Inside Saudi Arabia’s response to a raid on the heart of the oil kingdom

By Rania El Gamal, Stephen Kalin and Marwa Rashad

KHURAIS, Saudi Arabia(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed energy minister was in London when he learned in the middle of the night of the largest-ever attack on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, a veteran oil official and senior member of the Al Saud ruling family, hurried back to the kingdom, flying by private jet to Aramco’s headquarters in Dhahran to assess the damage and manage the fallout from the attack on the world’s largest oil exporter, three sources close to the matter said. Officials at state-run oil company Saudi Aramco, meanwhile, gathered in what was referred to internally as the “emergency management room” at the company’s headquarters.

Interviews with at least a dozen Gulf and Western officials provide the most detailed account to date of the response by Saudi officials and state oil company Aramco to the most destructive strike on Saudi Arabia since it opened an offensive in Yemen more than four years ago. The attack knocked out more than half the kingdom’s oil production, or almost 6 percent of global oil output.

Saudi Arabia has said Iran was responsible, an assessment that U.S. officials share.

Iranian officials were unavailable to comment but Iran has denied involvement.

Yemen’s Houthi movement, an ally of Iran battling a Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition has claimed responsibility. But Gulf diplomats and regional officials say they are skeptical of the claim given the sophistication of the attacks.

The Saudi energy ministry declined to comment on its response to the attacks. The government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The attacks place pressure on both U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have worked closely together to contain Iran’s growing regional influence. Both nations have stressed the need for caution.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the attacks as “an act of war” against Saudi Arabia, though Trump says there are options short of war. Iran has warned that any U.S. or Saudi military strike against the country would bring “all-out war.”

(Graphics on ‘Strikes on Saudi oil disrupt global supply’ – https://tmsnrt.rs/302z0Hm)

MISSILES AND DRONES

Shortly after 3:30 a.m. local time on Saturday, 25 drones and low-flying missiles struck two of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facilities located in the east of the kingdom, according to Saudi officials.

Amin Nasser, the chief executive of state-run Saudi Aramco, which owns the two plants, rushed to Aramco’s emergency-response room at the company’s headquarters in the oil-producing Eastern Province, where he was joined by other senior managers, according to several people briefed on the matter. There was a sense of shock at the scale of the damage, some of the people said.

By the time Aramco’s team was dealing with the fires at the first site in Khurais, where more than 200 people were at the time, strikes were still hitting the facility, according to the company. More than a hundred contractors were immediately evacuated.

A Saudi Aramco spokesman declined to comment on questions from Reuters about the company and the CEO’s response to the attacks.

Saudi officials believed Iran was responsible because the intensity of the attack was beyond the capability of the Houthi, but they wanted to gather evidence before going public with the claims, according to Gulf diplomats and regional officials.

Saudi officials also spoke to their allies, in some instances requesting assistance with experts to help with the investigation and help in strengthening air defenses. On Saturday, Prince Mohammed provided Trump an update by phone, according to a U.S. official. Trump offered “his support for Saudi Arabia’s self-defense,” according to the White House readout of the call.

U.S. officials also quickly came to believe that the attack did not come from Yemen and that Iran was responsible, according to U.S. officials who briefed reporters. The Houthi had not struck that distance before or in such a “precise and coordinated fashion,” said a senior administration official.

(Graphics on ‘Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a battle for regional supremacy, fighting proxy wars’ – https://tmsnrt.rs/31rShzd)

“PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES”

By midday Saturday in Saudi Arabia, Nasser and other senior company Aramco executives were headed to the damaged plants, first to Khurais and then to Abqaiq, one of the sources briefed on the matter said.

That night, Nasser was joined at Abqaiq, the world’s biggest oil processing facility, by Prince Abdulaziz and Aramco’s new chairman Yassir al-Rumayyan, according to sources and pictures released by the state news agency.

Aramco, which runs a variety of large projects in the kingdom, deployed more than 5,000 contractors and pulled employees from other projects to work around the clock to bring production back, according to Nasser’s public comments and one of the sources briefed on the matter.

