Drone attacks claimed by Yemen’s Huthi rebels shut down one of Saudi Arabia’s major oil pipelines Tuesday, further ratcheting up Gulf tensions after the mysterious sabotage of several tankers.
Days after the United States deployed bombers and an assault ship to bolster an aircraft carrier in the region, the world’s largest crude exporter said two pumping stations had been targeted early Tuesday.
They lie on the East-West Pipeline, able to pump five million barrels of oil a day from the oil-rich eastern province to a Red Sea export terminal.
The announcement came hours after the Huthis said they had targeted vital installations in Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition that has waged a brutal campaign against them.
Huthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam wrote on Twitter that the attacks were “a response to the aggressors continuing to commit genocide” against the Yemeni people.
After Saudi Arabia and its allies, backed by the United States, intervened in 2015 in an effort to oust the Huthis from power, Yemen has become the site of what the U.N. deems the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Iran has backed the Huthis to a limited extent in the conflict, though the two parties had little to no relationship before the war.
Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said Saudi Aramco had “temporarily shut down” the pipeline to “evaluate its condition” but added that oil production and exports had not been interrupted.
“The company (Saudi Aramco) is working on restoring the pumping station before resuming operations,” he said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Map locating the Strait of Hormuz and oil production and alliances in the Gulf after four ships were damaged in mysterious “sabotage attacks” that have inflamed tensions in the regionhttps://t.co/32yDsH2Jz3 pic.twitter.com/EqdgcFyQJX
— AFP news agency (@AFP) May 14, 2019
The stations reportedly targeted lie west of Riyadh, at Dawadmi and Afeef.
Falih said Tuesday’s incident was an “act of terrorism … that not only targets the kingdom but also the security of oil supplies to the world and the global economy”.
In a statement carried by the rebel-run Al-Masirah TV, the Huthis warned of other “unique operations … if the aggressors continue with their crimes and blockade.”
“We are capable of executing unique operations on a bigger and wider scale in the hearts of the enemy countries,” they said.
The 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) pipeline reportedly hit Tuesday serves as an alternative for Saudi crude exports if the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf were to be closed.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strait in case of a military confrontation with the U.S.
The reported pipeline attacks came after the UAE said four ships were damaged in “sabotage attacks” off the emirate of Fujairah, close to the Hormuz, on Sunday.
Washington and its Gulf allies stopped short of blaming Riyadh’s regional arch-rival Tehran for the sabotage, but U.S. President Donald Trump warned Iran against doing anything to harm U.S. interests.
“If they (Iran) do anything, it would be a very bad mistake,” Trump warned at the White House.
President Trump: "We'll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it will be a very bad mistake. If they do anything. I'm hearing little stories about Iran. If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We'll see what happens with Iran." pic.twitter.com/kxz3wr03qj
— The Hill (@thehill) May 14, 2019
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hit back, saying the Islamic republic was “too great to be intimidated by anyone.”
The attacks came after the United States deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group, an amphibious assault vessel, a Patriot missile battery and B-52 bombers, triggering fears of a possible military confrontation.
A United Arab Emirates government official said the Saudi oil tankers Al-Marzoqah and Amjad were attacked off the emirate of Fujairah along with the Norwegian tanker Andrea Victory and an Emirati ship, the A. Michel.
No casualties were reported and none of the vessels sank.
The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the Emirates will probe the “deliberate sabotage.”
Saudi Arabia said its two tankers suffered “significant damage” but there was no oil spill.
The Andrea Victory’s managers, Thome Group, said the ship’s hull had been pierced “after being struck by an unknown object on the waterline.”
Asked whether the U.S. believed Iran played a role in the attacks, Washington’s Iran envoy Brian Hook declined to comment, saying only that U.S. authorities would help the investigation at the request of the UAE.
The United Nations urged all sides to “exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace.”
Oil prices initially spiked in response to news of the attacks, but were largely flat in trading on Tuesday.
Fujairah port is the only Emirati terminal located on the Arabian Sea coast, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz through which most Gulf oil exports pass.
Trump administration officials have escalated a war of words with Iran in recent weeks since Tehran said it would begin to roll back commitments set out in a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers unless they were provided significant relief from sanctions.
Trump withdrew the United States from the deal last year and has unilaterally reimposed tough sanctions on Iran. European powers have said they hope to keep the deal alive but have thus far been largely unable to bypass American sanctions and continue doing business with Iran.