Marafiq Plant in Al Jubail

Plumbing WikiLeaks: Saudi Arabia Fears Iranian Nuclear Meltdown and Potential Terrorism to Desalination

Classified cables show that Saudi and U.S. officials believe water supplies along the Persian Gulf are at high-risk for terrorist attacks and possible contamination from nearby nuclear plants. This is the first of a new series that will analyze the water-related U.S. embassy cables published by WikiLeaks.

Marafiq Plant in Al Jubail

The Marafiq Independent Water & Power Project supplies Jubail and Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. The Jubail desalination complex, located along the Persian Gulf, supplies 90 percent of the drinking water for the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

“The location is so dangerous,” said Prince Turki Al-Kabeer, the undersecretary for multilateral affairs from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Not just to us, but to the world economy!”

Ostensibly, Prince Turki was meeting with the Netherlands ambassador, the Russian ambassador, and a political/military counselor from the American embassy to discuss an initiative against nuclear terrorism. But — according to a classified American embassy cable from 2009 that has since been published by WikiLeaks — the conversation turned to Iran’s nuclear program and the Russian-built reactor at Bushehr, a site less than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Saudi shores on Iran’s Persian Gulf coast.

Jubail Saudi Arabia Persian Gulf desalination complex riyadh marafiq independent water and power project

Click image for Google Earth aerial view of Jubail desalination complex.

Prince Turki went on to say that Russia should “use its influence” to persuade Iran to relocate the reactor to the Caspian Sea, where there would be sufficient water for cooling, and, the cable’s author makes clear, isolation from Saudi territory, if a nuclear accident were to occur.

At risk, according to both Saudi and U.S. officials, are the desalination plants supplying much of Saudi Arabia’s drinking water, and the Persian Gulf waterway that conveys a large portion of the world’s oil exports — 6.6 million barrels per day.

Plumbing the WikiLeaks: Deeper Than Just Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll
This cable, documenting a January 25, 2009, meeting in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, is just one example of the U.S. State Department’s active engagement in global water issues — be those actions public or previously classified until recent publication by WikiLeaks, a nonprofit organization that accepts leaked government and corporate documents.

The Jubail desalination complex, located along the Persian Gulf, supplies 90 percent of the drinking water for the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

When diving into the 250,000 memos that are available in the online WikiLeaks catalog, it becomes clear that the decadent lives of authoritarian leaders are not the only matters on the minds of U.S. diplomats and embassy bureaucrats.

While some of the leaked state secrets have enraged citizens and catalyzed revolutions, the documents pertaining to water, of which there are quite a few, show a U.S. leadership that is actively engaged in mitigating global water issues, pushing scientific partnerships, training technocrats in international law and policy, and assisting water negotiations.

This report is the first of a new series in which Circle of Blue will “plumb” the WikiLeaks cables related to water issues. In the coming months, topics will include:

  • Impediments to Afghanistan’s water infrastructure development — irrigation, hydropower, reliable drinking supplies — due to unsettled treaty agreements for the nation’s transboundary rivers.
  • Requests for technical expertise in developing Algeria’s water resources.
  • Intermediary roles that the U.S. plays between Bangladesh and India, particularly over an agreement to share waters of the Teesta River.
  • Coordination of monetary donations for a wastewater-treatment facility intended to clean up Lake Atitlan, one of Guatemala’s biggest tourism cash machines.
  • Requests for financial support of Jordan’s’ Red Sea Development Project, a desalination and hydropower venture.
  • Proposition by Libyan officials to purchase U.S.-built satellites to monitor desertification rates, water supplies, and the nation’s borders.
  • Growing worries of Nestle executives over a water- and food-supply crisis, along with the company’s suggestions of how to avoid this.
  • Condemnation of the Tajikistan government’s actions surrounding the controversial and increasingly corrupt Rogun Dam.
  • The plight of Bangkok, a coastal city that is slowly sinking while the sea rises, along with negative reaction to a proposed water-regulating dike across part of the Gulf of Thailand.
  • Dismissal of the nonbinding declarations touted and signed by high-level delegates to the Fifth World Water Forum, the water sector’s largest convention, which took place in Istanbul in 2009.
Prince Turki Al-Khabeer Saudi Arabia undersecretary for multi-lateral relations United Nations General Assembly desalination nuclear meltdown Persian Gulf

UN Photo by Lou Rouse

In September 2011, Prince Turki Al-Khabeer, Saudi Arabia's undersecretary for multi-lateral relations, addresses the United Nations General Assembly on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. In January 2009, Prince Turki spoke with officials from Russia, the Netherlands, and the U.S. about the catastrophe that could result from a nuclear meltdown along the Persian Gulf.

2009 WikiLeak: Nuclear Meltdown
Saudi Arabia, home to a Sunni Islam majority, and Iran, which is officially a Shiite republic, have vied for regional supremacy in the years following the American-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent ousting of Saddam Hussein. These geopolitical tensions were underscored earlier this month by the planned assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., a plot allegedly directed by a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“Riyadh would have to evacuate within a week… the current structure of the Saudi government could not exist without the Jubail Desalinization Plant.”

