On Monday, reporters off the UAE coast examine the Saudi oil tanker Al-Marzoqah, one of the four tankers damaged in alleged "sabotage attacks" in the Persian Gulf the previous day. Photo: AFP / Emirati National Media Council

Saudi Arabia says it was forced to shut down a key pipeline connecting the country’s oil-rich east to a Red Sea port on Tuesday after two pumping stations came under attack by armed drones, with the country’s oil chief blaming Iran for the incident.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels appeared to claim responsibility for the attack, announcing that seven of their “aircrafts” – known to be drones – had targeted vital installations in Saudi Arabia via their news outlet Al-Masirah TV.

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih called the attack, which came on the heels of reported damage to Saudi and UAE-flagged tankers in the Gulf, “an act of terrorism and sabotage” against the global oil flow.

“This act of terrorism and sabotage, in addition to recent acts in the Arabian Gulf, do not only target the kingdom but also the security of world oil supplies and the global economy,” Falih said.

“These attacks prove again that it is important for us to face terrorist entities, including the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed by Iran.”

The drone attack, according to the statement, occurred between 6:00 am. and 6:30 am. Tuesday and affected two pumping stations on the East-West pipeline, which transports oil from the Eastern Province to the Red Sea port of Yanbu.

The state-run oil giant Saudi Aramco temporarily shut down the pipeline to evaluate its condition and was working to restore operations, while a fire which broke out at one of the pump stations has since been contained, according to Falih.

The minister, the state news agency said, stressed that “Saudi oil production has not been interrupted.”

Gulf tensions rise

The pipeline incident comes on the heels of rising tensions in the Gulf, where the United Arab Emirates announced on Sunday that four vessels had been exposed to undisclosed “sabotage.”

“Four commercial ships were subjected to sabotage operations today, 12 May, near UAE territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, east of Fujairah,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said in a statement carried by state news agency WAM.

The ministry said there had been no injuries or fatalities, and no spillage of fuel or harmful chemicals.

Riyadh separately announced that two of its oil tankers, apparently among the four, were “sabotaged” off the coast of Fujairah.

The vessels named until now are the Saudi-flagged Amjad, the Saudi-flagged Marzouqa, the UAE-flagged A Michelle, and the Norwegian-flagged Andrew Victory.

Scarce information about the nature of the alleged attacks has been made available, however. A video report by Abu Dhabi’s Sky News showed the hull of one vessel, the Andrea Victory, appearing to be twisted in one area from an impact at the waterline, though it was unclear exactly what had occurred.

The Associated Press said that Emirati officials had declined a request for its journalists to be permitted to approach the vessels up close by ship and inspect the damage.

“A US official in Washington, without offering any evidence, said that an American military team’s initial assessment indicated Iran or Iranian allies used explosives to blow holes in the ships, including two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati oil tanker,” the news agency reported.

Noam Raydan, a geopolitical analyst at the tanker tracker Clipper Data, said that the information made available thus far has “raised more questions than answers.”

“There are a number of reports carrying one or two US officials saying the US suspects Iran is behind this, but it’s all based on assumptions. There is no concrete data, and until now, we still have no images showing the damage clearly,” she told Asia Times.

Those videos that have been taken of the Andrea Victory‘s hull, she noted, did not reveal exactly what had happened. 

“Was it a torpedo? A mine? We still don’t know,” she said. “The Saudis and the Emiratis say they’re going to carry out an investigation so I would wait to see what the final assessment is.” 

For companies like Clipper Data that assess security risks, a key piece of information to share with clients is that Fujairah port is operating normally.

But aside from that, there is the risk of rising tensions in the region.

“Given the timing, and what I would call rising tensions in the region, it tells me that the risks of miscalculation might be increasing. The US is turning the screws on Iran. And Iran looks like it’s being backed into a corner.

“With incidents like Fujairah, few people can tell you what happened. This might be going down a very dangerous path.” 

The reported tanker incidents occurred just a week after US National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that an aircraft carrier group was headed to the Gulf region to guard against possible attacks by Iran or allied groups in the region. The Houthis rebels, in Bolton’s book, would certainly be among them.

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