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Oil fires suggest secret war between Iran and Saudi Arabia

An undeclared war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is intensifying. A recent rocket attack on Saudi Arabia and a series of unexplained oil refinery fires indicate an escalating secret war between the Saudi kingdom and Iran, experts say.

Saudi officials who spoke to the American Media Institute in Riyadh blamed Iran for these recent attacks.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran brought a radical Shia region to power in Tehran.  For its part, Saudi Arabia has styled itself the guardian of the world's Sunni Muslims. Since that time Saudi Arabia and Iran have been rivals for influence and prestige across the Middle East.

The "Arab Spring" revolts of 2011 failed to bring democracy to much of the Middle East, but they did succeed in adding new fronts in the Saudi-Iranian confrontation. While Iran and Saudi Arabia have long supported rival factions in Lebanon, new fronts have emerged closer to home.

Saudi Arabia and Iran now back rival factions in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2014 to stop Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from seizing control of the country.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi Shia religious leader, last January sparked numerous protests amongst Saudi's Shia population. The execution also led to a break in diplomatic ties between the two states. Al-Nimr had called for the secession of Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province from the kingdom. The majority of Iran's population is Shia Muslims and the Iranian government is sympathetic to the Saudi Shia who make up 10% of Saudi Arabia's population.

The Saudi government claims that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a missile at the town of Najan along the Saudi-Yemen border last week. The missile was shot down by undisclosed assets before reaching its target.

The Saudi kingdom also has suffered three oil refinery fires this year, as tensions increase between the two strongest Islamic powers in the region.

“The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is at an all-time high,” said Geneive Abdo, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council and author of a forthcoming book on sectarian tensions in the Middle East. "Saudi Arabia believes that Shia Muslims and Iran, in particular, are on the rise in the Middle East."

Some 90% of the Saudi population are Sunni Muslims with the rest being Shia Muslims.

Currently, the U.S. imports roughly 11 percent of its oil imports from Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

While the most recent rocket attack was intercepted, Iran’s PressTV has claimed that Houthi missiles hit a Saudi oil facility near Najan earlier this year. Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, has denied that the missile attacks resulted in any substantial damage. Iranian-made-rocket attacks elsewhere in Najan claimed nine lives.

Some observers believe Iran may also be behind the three major, mysterious refinery fires that have killed more than a dozen people since the start of this year.

“It’s highly suspicious that all these refineries happened in such a short period, since the number one goal of a refinery is not to have an explosion which will only damage output,” a senior member of a French oil company told American Media Institute on condition of anonymity.

The most recent fire occurred at a refinery in Wasia, near Riyadh, in October. That fire claimed two lives. Saudi Aramco’s largest refinery caught fire in September, injuring eight and causing a full evacuation. A fire at Saudi petrochemical in Jubail killed 12 workers and injured a further 11 in April. A bus of Aramco workers near the coastal community of Qatif was stopped by rioters and set ablaze in January according to the Saudi Gazette.

“These fires have been unfortunate for Saudi Aramco since we plan to have an initial public offering of company stock in the next few months," Hamed Shahab, a Saudi Aramco engineer, said in an interview with the American Media Institute in Riyadh. "Look, I don’t think the Wasia fire was sabotage. Because of its location, that one was likely an accident.”

Shahab would not rule out Iranian sabotage as a cause of refinery fires elsewhere in the kingdom.

Two of the recent fires and the attack on the Aramco bus have all taken place in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, which is home to a large Shia population. 

“It is clear that Iranians in have been involved in covert operations in Saudi Arabia over many years and it is not implausible that they have been involved in some of these recent incidents as Iran tries to expand its role in the Arab world," said Sherine Abdo.