Initial assessments were that the damage was significant and that bringing full production back online could take weeks or even months, said Saudi officials and industry sources who visited the sites or were briefed on the attacks.

Saudi oil officials were scrambling to produce a report on the extent damage for the kingdom’s top leadership, including King Salman, the energy minister’s father, according two of the sources briefed on the matter. But engineers needed 48 more hours for a final assessment, the people said.

Crude markets would begin trading again in two days and Saudi Arabia was under pressure to reassure buyers that oil supplies will not be disrupted.

“Imagine if this (production) didn’t come back on time the whole global security of supply is going to be impacted,” Nasser told reporters earlier this week. “We have a lot of projects in the kingdom… so we have all of the workforce that’s needed to rebuild, reconstruct and put it back,” he said.

By Tuesday, the kingdom had managed to restore full supplies to customers by drawing oil from their massive oil inventories. The company also announced production would return sooner than expected – by the end of the month. Aramco had emerged “like a phoenix from the ashes,” said Prince Abdulaziz in remarks to news media that night in Red Sea city of Jeddah.

The news restored some confidence, prompting a fall in oil prices that had jumped on Monday.

ATTACK EVIDENCE

The Saudis continued to analyze the attack debris. That included aerial weaponry that missed their targets and was recovered just to the north, according to U.S. officials.

The United States dispatched to Saudi Arabia forensic specialists to assist in the effort; France said it was also sending investigative experts.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabian officials publicly accused Iran of involvement. At a news conference, a defense ministry official displayed drone and missile debris it said was undeniable evidence of Iranian aggression and identified the drones as Iranian Delta Wing unmanned aerial vehicles.

“The attack was launched from the north and unquestionably sponsored by Iran,” said the official, Colonel Turki al-Malki.

U.S. officials fingered southwest Iran as the staging ground, an assessment based at least in part on still-classified imagery showing Iran appearing to prepare an aerial strike, according to two U.S. officials.

On Thursday, the United States was considering sending anti-missile batteries, drones and more fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials said.

“Frankly there’s just not enough defense capability in the country, if you could be hit from multiple directions,” one U.S. official told Reuters.

It is possible the attacks were launched from more than one location, a Western security source said. “The exact launch location is important as it determines the response and there does have to be a response,” the person said.

On Friday, repair work to the oil plants was ongoing. At the Khurais facility, parts of the facility were visibly burnt and pipes melted. During a tour of the site organized by the company, Fahad Abdulkarim, general manager for Aramco’s southern area oil operations, told reporters that the company is shipping equipment from the United States and Europe to help repair the damage.

(Marwa Washad reporting from Jeddah. Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Guy Faulconbridge in London, and Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland and Phil Stewart in Washington.; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low and Jason Szep)

Trump orders more Iran curbs, Saudi shows attack evidence

By Stephen Kalin and Parisa Hafezi

JEDDAH/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he ordered a major increase in sanctions on Iran as Saudi Arabia displayed remnants of drones and missiles it said Tehran used in a crippling weekend attack on its oil facilities.

Trump gave no explanation in a brief Twitter posting announcing the order, but the initiative follows repeated U.S. assertions that the Islamic Republic was behind Saturday’s attack on the kingdom, a close U.S. ally.

“I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase sanctions on the country of Iran!,” he wrote.

Iran, however, again denied involvement in the Sept. 14 raids, which hit the world’s biggest crude processing facility and initially knocked out half of Saudi production.

“They want to impose maximum … pressure on Iran through slander,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said.

“We don’t want conflict in the region … Who started the conflict?” he added, blaming Washington and its Gulf allies for the war in Yemen.

Yemen’s Houthi movement, an ally of Iran battling a Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition for more than four years, has claimed responsibility and said it used drones to assault state oil company Aramco’s sites.

However, the Saudi Defense Ministry held a news conference, displaying drone and missile debris it said was “undeniable” evidence of Iranian aggression. A total of 25 drones and missiles were used in the attacks launched from Iran not Yemen, the ministry spokesman added.

Saturday’s attack exposed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and threw down a gauntlet to the United States, which wants to curb Tehran’s influence in the region.

Proof of Iranian responsibility could pressure Riyadh and Washington into a response, though both nations were stressing the need for caution.

Trump has said he does not want war and is coordinating with Gulf and European states.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the hit on the world’s biggest crude exporter was a “real test of the global will” to confront subversion of the international order.

His envoy to London, Prince Khalid bin Bander, told the BBC the attack was “almost certainly” Iranian-backed, however: “We’re trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region.”

“COMPELLING EVIDENCE”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to meet Prince Mohammed in Jeddah on Wednesday to discuss the crisis before heading to the United Arab Emirates.

U.N. officials monitoring sanctions on Iran and Yemen were also heading to Saudi Arabia to investigate.

France, which is trying to salvage an international nuclear deal with Iran that Washington quit last year, said it wanted to establish the facts before reacting.

A U.S. official told Reuters the strikes originated in southwestern Iran. Three officials said they involved cruise missiles and drones, indicating a higher degree of complexity and sophistication than initially thought.

The officials did not provide evidence or explain what U.S. intelligence they were using for evaluating the attack, which cut 5% of global production.

Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday the 5.7 million barrels per day of output lost would be fully restored by the end of the month.

Oil prices fell after the Saudi reassurances, having surged more than 20% at one point on Monday – the biggest intra-day jump since the 1990-91 Gulf War. [O/R]

Saudi Arabia’s finance minister told Reuters on Wednesday the attack had no impact on revenues and Aramco was continuing to supply markets without interruption.

U.S. efforts to bring about a U.N. Security Council response look unlikely to succeed as Russia and China have veto powers and are expected to shield Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has offered to sell Riyadh defense systems, called for a “thorough and impartial” probe during a phone call with Prince Mohammed.

The assault exposed serious gaps in Saudi air defense despite billions of dollars spent on Western military hardware and repeated attacks on vital assets during its four-and-a-half year foray into the Yemen war.

“The attack is like Sept. 11th for Saudi Arabia, it is a game changer,” said one Saudi security analyst.

IRAN-U.S. CONFLICT

Already frayed U.S.-Iran ties deteriorated further when Trump quit the nuclear pact and reimposed sanctions, severely hurting the Iranian economy. Iran has ruled out talks with Washington unless it returns to the pact.

Trump said he is not looking to meet Rouhani during a U.N. event in New York this month. Rouhani and his foreign minister may not attend the General Assembly at all unless U.S. visas are issued in the coming hours, state media reported Wednesday.

Washington and its Gulf allies want Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite years of air strikes against them, the Houthi movement boasts drones and missiles able to reach deep into Saudi Arabia, the result of an arms race since the Western-backed coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015.

Iran’s clerical rulers support the Houthis, who ousted Yemen’s internationally recognized government from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014. But Tehran denies it actively supports them with military and financial support.

Iran maintains the largest ballistic and cruise missile capabilities in the Middle East that could overwhelm virtually any Saudi missile defense system, according to think-tank CSIS, given the geographic proximity of Tehran and its proxy forces.

But even more limited strikes have proved too much for Saudi Arabia, including recent ones claimed by the Houthis on a civilian airport, oil pumping stations and the Shaybah oilfield.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Michelle Nichols in New York, Rania El Gamal, Davide Barbuscia and Marwa Rashad in Riyadh, Asma Alsharif and Sylvia Westall in Dubai, Alaa Swilam and Hisham El Saba in Cairo, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Tim Kelly in Tokyo, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and William Maclean)

Iran’s Khamenei rejects talks with United States

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will never hold one-on-one talks with the United States but could engage in multilateral discussions if it returns to the 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear program, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday, according to state television.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he could meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, possibly at the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month.

“Iranian officials, at any level, will never talk to American officials … this is part of their policy to put pressure on Iran … their policy of maximum pressure will fail,” state television quoted Khamenei as saying.

Khamenei said Iran’s clerical rulers were in agreement on this: “All officials in Iran unanimously believe it.

“If America changes its behavior and returns to (Iran’s 2015) nuclear deal, then it can join multilateral talks between Iran and other parties to the deal,” Khamenei said.

Trump has stepped up sanctions against Iran since last year when he withdrew from the nuclear pact between Iran and six world powers and reimposed sanctions that were lifted under the deal in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program.

In retaliation for the U.S. “maximum pressure” policy, Iran has gradually scaled back its commitments to the pact and plans to further breach it if the European parties fail to keep their promises to shield Iran’s economy from U.S. penalties.

“If we yield to their pressure and hold talks with Americans … This will show that their maximum pressure on Iran has succeeded. They should know that this policy has no value for us,” said Khamenei, who has the last say on all state matters.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have spiked following a weekend attack on major oil sites in Saudi Arabia that sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a new Middle East conflict.

Trump said on Monday it looked like Iran was behind the attacks but stressed he did not want to go to war. Iran has denied any involvement.

Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, said the attacks were carried out with Iranian weapons and it was capable of responding forcefully.

Saudi Arabia urged U.N. experts to help investigate the raid.

(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Robert Birsel)

Saudi oil output to recover in two or three weeks after attack: sources

A satellite image showing damage to oil/gas Saudi Aramco infrastructure at Abqaiq, in Saudi Arabia in this handout picture released by the U.S Government September 15, 2019. U.S. Government/DigitalGlobe/Handout via REUTERS

By Alex Lawler and Parisa Hafezi

LONDON/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia sought to calm markets on Tuesday after an attack on its oil facilities, with sources in the kingdom saying output was recovering much more quickly than initially forecast and could be fully back in two or three weeks.

International oil companies, fellow members of the OPEC oil cartel and global energy policymakers had heard no updates on the impact of the weekend attack from the Saudis for 48 hours, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

And on Monday, sources briefed on state oil giant Aramco’s operations had said it could take months for output to recover.

The attack knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, or 5% of global output, sending prices soaring when trading resumed on Monday. So the new prediction of a quick return to normal output sent prices down sharply on Tuesday.

The kingdom is close to restoring 70% of the 5.7 million barrels per day lost due to the attack, a top Saudi official said, adding that Aramco’s output would be fully back online in the next two to three weeks.

The Saudi energy minister will hold a news conference on Tuesday at 1715 GMT, giving what would be the first official update since Aramco announced on Sunday that attacks on its plants in Abqaiq and Khurais had knocked out 5.7 million barrels per day.

While the Houthi group, which is fighting a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Iran. That accusation prompted Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday to rule out talks with Washington.

NUCLEAR ACCORD

Trump said on Monday that it looked like Iran was behind the strike at the heart of the Saudi oil industry, but stressed he did not want to go to war. Iran denied it was to blame.

“Iranian officials, at any level, will never talk to American officials … this is part of their policy to put pressure on Iran,” Iranian state TV quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying.

He said talks could only take place if the United States returned to a nuclear accord between Iran and the West that Trump abandoned last year.

U.S.-Iran relations deteriorated after Trump quit the accord and reimposed sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic programs. He also wants Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including the Houthis.

But a day after warning that the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to the incident, Trump dialed down his rhetoric, saying on Monday there was “no rush” to do so and that Washington was coordinating with Gulf Arab and European states.

“I’m not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this.”

Britain and Germany agreed they needed to work with international partners to form a collective response and de-escalate tensions as efforts continued to establish exactly what happened, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Iran nuclear pact, which European parties are trying to salvage, is one building block “we need to get back to”.

Saudi Arabia, which has supported tougher U.S. sanctions on Iran, said an initial investigation showed the strikes were carried out with Iranian weapons.

INVESTIGATION

Riyadh asked international experts to join its investigation, which indicates the attack did not come from Yemen, the foreign ministry said. U.S. officials say they believe it came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Yemenis had launched the strikes in retaliation for attacks by a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthis for four years. Riyadh says Tehran arms the group, which has fired missiles and drones on Saudi cities, a charge both deny.

King Salman, heading a cabinet meeting on Monday, said Riyadh would handle the consequences of “cowardly attacks” that target vital Saudi installations, world crude supplies and global economic stability. The cabinet urged the world to confront those threats “regardless of their origin”.

The assault damaged the world’s biggest crude oil processing plant, triggering the largest jump in oil prices in decades. It was the worst such attack on regional oil facilities since Saddam Hussein torched Kuwait’s oil wells during the 1990-91 Gulf war.

However, dollar-denominated bonds issued by the Saudi government and Aramco rebounded on Tuesday, in a sign investors’ concern may be abating.

Trump said he was sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia soon, but he had not made any commitments to protect the Saudis. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.”

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Reuters teams in London, Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo, Berlin, Paris, Singapore and New Delhi; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Cawthorne)

Trump says he does not want war after attack on Saudi oil facilities

By Steve Holland and Rania El Gamal

WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday it looked like Iran was behind attacks on oil plants in Saudi Arabia but stressed he did not want to go to war, as the attacks sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a new Middle East conflict.

Iran has rejected U.S. charges it was behind the strikes on Saturday that damaged the world’s biggest crude-processing plant and triggered the largest jump in crude prices in decades.

Relations between the United States and Iran have deteriorated since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord last year and reimposed sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic programs. Washington also wants to pressure Tehran to end its support of regional proxy forces, including in Yemen where Saudi forces have been fighting Iran-backed Houthis for four years.

The United States was still investigating if Iran was behind the Saudi strikes, Trump said, but “it’s certainly looking that way at this moment”.

Trump, who has spent much of his presidency trying to disentangle the United States from wars he inherited, made clear, however, he was not going to rush into a new conflict on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

“I’m somebody that would like not to have war,” Trump said.

Several U.S. Cabinet members, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, have blamed Tehran for the strikes. Pompeo and others will travel to Saudi Arabia soon, Trump said.

A day after saying the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to the incident, Trump said on Monday there was “no rush” to do so.

“We have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this,” he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the strikes were carried out by “Yemeni people” retaliating for attacks by a Saudi-led military coalition in a war with the Houthi movement.

“Yemeni people are exercising their legitimate right of defense,” Rouhani told reporters during a visit to Ankara.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called the allegations “unacceptable and entirely baseless.”

The attacks cut 5% of world crude oil production.

Oil prices surged by as much as 19% after the incidents, the biggest intraday jump since the 1990-91 Gulf crisis over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Prices retreated from their peak after Trump said he would release U.S. emergency supplies and producers said there were enough stocks globally to make up for the shortfall.

Japan said it will consider coordinated release of its oil reserves and other measures if needed to ensure sufficient supplies in the wake of the attacks.

Crude prices were down around 1% in Asian trade on Tuesday.

“The question is how long it takes for the supply to get back online,” said Esty Dwek, head of global market strategy at Natixis Investment Managers.

“However, the (geopolitical) risk premium … which has been basically ignored by markets in favor of growth worries in recent months, is likely to be priced in going forward,” she said.

SAUDI SUSPICIONS

Saudi Arabia said the attacks were carried out with Iranian weapons and urged U.N. experts to help investigate the raid.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Iranian threats were not only directed against the kingdom but against the Middle East and the world.

While the prince did not directly accuse Tehran, a Foreign Ministry statement reported him as calling on the international community to condemn whoever was behind the strike.

“The kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks,” the statement added.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies for decades and are fighting a number of proxy wars.

Trump said he had not made commitments to protect the Saudis.

“No, I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out,” he said. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.”

Two sources briefed on state oil company Saudi Aramco’s operations told Reuters it might take months for Saudi oil production to return to normal. Earlier estimates had suggested it could take weeks.

Saudi Arabia said it would be able to meet oil customers’ demand from its ample storage, although some deliveries had been disrupted. At least 11 supertankers were waiting to load oil cargoes from Saudi ports, ship tracking data showed on Monday.

RISING TENSIONS

Tension in the oil-producing Gulf region has dramatically escalated this year after Trump imposed severe U.S. sanctions on Iran aimed at halting its oil exports altogether.

For months, Iranian officials have issued veiled threats, saying that if Tehran is blocked from exporting oil, other countries will not be able to do so either. But Iran has denied a role in specific attacks, including bombings of tankers in the Gulf and previous strikes claimed by the Houthis.

Trump has said the goal from his “maximum pressure” approach is to force Iran to negotiate a tougher agreement and has left open the possibility of talks with Rouhani at an upcoming U.N. meeting. Iran says there can be no talks until Washington lifts sanctions.

U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council on Monday it was “not entirely clear” who was behind the strike but he said it had increased the chances of a regional conflict.

But the U.S. ambassador to the world body, Kelly Craft, said emerging information on the attacks “indicates that responsibility lies with Iran” and there is no evidence it came from Yemen.

Iran’s Yemeni allies have promised more strikes to come. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said the group carried out Saturday’s predawn attack with drones, including some powered by jet engines.

“We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” Sarea tweeted. “We warn companies and foreigners against being near the plants that we struck because they are still in our sights.”

U.S. officials say they believe the attacks came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran itself rather than Yemen, and may have involved cruise missiles. Wherever the attacks were launched, however, they believe Iran is to blame.

The attacks have raised questions about how Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top spenders on weaponry, much of it supplied by U.S. companies, was unable to protect oil plants from attack.

Sensing a commercial opening, President Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready to help Saudi Arabia by providing Russian-made air defense systems to protect Saudi infrastructure.

Russia and China said it was wrong to jump to conclusions about who was to blame for the attack on Saudi Arabia.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; Writing by William Maclean, Mike Collett-White and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alistair Bell, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. lawmakers blast Iran, wary of war, after Saudi oil attack

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Members of the U.S. Congress blasted Iran after the attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, but expressed wariness about U.S. military action, especially before they have a clearer picture of who was behind it.

President Donald Trump said the United States was “locked and loaded” to hit back after Saturday’s attack, which knocked out more than half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production and damaged the world’s biggest crude processing plant.

Iran denied U.S. accusations it was to blame and said it was ready for “full-fledged war.”

U.S. lawmakers, especially Trump’s fellow Republicans, were quick to blame Tehran.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican majority leader, called it “a brazen attack” with significant implications for the global energy market and said he welcomed Trump’s preparation to potentially release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to stabilize markets if necessary.

“I hope our international partners will join us in imposing consequences on Iran for this reckless destabilizing attack,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate.

Many lawmakers stressed that Congress, not the president, has the right to declare war and warned against any quick military action.

Congress, with backing from both Republicans and Democrats, has passed – but Trump has vetoed – four bills seeking to push back against Trump’s strong support for the Saudi government, despite its human rights record and steep civilian casualties in the war in Yemen.

Senate aides said the administration was expected to begin providing classified briefings on Saturday’s attack for congressional staff and members as soon as Monday.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that the United States has long been wary of getting involved in conflicts between nations in the Middle East. He noted that Washington does not have a defense treaty with Riyadh.

“Why should the United States get dragged into a conflict that has more to do with Saudi and Iranian power in the Middle East than American power?” Murphy, a critic of Saudi Arabia on rights issues including its role in the Yemen war, told Reuters.

Senator Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the foreign relations panel, warned of U.S. retaliation in case of an attack on U.S. troops.

“Iran should not underestimate the United States’ resolve,” he said. “Any attack against U.S. forces deployed abroad must be met with an overwhelming response – no targets are off the table.”

Republican Senator Rand Paul, another foreign relations committee member, said on CNN that any attack on Iran would constitute a “needless escalation” of war.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Biggest oil price surge since 1991 as ‘locked and loaded’ U.S. points finger at Iran for attack

By Rania El Gamal and Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – An attack on Saudi Arabia that shut 5% of global crude output triggered the biggest surge in oil prices since 1991, after U.S. officials blamed Iran and President Donald Trump said Washington was “locked and loaded” to retaliate.

The Iran-aligned Houthi movement that controls Yemen’s capital claimed responsibility for the attack, which damaged the world’s biggest crude oil processing plant. Iran denied blame and said it was ready for “full-fledged war”.

Two sources briefed on state oil company Saudi Aramco’s operations told Reuters it might take months for Saudi oil production to return to normal. Earlier estimates had suggested it could take weeks.

