Some industry analysts say the storming of the offices and residences of foreign oil company employees in Al-Khobar has increased the prospects of political instability in Saudi Arabia. Others argue that future attacks against Saudi oil installations could reduce overall production or the kingdom's ability to export oil. In either case, increases in the international oil price would be expected.
But Gavin Knight, communications director at the London-based World Markets Research Center, offered a more cautious perspective. Knight told RFE/RL today that the possibility of further terrorist attacks against oil industry targets in Saudi Arabia creates a "fear factor" that could cause oil prices to rise as much as another $8 per barrel. But he said it is still too early to say whether this will happen.
"In terms of the oil price itself, there is a fear factor involved in the price that can move it," Knight said. "It depends, basically, how the futures market reacts and how great they perceive the threat to be."
Knight noted that Saudi oil exports were not disrupted by violence in Al-Khobar that left 22 people dead -- 19 of them foreign oil-sector workers. That's because the compound that was stormed by suspected Al-Qaeda militants on 29 May has neither production nor refining facilities.
But the attacks have raised fears that many foreign workers will leave Saudi Arabia. Executives say oil-sector subcontractors like Halliburton, Exxon-Mobil, and Royal-Dutch Shell are likely to adjust their staffs -- possibly re-basing some in nearby countries like Bahrain.
With the latest violence coming just a month after Islamic militants killed a U.S. oil worker at Saudi Arabia's Yanbu petrochemical complex, Knight admitted that a troubling message is resonating in Saudi Arabia -- Al-Qaeda now considers Western oil workers in Saudi Arabia to be targets.
"Al-Qaeda forces have been attacking strategic locations inside of Saudi Arabia for some time," Knight said. "This new emphasis on the oil market there is alarming. But the oil sector has been dealing with this kind of high-risk premium for some time. And also, it seems unlikely that [Al-Qaeda] would be able to take out all of the oil installations in Saudi Arabia."
Knight said he believes factors such as the rising demand for oil in China and possible production increases by non-OPEC countries like Russia will have more impact on global oil prices in the long term than fears of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.
"There are a number of different variables to take into account before people start overreacting," Knight said. "I mean, people tend to react quite quickly to these attacks and what the implications are. But economically, even over and above the oil price, the economic implications of terrorist attacks are actually very small."
Fareed Mohamedi, the chief economist for the Washington-based consultancy firm PFC Energy, agrees with many of Knight's observations. In an article that was published today in "The Washington Post" newspaper, Mohamedi said the Al-Khobar violence will not affect the physical flow of oil out of Saudi Arabia. But he added that from a psychological point of view, "incredible fears in the market" are a "reality, not just speculation."
Even before the Al-Khobar attacks, global oil prices this month rose to their highest level in 13 years to nearly $42 per barrel. As a result, the Saudi government has promised to increase its daily oil production from 8.5 million to 9 million barrels per day and raise production again in the near future, if necessary, to keep prices down.
A purported Al-Qaeda statement said the Saudi pledge was one of the reasons that Islamic militants decided to attack foreign oil-firm employees at Al-Khobar. Issued by an Islamic website, the statement claimed responsibility for the Al-Khobar attacks and vowed to "cleanse the Arabian Peninsula of infidels."
The website included a voice recording of a man who identified himself as Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, the Saudi dissident and leading Al-Qaeda operative who tops the kingdom's list of most-wanted terrorist suspects.
"The heroic mujahedin have managed to infiltrate the area housing the oil companies such as Halliburton and her sisters in the city of Al-Khobar in the east of the Arabian Peninsula," Al-Muqrin said in the recording. The mujahedin managed to kill and injure many crusaders of different nationalities -- among them Americans, one of whom was dragged through the streets of the city; a high-ranking British national of one of the oil companies, and an Italian who was slaughtered and returned as a gift to his government and leader."
Al-Muqrin has repeatedly issued calls for the Saudi royal family to be overthrown. But until last year, the Saudi government played down evidence that Islamic radicals were posing a threat to security. That has changed since a series of deadly attacks -- including last month's attack at the Yanbu petrochemical complex. Saudi officials are now seeking to reassure the global markets that their oil pipelines, terminals, and processing centers are protected.
Nawaf Obaid, a Riyadh-based consultant to the Saudi royal family, wrote in an article for "Jane's Intelligence Review" this month that the risk of a disruption of Saudi oil exports is very low. Obaid said as many as 30,000 guards are now protecting Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure.