By CIARAN MCGRATH
IRAN-BACKED Yemeni rebels aligned have launched an attack on two oil tankers passing through the strategically important Red Sea shipping lane of Bab al-Mandeb – prompting Saudi Arabia to announce that was “temporarily halting” all oil shipments along the route.
In a move which is sure to inflame tensions still further in the region after the recent war of words between US President Donald Trump and Iranian opposite number Hassan Rouhani, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said the Houthi movement had attacked two Saudi Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) in the Red Sea on Wednesday morning, one of which sustained minimal damage.
A statement issued by Mr al-Falih’s ministry said: ”Saudi Arabia is temporarily halting all oil shipments through Bab al-Mandeb Strait immediately until the situation becomes clearer and the maritime transit through Bab al-Mandeb is safe.”
Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis in a three-year war, lies beside the southern mouth of the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers. The tankers pass near Yemen’s shores while heading from the Middle East through the Suez Canal to Europe.
The Saudi coalition intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government of exiled president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Had. Saudi Arabia accuses regional arch-foe Iran of supplying missiles to the Houthis, which both Tehran and the Houthis deny.
The Western-backed coalition of Sunni Muslim states which Saudi Arabia leads launched an offensive in June to wrest Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah from the Houthis in a bid to cut off the primary supply line of the movement, which holds the most populated areas of Yemen including the capital Sanaa.
Earlier this month, the alliance called a halt to the offensive to give UN efforts a chance to reach a political solution that would avert an assault on the port, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis. The United Nations fears an all-out assault on the port risks triggering a famine in the impoverished country.
Most exports from the Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab al-Mandeb strait. An estimated 4.8 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2016 towards Europe, the United States and Asia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The Bab al-Mandeb strait, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea, is only 20 km (12 miles) wide, making hundreds of ships potentially an easy target.
The ministry statement said both tankers that were attacked were operated by Saudi shipping company Bahri, which had earlier said that one of its VLCCs had suffered minor damage in an incident in the Red Sea, without elaborating.
Mr al-Falih said: “The two million barrels capacity for each tanker were full of crude oil cargo at the time and were headed for export. One of the VLCCs sustained minimal damage.
“Fortunately, there were no injuries or oil spill that would have resulted in catastrophic environmental damage. Efforts are currently underway to move the damaged ship to the nearest Saudi port.”
One of the coalition’s main justifications for intervening in Yemen’s war in 2015 was to protect shipping routes such as the Red Sea. It has said it foiled previous attacks there in April and May.
The coalition said in a statement carried by Saudi state media on Wednesday that the Houthi movement had attacked one oil tanker west of Yemen’s Hodeidah port, but did not name the vessel or describe how it was attacked.
It said: “Thankfully the attack failed due to immediate intervention of the Coalition’s fleet.”
No details of what this intervention entailed were provided.
The Houthis’ Al Masirah TV had said on Twitter that they had targeted a warship named the Dammam off the western coast of Yemen in what the group later said was a missile attack.