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Are rising tensions in the Gulf likely to cause a flare-up in the region?

Middle East and the World

Both the US and Iran say they do not want to go to war, but the attacks against tankers near the strait of Hormuz and on a Saudi pipeline raise questions.


Two oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia were attacked on Monday by armed drones following attacks that sabotaged four oil tankers off the coast of the Emirate of Fujairah on Sunday. While no one has claimed responsibility for sabotaging the oil tankers, Houthi rebels in Yemen said they carried out the strikes on oil installations no. 8 and 9 on the east-west pipeline linking Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province to the port of Yanbu on the Red Sea. “This important military operation is a response to the persistent aggression and the blockade of our people, and we are ready to carry out even harsher strikes,” a Houthi military official said, according to the rebel’s TV station, Al-Masirah.

The Houthis, supported by Iran, are fighting the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) backed Yemeni government in a war that has been raging for the past four years.

The recent attacks come at a particularly tense moment, coinciding with the Houthis’ withdrawal from three ports in the province of Hodeidah. The withdrawal, carried out under the supervision of the United Nations (UN), was completed on Tuesday in accordance with an agreement signed in Stockholm in December.

"Unquestionably, this episode will make it much more difficult for the parties involved in the Yemeni crisis to build some trust based on the Houthis' unilateral withdrawal from three ports, including Hodeidah," George Cafiero, founder of Gulf States Analytics, told L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).

The attack could be a way for the rebels to put pressure on Riyadh by showing their striking power despite their departure from Hodeidah. But Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Dubai based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), said the attack on Saudi Arabia is not related to the retreat. “Why have they never attacked in the past years of the war? It doesn’t make sense. If you have this capability, why not use it in the past years?" he asked.

This is not the first time that the Houthis have directly targeted Saudi territory. The rebels have launched more than a hundred missiles across Yemen’s border with Saudi since 2015. Most of them have been intercepted by the Saudi missile defense system. In March 2018, the Houthis claimed to have a “stock of missiles” and drones ready to use in response to coalition air strikes, according to the Yemeni agency Saba.

“Cowardly” attacks

Many observers have questioned the Houthis’ military capabilities, pointing out the long distances drones have to travel to reach the center of Saudi Arabia. "The technology is something beyond the Houthis, beyond the militias,” Kahwaji said. “To be able to send a drone that far a distance, you require a lot of intelligence capabilities; intelligence at the level of a State that can get you the navigation coordinates. When you’re flying, you are blind. You need someone to guide you to reach your target. You cannot just get in the air and start looking for things. This is something that requires a state intelligence capability."

Focus has turned to Iran, which is already suspected of having masterminded Sunday’s attack on the oil tankers, according to a preliminary investigation by the US military, the Wall Street Journal reported. Meanwhile, Iran accused the United States of carrying out the attack in order to foment conflict.

Recently, Washington has been increasing both the economic and military pressure on Tehran. In addition to the sanctions put into place following the US’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration announced it would end the exemptions granted to eight countries–China, India, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy and Greece–allowing them to purchase Iranian oil. And 10 days ago, the US sent the aircraft carried the USS Abraham Lincoln to the Arabian Gulf “in response to alarming signs and warnings, that led to an escalation,” according National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Yesterday, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih called the attack on the pipeline “cowardly”, and and the Saudi oil company Aramco released a statement saying it “took all necessary measures, and temporarily stopped the pipeline to assess its condition”. Al-Falih stressed that Aramco “is working on the restoration of the pumping station”. Saudi has pledged to fill the gap in the global market left by sanctions on Iranian oil and tried to reassure the markets by saying that oil production has not been interrupted. Nonetheless, the price of crude increased yesterday.

Impact on the oil market

The pipeline that was hit in the drone attack crosses Saudi Arabia from east to west, measuring 1,200 km in length. It is important to Riyadh because it circumvents the Strait of Hormuz, which Tehran threatens to block in the event of a conflict with the US and its allies. According to the Financial Times, just over 100,000 barrels of oil per day have been exported from the port of Yanbu this year and 500,000 per day have been exported from the nearby port of Muajjiz.

Many Arab countries condemned the attacks, and the UAE warned that “any threat that the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia) faces is considered by the UAE to be a threat to their own security and stability,” the Emirati news agency WAM reported.

“The latest acts of terrorism and sabotage in the Gulf are not only targeting the Kingdom, but the security of oil supplies in the world as well as the global economy,” al-Falih said.

"The attacks sent out a clear message that Iran is capable and willing to obstruct the shipping going through the Strait of Hormuz; they are serious about obstructing oil market," Kahwaji said. "[The attacks] are meant to cause panic on the international stage, and this will bring pressure by the international community against the US to ease down on their measures against Iran. But the question is what if the Americans don’t pull back and [instead] push forward harder? What will be the next step?"

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 15th of May)

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