Oil prices surged by as much as 19% before coming off peaks. The intraday jump was the biggest since the 1991 Gulf War. [O/R]

Prices eased after Trump announced that he would release U.S. emergency supplies and producers said there were enough stocks stored up worldwide to make up for the shortfall. But traders still spoke of a long-term price increase as markets absorb the proof that global supply can be so sharply hit.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump said on Twitter on Sunday.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry pinned the blame squarely on Iran for “an attack on the global economy and the global energy market”.

“The United States wholeheartedly condemns Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia and we call on other nations to do the same,” he said in a speech to an annual meeting in Vienna of the U.N. nuclear watchdog IAEA. He added that he was confident the oil market “is resilient and will respond positively”.

While Iran has denied blame for the attacks, its Yemeni allies have promised more strikes to come. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said the group carried out Saturday’s pre-dawn attack with drones, including some powered by jet engines.

“We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” Sarea tweeted. “We warn companies and foreigners against being near the plants that we struck because they are still in our sights and could be hit at any moment.”

U.S. officials say they believe that the attacks came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran itself rather than Yemen, and may have involved cruise missiles. Wherever the attacks were launched, however, they believe Iran is to blame.

“There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate,” a U.S. official said on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies for decades and are fighting a number of proxy wars, including in Yemen where Saudi forces have been fighting against the Houthis for four years.

Tension in the oil-producing Gulf region has dramatically escalated this year after Trump imposed severe U.S. sanctions on Iran aimed at halting its oil exports altogether.

THREATS

For months Iranian officials have issued veiled threats, saying that if Tehran is blocked from exporting oil, other countries will not be able to do so either. However, Iran has denied a role in specific attacks, including bombings of tankers in the Gulf and previous strikes claimed by the Houthis.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called the U.S. accusations of Iranian involvement in Saturday’s attacks “unacceptable and entirely baseless”.

Iran said on Monday it had seized a vessel accused of smuggling diesel fuel to the United Arab Emirates. Tehran has long fought against smuggling of its subsidized fuel.

Russia and China said it was wrong to jump to conclusions about who was to blame for the attack on Saudi Arabia.

“Proposals on tough retaliatory actions, which appear to have been discussed in Washington, are even more unacceptable,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Britain – Washington’s close ally but wary of its hardline Iran policy – stopped short of ascribing blame but described the assault as a “wanton violation of international law”.

Washington has imposed its “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran since last year when Trump pulled out of an international deal that gave Tehran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

U.S. allies in Europe oppose Trump’s strategy, arguing that it provides no clear mechanism to defuse tensions, creating a risk that the foes could stumble into war.

Trump has said his goal is to force Iran to negotiate a tougher agreement and has left open the possibility of talks with President Hassan Rouhani at an upcoming U.N. meeting. Iran says there can be no talks until Washington lifts sanctions. Its foreign ministry said on Monday Rouhani would not meet Trump.

Officials in big energy-exporting countries were eager to assert that global markets could cope with the Saudi outage.

“We have spare capacity. There are volumes we can deal with as an instant reaction,” the energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, Suhail al-Mazrouei, told reporters in Abu Dhabi.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters there was enough oil in commercial stockpiles to cover the shortfall.

The giant Saudi plant that was struck cleans crude oil of impurities, a necessary step before it can be exported and fed into refineries. The attack cut Saudi output by 5.7 million barrels a day, or around half.

Saudi Arabia is not only the world’s biggest oil exporter, it has a unique role in the market as the only country with enough spare capacity to increase or decrease its output by millions of barrels per day, keeping the market stable.

Big countries such as the United States and China have reserves designed to handle even a major outage over the short term. But a long outage would make markets subject to swings that could potentially destabilize the global economy.

(Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous, Rania El Gamal, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Asma El Sharif, Saed Azhar Hadeel Al Sayegh and Dubai bureau, Karin Strohecker and Dmitry Zhdannikov in London, Michael Martina in Beijing, Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Saudi Arabia implements end to travel restrictions for Saudi women: agency

A Saudi woman walks with her luggage as she arrives at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has begun allowing adult women to travel without permission and to exercise more control over family matters, state news agency SPA reported on Tuesday, following a flurry of royal decrees approving the changes.

