Does This Mean War?

The drone attack on Saudi oil facilities stoked fears about oil production, but not immediately about military conflict.

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On Saturday, September 14, drones claimed by Houthi rebels from Yemen attacked major oil production facilities at Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia. The damage forced disruptions that halved the country’s oil output, taking out 5 percent of global supply and triggering a jump in the price of Brent crude. The United States blamed Iran for the attack, which Tehran immediately denied. But though tensions are running high, Predata signals suggest it is premature to believe large-scale regional conflict is imminent.

Patterns of online interest indicate that in the immediate wake of the attack observers are focused more on oil markets than on the possibility of intensified Saudi-Iran conflict. As the chart below shows, during the last high-profile Houthi attack on the Kingdom, attention to security issues rose dramatically, while attention to the economy remained muted. In that incident, Saudi air defense forces intercepted two Houthi missiles over Jeddah and Taif. (The Saudis claimed that one of the projectiles had been directed toward Mecca). In the case of Saturday’s drone strike on Abqaiq, attention to the Saudi economy spiked to a slightly greater degree than attention to security.

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The attack may also have stoked perceptions about an escalation of the war in Yemen. Online attention to Yemeni security issues leapt to its highest level in more than two months. To online observers, the Abqaiq attack was the most salient event in Yemen’s war since representatives from both sides of the civil war met on a UN vessel in the Red Sea for talks about a ceasefire and troop withdrawal.

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But did the Abqaiq attack immediately change perceptions about Iran-Saudi tensions in the region? Apparently not; online interest in the regional power struggle between Tehran and Riyadh rose after the attack but not to an exceptional level. 

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As a further indication, Iranian internet users are focused not primarily on security-related subjects but on oil production. For example, activity on Farsi-language web pages about Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s oil company, hit its highest level since 2012. 

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It is too soon to judge whether the drone attack will trigger a regional escalation. But at least in the immediate aftermath of Abqaiq, the online focus is more so on oil production rather than on prospects for war.