Tankers sabotaged near the Gulf

Summary: four oil vessels damaged off Fujaira. Little detail – no casualties or pollution. No claims of responsibility.

On 12 May the UAE reported that four commercial ships had been sabotaged near UAE territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman east of Fujaira. There were no casualties, and there was no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel. The statement denied earlier reports of incidents in Fujaira port; the Beirut-based TV channel Al Mayadeen, regarded as pro-Syria and Hizbullah, had reported that according to its sources in the Gulf large explosions had shaken Fujaira port at dawn and continued for three hours, with fires on between seven and ten tankers, but this appears to have been untrue. On 13 May the Saudi minister of energy confirmed that two of the ships damaged were Saudi oil tankers which had been subjected to a sabotage attack off the coast of Fujaira while on their way to cross into the Gulf, one of them to be loaded with crude for US customers at Ras Tanura. There were no casualties or oil spill but significant damage to the structure of the vessels.

Fujaira, the smallest of the seven emirates in the UAE, has exploited its unique geographical situation east of the Hormuz Straits and thus outside the Gulf and facing eastward into the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, and has become a major centre of bunkering and other facilities for shipping entering the Gulf. It is not clear from the government statements whether the tankers were simply in transit or were entering or leaving Fujaira port; a vessel tracking map published by Lloyd’s List suggests the latter.

The four ships were identified in various reports as Amjad, a very large crude carrier, and Al Marzoqah, an aframax product tanker, both owned by the Saudi shipping firm Bahri; A.Michel, a UAE-flagged fuel bunker barge; and Andrea Victory, a Norwegian-registered oil products tanker. The owners of Andrea Victory said the ship was “struck by an unknown object on the waterline in the way of the aft peak tank while located in anchorage B off Fujairah.” Footage seen by Reuters showed a hole in the hull at the waterline with the metal torn open inwards. The London based Intertanko has emailed its membership stating that there were photographs of two ships with holes in their sides “due to the impact of a weapon”.

The incident has been widely condemned, investigations continue, and there have been calls for international action. But neither the Saudi and UAE government nor others have attempted to name whoever was responsible and no one has claimed responsibility. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said the incidents were alarming and regrettable, and a senior Iranian parliamentarian suggested that “saboteurs from a third country” could be responsible.

The Houthi TV station Masirah TV said today 14 May that the Houthis had launched seven drone strikes on Saudi installations, but without mentioning shipping or identifying targets or date. Saudi Arabia has confirmed that two pump stations on the east-west pipeline which carries oil from the Eastern province to Yanbu were attacked by drones this morning. The pipeline has been temporarily shut down.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said yesterday 13 May that they were helping with the investigation into the attacks on shipping but had “nothing additional to provide at this time.” AP reports that a US military team’s initial assessment is that Iran or Iranian proxies were responsible, but no evidence has been provided. President Trump as always said what others may have been thinking but did not say: “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that”. Asked to clarify what he meant by a “bad problem,” he said: “You can figure it out yourself. They know what I mean by it.”

According to a Washington Post report Mike Pompeo “crashed” a European foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels yesterday 13 May in another unsuccessful push for a united transatlantic front against Tehran. Jeremy Hunt, in what the Washington Post called an unusually bold statement, said he feared unintentional escalation from the US and Iran could spark a conflict, appearing to assign equal culpability to each. Federica Mogherini said “The most responsible attitude to take should be that of maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on the military side.”

Many questions remain unanswered. First, what happened? The Washington Post quotes Scott Truver, a naval analyst who said his best assessment is that the ships were struck with some sort of floating mine that explodes upon contact. The mines are typically about 100 pounds each and can be put in place by rolling them off the side of a small surface vessel or powerboat. “It can be done so surreptitiously,” said Truver, who has studied mines for decades. “They’re very insidious. Once they’re put in the water, they’re very hard to detect and hard to defeat.”

If that is correct, one thing it does not explain is why four ships were hit almost simultaneously, but none before or after. There must be a possibility that more will follow.

Next, of course who did it? The list of possible culprits is quite long, starting with Iran directly or by proxy, and next the Houthis. After them perhaps come IS and al-Qa’ida (a group linked to al-Qa’ida claimed responsibility for an explosion on a Japanese supertanker off Fujaira in 2010). All of these had both the motive and the means.

Another possibility which sounds like conspiracy theory but should be taken seriously is a provocation operation designed to lay the blame on one or other of the above – taken seriously because there are plenty of precedents. By coincidence a 13 May article in the New Yorker “Is Trump yet another US president provoking a war?”, published too early to mention these incidents, quotes one analyst,  “Frustration is building up in Washington, as maximum pressure has produced minimum strategic results, and the clock is ticking. Some in Washington and the region would welcome, or try to provoke, a confrontation in an effort to achieve what sanctions have failed at so far—cutting Iran down to size.” If it was provocation the culprit could have been American, Saudi, Israeli or Emirati.

Or perhaps it was a Russian-trained whale?

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