Riyadh has long faced international criticism over the status of Saudi women. Rights groups say women are often treated as second-class citizens under rules requiring them to get the consent of a male guardian for important decisions throughout their entire lives, regardless of age.

The authorities have steadily chipped away at those restrictions in recent years, including ending a ban on women driving cars last year. A series of royal decrees published earlier this month further eroded that system as the kingdom comes under increased scrutiny over its human rights record.

The regulatory changes stipulated that a Saudi passport should be issued to any citizen who applies for it and that any person above the age of 21 does not need permission to travel.

They also granted women for the first time the right to register childbirth, marriage or divorce and to be issued official family documents and be eligible as a guardian to children who are minors.

“The passports and civil status departments and their branches in all regions of the kingdom have started to implement the amendments stipulated in the royal decree,” the SPA report said, citing an interior ministry source.

A Saudi newspaper reported that more than 1,000 women in the country’s Eastern Province had left Saudi Arabia on Monday without their guardian’s permission, in what appeared to be an early implementation of the new rules.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Muslim pilgrims descend on Mecca for haj, Saudis warn against politics

Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual Haj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Ahmad Elhamy

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of white-clad pilgrims, many gripping umbrellas to ward off Saudi Arabia’s blistering summer sun, descended on Mecca this week ahead of the annual haj.

Saudi officials asked Muslims to focus on rituals of worship, warning against politicizing the rite as wars rage on in the region and at a time of heightened tensions between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim adversary Iran.

“Haj…is not a place for political conflicts or to raise sectarian slogans that divide Muslims,” Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, told reporters.

Mecca Governor Prince Khalid al-Faisal asked worshippers earlier this week to “leave all other matters in your countries to discuss when you are back”.

Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites and organizing a peaceful haj, which has been marred in the past by deadly stampedes, fires and riots.

Authorities said more than 1.8 million pilgrims had so far arrived in the kingdom for the world’s largest annual Muslim gathering, which retraces the route the Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.

Outside the Grand Mosque, the world’s largest, temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius as industrial fans sprayed water.

“All of this is for the sake of the haj,” 43-year-old Fatima Sayed from Giza, Egypt, said of the searing heat. “We applied twice before but God didn’t permit it, and, thank God, it was a very big surprise that He ordained it for me this year.”

Every able-bodied Muslim who has the means should perform the haj at least once in their lifetime under a quota system.

Saudi Arabia has made use of technology to manage the flow of millions at the same place at the same time. This includes electronic identification bracelets, connected to GPS, that were introduced after a 2015 crush killed hundreds of people.

A new highspeed railway linking Mecca and Medina, Islam’s second most sacred site, is being used during the haj season for the first time after its inauguration last September.

The pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil. The haj and the umrah, the year-round lesser pilgrimage, generate billions of dollars in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, fees and gifts.

Amjad Khan, a pharmacist from Manchester in Britain, said the new measures made the pilgrimage a smoother experience.

“Here in the company of our brothers from all over the world, it’s a very good feeling,” Khan, 36, said.

(Reporting by Ahmad Elhamy; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Saudi Arabia and Russia among 37 states backing China’s Xinjiang policy

FILE PHOTO: People hold signs protesting China's treatment of the Uighur people, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia, Russia and 35 other states have written to the United Nations supporting China’s policies in its western region of Xinjiang, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters on Friday, in contrast to strong Western criticism.

China has been accused of detaining a million Muslims and persecuting ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, and 22 ambassadors signed a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council this week criticizing its policies.

But the letter supporting China commended what it called China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.

“Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers,” the letter said.

The letter said security had returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there had been safeguarded. It added there had been no terrorist attack there for three years and people enjoyed a stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment and security.

As well as Saudi Arabia and Russia, the letter was signed by ambassadors from many African countries, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, Myanmar, the Philippines, Syria, Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Beijing has denied any human rights violations in the region and Chinese Ambassador Xu Chen, speaking at the close of the Council’s three-week session on Friday, said China highly appreciated the support it had received from the signatories.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Frances Kerry)