Attacks on two Saudi carriers and other ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates this week have exposed security weaknesses in a major artery for oil shipments amid an increasingly tense atmosphere between the United States, Iran and Gulf Arab states, the Reuters news agency said.
The operation near the Strait of Hormuz appeared to test the United States resolve and its allies from Sunni states without igniting the war, after Washington tightened sanctions on Iran and strengthened its military presence in the neighborhood.
A US official said the UAE did not specify the nature of the sabotage and did not blame anyone, but US national security agencies believe that sympathetic or working with Iran parties may have been behind it.
Iran has distanced itself from the incident, for which no one has claimed responsibility.
“This is a pin-prick event, a little needle-like jab at the maritime trade going into the Strait of Hormuz,” said Gerry Northwood, chairman of risk management and security firm MAST.
The attack took place just off the emirate of Fujairah, just outside the Strait, the narrow waterway separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula and passing through a fifth of world oil consumption coming from Middle Eastern producers.
Two days after that attack, Saudi Arabia said armed aircraft struck two oil pumping stations in an attack that Yemeni Houthis allied to Iran claimed responsibility for.
The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is charged with protecting merchant ships in the region. The British and French navy also have a presence in the region, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have developed naval capabilities.
But the Eurasia Group said in a statement that the Gulf Arab states were trying hard to build an effective system to deal with aircraft and attempts to sabotage, which does not involve high technology.
“There are hundreds, if not a few thousand, small boats moving in that area every day. Many of these vessels are smugglers operating between Iran and the Gulf states,” said Norman Roule, a retired senior U.S. intelligence officer.
“This will make it difficult, but not impossible, to trace any small vessels which may have been involved in the operation.”
A spokeswoman for the Government Information Office said there had been no change in the security of Dubai’s main commercial hub.
But the UAE may face pressure to step up patrols.
“The UAE needs to send a signal to reassure the shipping industry that Fujairah is safe and this is not going to happen again,” a Western diplomat in Abu Dhabi said.
More than three days after the incident, information remains scarce about where the ships were when they were attacked, what kind of weapon is used, not to mention the perpetrator.
Maritime data indicated that at least some vessels may have been within nine nautical miles of the coast, ie, within the territorial waters of the UAE.
The Saudi Energy Minister said at least one vessel was further offshore in the UAE’s private economic waters where international law is largely in force.
Reuters journalists and other institutions who were taken on a tour off the coast of Fujairah saw a hole in a Norwegian ship and saw the metal inward. A Saudi tanker they saw showed no signs of serious damage.
Security sources said the pictures suggested the damage was probably caused by close mines installed near the waterway and containing explosives weighing less than four kilograms. A source said the level of coordination and use of mines likely excluded the involvement of militant groups such as al Qaeda.
“It’s not those guys seeking publicity, it’s someone who wants to make a point without necessarily pointing in any given direction,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor for Jane’s Defence Weekly. “It’s below the threshold (for war).”
Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global risk and resilience at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, said the attacks could be a message that Iran has means to disrupt traffic.
Saudi Aramco announced that there had been no disruption to production and exports because of the attack on the pumping stations, but temporarily closed the East-West pipeline to assess its condition.
The attackers targeted alternative routes for oil shipments avoiding the Strait of Hormuz.
Fujairah is one of the ports of the crude oil pipeline coming from Habshan fields in Abu Dhabi. The east-west line of Saudi Arabia transfers crude oil from the eastern fields to Yanbu port north of Bab al-Mandab.
The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said last year that Tehran would prevent exports across the waterway if the countries respond to US calls to stop buying Iranian oil.
US officials said the closure of the strait would be tantamount to going beyond the “red line” and vowed to take action to reopen it.
The waterway separates Iran from Oman, linking the Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The width of the strait is 33 kilometers in its smallest part, but the navigational pathway is only three kilometers wide in both directions.
Even during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, when the two sides sought to disrupt oil exports by attacking ships in the so-called tanker war, shipping did not stop despite the high insurance fees.
The Fujairah Energy Research Center said Fujairah would still be seen as a reliable refueling center, especially with the arrival of a US combat group in the region and the presence of British, French and Chinese naval vessels to help.
“No matter who is behind this,” Rickli said, “it contributes to heightened tensions in the region and leads to a situation where an incident could trigger a larger response.”