The blast damaged cars and nearby buildings. No one has claimed responsibility yet, but the Bahraini government described the incident as an “intentional act of sabotage,” blaming terrorists acting under instruction from Iran.
However, Iran has denied any involvement.
Bahrain’s oil reserves are very small. The pipeline affected runs from the Saudi offshore Abu Safa oil field, en route across the Saudi mainland. The revenues from the field’s production help subsidize Bahrain’s budget. On the east coast of the island, at Bahrain’s refinery at Sitra, the crude is refined.
“It is more likely than not that Iran chose [the attack] as a plausibly deniable response to Saudi Arabia’s perceived recent escalation against Iranian influence in Lebanon,” an oil industry publication suggested.
The pipeline runs exposed on the surface rather than being underground at Buri, a Shia town where the explosion occurred. According to a map on the website of the U.S. embassy in the capital, Manama, Buri is off-limits to U.S. diplomatic and naval personnel based on the island.
Simon Henderson, the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute, says in an article, “Tension between the island’s Shia Muslim majority and the government, dominated by the Sunni Muslim royal family, led by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has often led to violent clashes between pro-Iran Shia youth and security forces.”
On November 2 the US embassy is reported to have issued a warning about protest activity in the subsequent weeks that, “may include attempts to disrupt traffic, protests near economic centers, tire fires, throwing of Molotov cocktails, and the isolated use of improvised explosive devices and homemade weapons targeting [Ministry of Interior] police. There remains a possibility for clashes to take place between police forces and the protesters.”
After a Bahraini cabinet meeting on November 13th, a statement was issued that linked the explosion to “Iranian meddling in the region,” including a reference to the ballistic missile fired ten days earlier from Yemen toward the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It said “terrorist elements involved” would be “confronted firmly and severely by the force of law.”
According to Henderson, the Bahraini authorities “need to respond to this incident while not causing demonstrations that could disrupt forthcoming international events being hosted on the island…”
These events include the stay of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is due to speak there on Gulf policy. Henderson adds, “Washington wants to deflect any attention away from the status of the Fifth Fleet headquarters. Over the years, the base, a crucial component in deterring Iranian naval aggression, has not been a political issue in government-Shia tensions, except in the case of extremists who call for its closure.”
The Gulf region is the most important source of oil for the world economy, and Henderson says, “all oil and gas installations are vulnerable to sabotage and particularly military attack.”
Thus, the Bahrain pipeline incident should serve as a wakeup call.