— Michael Gfoeller
U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia

An eerie foreshadow to the events during the spring of 2011 in Japan, the 2009 cable conveyed Prince Turki’s fears that a nuclear meltdown could have serious consequences on the Persian Gulf, as well as on global energy markets. A major disruption to shipping lanes through the gulf could trigger a calamity in the world’s oil prices, since one-third of all oil that was shipped in tankers in 2009 passed through the Strait of Hormuz, the gulf’s ocean outlet, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The domestic danger to Saudi Arabia’s water supply was equally heavy on the prince’s mind. Saudi Arabia leads the world in the volume of water it desalinates, with more than 3.3 million cubic meters (871 million gallons) per day supplying 60 percent of the drinking water for its population, according to the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC), the kingdom’s desalinated-water producer.

The desalination complex at Jubail — which supplies 90 percent of the capital city’s drinking water — is located along the Persian Gulf. So is the Ras al-Zawr plant, which will be the kingdom’s largest, producing 1 million cubic meters per day (264 million gallons), when it is completed in 2013.

A Briny Pickle: History of Saudi Desal and Conflict
Saudi Arabia turned to large-scale desalination plants four decades ago. In 1970, the first facility was built in Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea. Four years later, the SWCC was established to manage a multi-billion-dollar desalination boom, made possible by a gusher of oil money.
During the 1991 Gulf War, oil itself became the threat. While retreating from Kuwait, the Iraqi army sabotaged oil facilities, dumping up to 8 million barrels of crude into the Persian Gulf. Saudi desalination facilities deployed floating booms as barricades to keep the oil from mucking up machinery or entering the water intakes. Workers skimmed oil from the gulf’s surface waters, while technicians performed constant chemical analysis to check for contamination, according to an SWCC assessment
In the aftermath of the war, Edward Badolato, a former deputy assistant secretary for energy emergencies at the U.S. Department of Energy was interviewed by Joyce Starr for Covenant over Middle Eastern Waters, her 1995 book on water in the Middle East. Badolato told Starr that the U.S. government was “doing nothing” to protect water assets in the region.
“We haven’t focused on the water problem,” said Badolato, who served in both the Ronald Reagan and the George H. W. Bush administrations. “We’re barely capable of focusing on oil.”
However, all that changed in 2006, when al-Qaeda attempted an attack on Abqaiq, a large oil field and a vital Saudi oil-processing facility. Two suicide bombers each drove a car, packed with explosives, into the Abqaiq compound, but they were stopped by guards at the facility gate, where the cars exploded. Only minimal damage was done to security structures and to oil equipment.

Therefore, an accident at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility could bring “environmental catastrophe” to Saudi Arabia, Turki told the other diplomats, according to the cable. Depending on the severity and circumstances, such an event could not only affect international trade, but it could also temporarily jeopardize the gulf’s capacity as a water source for the Saudis.

Despite Turki’s pleas in January 2009, the construction program was not halted, and Iran began operating Bushehr in May 2011.

2008 WikiLeak: Terrorist Attack
The list of Saudi worries continues in another American embassy cable — this one from August 2008 — in which the author said that a terrorist attack on a major desalination plant would deal Riyadh a crippling blow. Michael Gfoeller, a low-level embassy official at the time, claimed that the Saudi capital would have to be evacuated within a week if the Jubail complex or its supply pipelines were seriously damaged or destroyed.

“The current structure of the Saudi government,” Gfoeller wrote, “could not exist without the Jubail desalinization plant.”

In 2008, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State for the George W. Bush administration, signed an agreement for technical cooperation to protect Saudi infrastructure.

To identify the threats and to ensure the security of these facilities, the U.S. State Department planned to perform detailed “vulnerability assessments,” according to the Gfoeller’s August 2008 cable. The Abqaiq processing plant was considered to be the most important Saudi asset, and it was the first to be assessed. Second in importance to the Saudis was the Jubail desalination complex, but the Americans instead prioritized the Ras Tanura oil-export facility, Saudi Arabia’s largest.

Both the Abqaiq plant and Ras Tanura are categorized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as foreign infrastructure that is critical to the operation of the U.S. government and economy, according to the Critical Foreign Dependencies Initiative — the Jubail desalination complex is not on the list.

Reviewing the Situation
The vulnerability assessments and the critical infrastructure list stem from the Critical Infrastructure Program (CIP), a national protection program created by President Clinton in 1998.

When questioned by Circle of Blue, the State Department would not comment on the status of the Saudi CIP vulnerability assessments, nor would it answer questions about anything mentioned in the WikiLeaks cables.

“I think Riyadh could survive for a time, but my guess is that the need to find alternative sources of water would differ if it was a nuclear accident compared to an oil spill.”

— Toby C. Jones
History Professor, Rutgers

It is difficult to verify whether the perceived consequences described in the WikiLeaks cables match plausible outcomes from a real disaster. Saudi Arabia protects its most sensitive data, and the SWCC did not return email messages asking how the utility would respond to an emergency in the gulf.

Toby C. Jones, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of Desert Kingdom, a book about water and oil in Saudi Arabia, told Circle of Blue that, in a crisis, the desalinated water that normally goes to agriculture could be diverted to cities.

“I think Riyadh could survive for a time,” he wrote in an email, “but my guess is that the need to find alternative sources of water would differ if it was a nuclear accident compared to an oil spill.”

A few years ago, Saudi Arabia and the other five countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) seemed ready to move on a regional solution to water security. From 2003 to 2008, the GCC, which promotes political and economic ties among its members, commissioned a three-phase study for an Arabian Peninsula “water grid.” Through an interconnected system of desalination plants, reservoirs, and a 1,486-kilometer (923-mile) trunk line, the grid would provide back-up water supplies in an emergency, according to a summary of the feasibility studies. That plan, however, has since been delayed.

Brett Walton is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. Contact Brett Walton

5 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply