August 27, 2007, 1:10 PM (GMT+02:00)
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen have launched the vast Trans-Arabia Oil Pipeline project with encouragement from Washington, DEBKA-Net Weekly 313 revealed on Aug. 10, 2007. By crisscrossing Arabia overland, the net of oil pipelines will bypass the Straits of Hormuz at the throat of the Persian Gulf and so remove Gulf oil routes from the lurking threat of Iranian closure.
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The 35,000-strong new Saudi security force, disclosed this week, will protect the new project, together with the oil installations of the world’s biggest oil exporter, from attack by such enemies as al Qaeda or Iran. The first 5,000 recruits are already in training, as plans advance to start laying the first section of the new pipeline system in November, 2007.
Because of the sensitivity of their mission, Saudi security experts assisted by American advisers are thoroughly screening each recruit about his family, tribal and past associations to weed out religious extremists. DEBKAfile adds that the new oil security force will be the third largest in Saudi Arabia, after the armed forces and the National Guard.
The first Trans-Arabia pipeline will carry 5 million barrels of oil a day, almost one third of the 17 million barrels produced by Gulf emirates. The crude will be pumped through pipes running from the world’s biggest oil terminal owned by Saudi Aramco at Ras Tannura, south to S. Yemen’s oil port of Mukallah and west to the Red Sea port and industrial town of Yanbu north of Jeddah.
The $6 billion investment in the first stage will come from the participating governments within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council – GCC.
Rising regional tensions and the vulnerability of the Straits of Hormuz, the only maritime outlet for Gulf oil, to hostile blockade has galvanized the partners into urgent action to get the project up and running.
The Straits of Hormuz are a chokepoint in every sense.
Only 37 km wide, they consist of two lanes able to accommodate oi tankers entering and exiting Gulf ports. Every 24 hours, an average 30 vessels transit the straits loaded with roughly one-quarter of the world’s oil consumption.
This volume varies according to weather conditions, currents and whether it is day or night. The traffic during the navigable hours tends to be heavy, no more than 6 minutes between each vessel. Even if the US Navy and Air Force deployed in the Persian Gulf succeed in keeping the Straits of Hormuz open to shipping in an emergency situation, their very presence must slow the traffic down. The flow could be reduced to about half its regular capacity.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources report that the Trans-Arabia Oil Pipeline project’s second stage for rerouting South Iraqi oil will start in early 2009 without waiting for the first to be completed
Consisting of about 60% of Iraq’s oil product, the oil from the Basra terminal will be diverted from the Shatt al-Arb outlet to the Persian Gulf, which Iraq shares with Iran, and flow into pipes crossing the Iraqi Desert directly into Saudi Arabia – according to the plan.
On August 9, Tehran countered by announcing negotiations with Baghdad on a deal to build a pipeline to carry 200,000 barrels per day of southern Iraqi crude to refineries in Iran.
According to another part of the plan, Tapline will be resusciated. The story of how this pipeline fell into disuse mirrors half a century of Middle East conflict.
The Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company started operating in 1950 as the largest oil pipeline of its time, a joint venture of Standard Oil of New Jersey (Esso), Standard Oil of California (Chevron), The Texas Company (Texaco) and Socony-Vacuum Oil Company (Mobil). It transported Saudi oil from Persian Gulf fields to a Mediterranean outlet, whence it was shipped to Europe and the eastern United States.
The conflict in Palestine in 1946 caused the Tapline Company to seek alternative routes, which went through Jordan, over the Golan Heights and up to the north Lebanese port of Tripoli on the Mediterranean. The section running across Golan was discontinued after the 1967 war.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s oil sources report that Kuwait and Qatar, though members of the GCC, have opted out of the Trans-Arabia pipeline project.
The two emirates are deeply involved in building a gas pipeline network which is a higher priority for them than the transport of oil - especially Qatar which has large gas reserves but not much oil.
Southern Iraq’s oil is therefore projected to flow directly into Saudi Arabia and bypass Kuwait.
The Trans-Arabia Oil Pipeline network will consist of five main branches:
Pipeline No. 1: Work begins on this section in November. It will run 350 km from Ras Tannura on the Saudi easern coast to Al Fujairah in the United Emirates, also collecting cruide from Abu Dhabi’s Habashan oil field. Its 48-inch diameter provides a capacity of 1.5 million bpd.
Pipeline No. 2: This will link Ras Tannura to Musqat, Oman.
Pipeline No. 3: This will run southwest from Ras Tannura through Hadhramouth and onto Mukalla, on the Yemeni shore of the Gulf of Aden.
Pipeline No. 4: This pipeline will will also terminate at Mukalla, but first circle round from Ras Tannura to the UAE before turning back into Saudi Arabia and on to Yemen.
Pipeline No. 5: This line will slice across Arabia from Ras Tannura in the East due west to Yanbu on Saudi Arabia’s western coast on the Red Sea.
This route is already occupied by two older pipelines. They were laid in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war for the very same purpose as the contemporry project, namely to circumvent the Straits of Hormuz. One was built to carry Iraqi oil out to market away from the war zones of the Iranian-Iraqi frontier.
Alive to possible Iranian or al Qaeda sabotage attempts, the Trans-Arabia Pipeline partners have decided to sink large sections underground and secure the system with such obstructions as fences, earthworks, moats and roadblocks. The new oil force will man the system.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s estimates, even after the US pulls its army out of Iraq, it will retain troops for securing both the northern and southern oil fields and installations. They will be there to keep Iran at a distance, especially from the the Basra oil center.
The project also fits into the preparations underway in the Gulf oil emirates and Saudi Arabia to step up oil production by 4 million bpd to rein in skyrocketing prices before they hit $100 per barrel.
On the inter-Arab plane, Riyadh hopes Syrian Bashar Assad will appreciate the benefits accruing to his country from the pipeline across its territory - enough to draw away from his close clinch with Iran and mend his fences with Washington. The Saudis are pinning their hopes on Tapline’s resurrection helping to put Damascus-Washington relations on a new footing.