FLASH: Pipeline security: urgent response from Arab States required

Two pipelines in the middle east were the target of explosions over the week-end. The Egyptian pipeline that carries gas to Jordan and Israel was hit on Sunday 22/07 near the town of El-Arish at a point before it splits into two separate branches to Jordan and Israel. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline carrying Iraqi crude was hit on Friday 20/07, near the town of Midyat in Turkey, close to the Syrian border, in an attack blamed by Ankara on the Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Peoples’ Party (PKK).

These are not one-time events. Both pipelines have been the target of regular sabotage attacks in the past, which raises the question of pipeline security: The Egyptian pipeline was attacked for the 15th time since the beginning of the uprising that ousted President Husni Mubarak. Officials at the Egyptian natural gas company, Gasco, have even implied that there are no plans to repair the pipeline for now. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries a quarter of Iraq’s oil exports, was last attacked, only weeks ago, in June 2012.

In a particularly turbulent region where political claims, from state and non-state actors alike, are permanent and borders constantly questioned, the risk against energy installations, and pipelines in particular given their strategic importance, becomes greater. Routes are determined more by the presence of powerful neighboring countries than by geographical realities. The Habshan-Fujeirah pipeline bypassing the Strait of Hormuz is a case in point. But also pipelines connecting Iraq to Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey, making them particularly vulnerable to attacks from any side that perceives them as a threat.

Attacks against energy installations and particularly pipelines are an integrated risk, anticipated and expected by host countries on announcement of each infrastructure project. Measures to minimize the risk are adopted and implemented with different degrees of success from one country to another. In certain countries, current security arrangements seem unable to counter the growing threat. While in stable countries immediate threat on pipelines is minimal and usually well contained, the risk is much greater in unstable countries such as Iraq, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and even Turkey, which has been confronting Kurdish separatists militants in the eastern part of the country since the 1980s. A combination of government-provided security measures, including the deployment of the military and, sometimes, a specialized pipeline protection force (as in Iraq), along with direct support from the local tribal population, have been the preferred option for many governments, particularly those with a weak central authority or those struggling to impose their authority in certain corners of the country, suggesting that a solution to the problem probably lies elsewhere, in the resolution of other political issues. In more than one way, attacks against pipelines can be a good indicator of the ability of the State to exercise and impose its authority over all its territory and to which degree this is challenged by non-State actors.

In any case, on the short to medium-term, the high costs in damage, interruption of exports and environmental hazards would justify a revision of the current security arrangement to ensure a more appropriate protection for such strategic installations. A heavier protection, including a more visible and robust presence by better equipped security forces, might not provide an absolute deterrence but would make it harder to plan and execute attacks. In parallel, local development projects would help contain the frustration of the local population, which is often socio-economic in nature, and defuse tension between them and the State. Expenses can be covered by the stream of revenues generated given that a more secure infrastructure causes demand for crude to increase.

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