The Saudi Arabian frigate HMS Al-Dammam maneuvers into position, with its helicopter circling overhead during Exercise Eager Lion in 2014. Photo: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jesse A. Hyatt/Wikipedia Commons

Saudi Arabia has suspended its oil tanker transits through the Red Sea after one of them reportedly was hit by Houthi fire. According to some reports the damaged tanker, which did not leak oil, was being taken to a nearby Saudi port for repairs. Kuwait is also likely to suspend oil-tanker transits through the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

The Houthis are fighting Saudi-led coalition forces for control of the strategic Red Sea port city of Hodeida. Hodeida, which is near the Bab-el-Mandeb, is a strategic city for Yemen. More than 70% of its imported supplies, including famine relief and medical aid, flow through the port. For the Saudis and their allies, controlling the port is important in order to stop the Yemeni rebels from affecting the movement of tankers as they carry Persian Gulf oil though the Red Sea and the Suez Canal over to Europe and United States’ east-coast refineries. The Bab-el-Mandeb strait is only 29 kilometers wide.

The Houthis say that the Saudi claim that oil tankers were attacked is a deliberate provocation and while they did launch an attack it was against Saudi warships off the coast of Hodeida. Houthi leaders claim their forces sank a Saudi warship, identified as a French-built Lafayette-class frigate called Al-Damman.

The Houthis are sensitive that any attack on an oil tanker would be a provocation that would undermine Iran as much as Saudi Arabia, and Iran is their principal sponsor, providing most of their military arms. The conflict between Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition (which basically means Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) in its essence is a fight over whether Yemen will be controlled by Sunni or Shiite forces.

Lafayette-class frigates operate with different naval forces including those of France, Singapore and Taiwan.

Al-Damman (Hull 816) is one of three modern, heavily armed frigates operated by the Royal Saudi Navy.  The other two are named Al-Riyadh (Hull 812) and Al-Makkah (Hull 814). All three of these frigates (Al-Dammam was delivered in 2004) have stealth characteristics including low-power diesel engines and a special heat-dissipation system. The ships’ engines sit on sound-absorbing mounts, and the ship itself is partially demagnetized to protect it from magnetic mines.

In the narrow Bab el-Mandeb, the stealth features might prove less useful, since the ships would be visible from the shore and could be targeted with line-of-sight weapons. Alternatively, Al-Damman could have been hit by Houthi drones carrying high explosives. Whether a single drone, or for that matter a single missile, would be able to destroy the Damman is an open question.

The Houthis successfully shot up the HSV-2 Swift, a large catamaran about half the tonnage of Al-Damman. In October 2016 the Swift, operated under contract out of the UAE and involved in transporting supplies and troops in an early attack on Hodeida, was significantly damaged with a loss of life in the crew and passengers (many of the crew members were from Eastern Europe).

The ship burned out of control. It did not sink, possibly its twin hulls kept it from submerging, and it was subsequently towed to Eritrea and has not returned to service. The ship was hit by Chinese-made or license-built (by Iran) anti-shipping missiles that were either fired from the shore or from small boats, the same sort of weapons that are used by the Iranians on their small but fast patrol boats that until recently had been harassing US warships in the Persian Gulf.

In February 2017 a Saudi al-Madinah-class frigate was attacked by the Houthis using what has been called a suicide boat stuffed with explosives. Two crew members of the frigate were killed and the explosion caused a large fire on the ship. Reportedly the ship was able to continue operating after the attack. The Houthis said the frigate was sunk, a claim that turned out to be an exaggeration.

The Houthis also have drones, including a suicide drone, the Qasef-1 (Striker), which the Houthis claim to manufacture. The Qasef-1 carries 30 kilograms of high explosives and is a version of the Iranian Abibil-3 drone. Most analysts say that the Qasef-1 is manufactured in Iran and is stuffed with the same equipment as the known Iranian versions.

The Iranians have used the Abibil-3 (Swallow) in Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Lebanon, and have supplied them to Hezbollah and to Hamas in Gaza.  The drone itself is a hodgepodge of parts, some of them American, some Asian. The engine is a two-cylinder DLE-222 made in China but widely available worldwide, even from eBay (price US$1,649.99 with free shipping).

The bigger question is who should be believed? If a Saudi oil tanker was hit by a missile then it could be seriously damaged. If it was hit by a drone, less so but it still could cause serious damage. If the oil-tanker story is bogus and the Saudis either had an important warship damaged or sunk, the consequences would be much more serious. Without independent confirmation the answer remains unknown.

What we do know, beyond any doubt, is that the Saudi coalition effort to get control over Hodeida remains a big challenge and even if they do, they would have to hold the area which could prove very costly.  Meanwhile the Houthis and their Iranian backers are causing Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even the United States serious difficulty, with consequences not only in the Gulf region but beyond. At the same time the humanitarian crisis in Yemen continues, much to the shame of everyone involved.

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