – and a scared expatriate community. Among al-Qaida's key goals are 1) the destabilization of the Saud regime and 2) its eventual overthrow. They hope to destabilze the monarcy by cutting the kingdom's oil production through terrorizing the foreign workers who keep the oil flowing. Any cut in Saudi Arabian oil flow would have an immediate impact on world oil prices – and on the U.S. economy.
In his last dispatch before he was wounded, BBC correspondent Frank Gardner disclosed that al-Qaida had posted on an Internet site a graphic account of an attack on a western enclave at Khobar that left 22 dead. The terrorists slit the throat of one Swedish worker, killed others in cold blood, then ate breakfast and rested before going back to their gruesome task. Saudi security seems to have been essentially worthless.
After an attack on foreign workers at an oil refinery at Yanbu, John Bradley, who until his departure late last year had been the only accredited resident western newsman in Saudi Arabia, wrote:
"An attack this week on an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia in which five Westerners, two Saudis and four militants were killed, is the kingdom's worst nightmare come true. It was the first terrorist assault on a petrochemical complex in the country. It came just weeks after the first direct targeting of a government building in Riyadh, when five people died.
"Reports of a Westerner's corpse being dragged through the streets of the industrial city of Yanbu, and militants firing in the air to urge others to join the fight, have horrified the Western expatriate community on whom the kingdom still largely depends to keep its vital oil industry working. Four of the Westerners killed were senior managers at the complex. The Swiss-Swedish engineering company ABB, employer of the slain Westerners, immediately announced it was evacuating all international staff and their families from Yanbu."
Despite the viciousness and increasing frequency of the attacks, which were unheard of until the last few months, there so far has been no disruption of oil flow.
"It is important to remember that the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia is heavily, heavily guarded," Kyle Cooper, an energy analyst at CitiGroup Global Markets told the BBC. "Attacks have not been able to affect the infrastructure," he said, adding that even if militants were able to damage a pipeline or refinery, the kingdom could continue to export oil.
"Saudi Arabia has multiple facilities - if one were damaged, it's most likely another one would be able to come on line very quickly and replace the lost production," he said.
Still, the attacks are achieving at least part of their perpetrators goals. The Religious Policeman, the only Saudi blogger I know of, reports that, "I talk to a number of western expats, and they are very very frightened indeed. I cannot blame them. I know of several families who remained here all through the first Gulf war, saw the Scuds flying over and hitting, but have decided that this place is now too dangerous for themselves and their families, and are packing up to go."