Gulf enemies ‘on the brink of Armageddon’

Threats: Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia (left) faces Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran.

Is this the spark that could ignite war? A devastating, night, missile raid by one of the rivals in a Muslim “civil war”. The USA on one side. Russia on the other. At risk: the global economy.

The 25 drones and cruise missiles came in low across the desert after 3am, sneaking through Saudi Arabia’s expensive, US-sourced Patriot defence systems, which were geared for ballistic missiles and aircraft.

A massive series of explosions at the huge oil processing plant sent flames up to thirty feet into the air; gunfire was aimed at what seemed to be a drone in the sky. Abqaiq’s residents fled with their families into the surrounding desert.

The events in this obscure town rocked world oil prices, and dramatically raised the stakes in the ongoing tensions between the US and Iran.

The crisis sparked by the attacks is being dangerously inflamed by angry rhetoric. Donald Trump’s knee-jerk reaction was to tell the Iranians the US was “locked and loaded”. So, the region braced for a US retaliatory strike.

Washington pulled back, restrained by a nervous Saudi Arabia. Instead, it is sending a small detachment of what are essentially military technicians to bolster Saudi Arabia’s blatantly inadequate air and missile defences.

The move is defensive, and may not even be enough to prevent another “swarm” attack of explosive drones. Yet Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guards are interpreting it as an aggressive, almost invasive, act.

Iran threatened to pursue and destroy any aggressor, and says war may be unavoidable in the wake of drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oilfields and a US troop build-up in the Gulf.

Yesterday, the Iranian foreign minister told American television network CBS that he was not confident that war could be avoided, while again denying Iranian involvement in the attacks on Saudi Arabia.

“What the attack demonstrated was how vulnerable Saudi is,” said Dennis Horak, a former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “Iran has the capability to do significant damage.”

He linked it to Trump’s sanctions on Iran: “A lot of it is messaging to the US, saying we have the capability to do some damage. If our economy is thrown into the gutter, we have the ability to do that with the Saudi economy and that will have a global impact. It’s brinkmanship, a game of chicken. They’re betting the Americans won’t attack them.”

Is this the spark that could ignite war?

Tinder box

“Armageddon could be unleashed on the Middle East,” says Michael Burleigh, chair of history and global affairs at the London School of Economics. The civil war between the two branches of Islam has taken another turn. This is a deliberate challenge to Saudi that demands a response in the knowledge that further damage will ensue. The line-up is clearly Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and probably Turkey on one side and Saudi, USA, Israel, most Sunni states and probably Egypt on the other.

The situation is dangerous but it will be calmed down, say others. None of the players actually wants a war. The signs are hopeful. Last night, Saudi Arabia was ruling out unilateral retaliation, and pressing the international community to act as one against Iran in response. Diplomats and analysts say it hopes the United Nations’s general assembly this week in New York will provide an opportunity to smooth ruffled feathers and revive peace talks.

You Decide

  1. Do all wars have their roots in religion, even today?
  2. Is Donald Trump a peace-maker or a war-monger?


  1. Using the Expert Link to Michael Burleigh’s article, draw a map of the Arabian Gulf marking as many military installations and oil wells as you can.
  2. Using the Expert Link to the BBC explainer, write a short history of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and how its foundations lie in the split between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.

Some People Say...

“Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free. Oil is a resource that anaesthetises thought, blurs vision, corrupts.”

Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), Polish poet and author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
How the USA reacted to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. “Thirty years ago, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and was surely thinking about rolling his tanks into Saudi, what did we do? We created the most powerful coalition on the planet to go and check the aggressor,” said Bilal Saab, an analyst with the Middle East Institute and a former senior official in the US defence department.
What do we not know?
Just how different the mood is today. “The easiest thing I could do is knock out 15 different major things in Iran,” Donald Trump said. “But I think the strong-person approach […] would be showing a little bit of restraint.”

Word Watch

The MIM-104 Patriot is a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, the best of its kind. It is used by the US army and several allied nations.
Abqaiq is the Saudi kingdom’s largest oil processing hub, each day converting 5.7 million barrels of crude oil into differently graded products. These are then delivered by pipeline to petrochemical plants or tankers on the Saudi coast destined for the West.
An official order, such as the stopping of trade, that is taken against a country in order to make it obey international law.

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