MS Risk Blog

Security Advisory: Incident Reported Off Fujairah Port (14 May 2019)

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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has ordered a probe into the sabotage operation against four vessels off its coast on Sunday 12 May 2019.  The incident occurred at around 0600 h local time (02:00 GMT), east of the UAE emirate of Fujairah, which is close to Hormuz, between Iran and Oman.  In a statement released on Sunday, the UAE foreign ministry warned that “subjecting commercial vessels to sabotage operations and threatening the lives of their crew is considered a dangerous development.” The statement reported that four commercial vessels had been targeted near its territorial waters, though it did not identify the vessels beyond stating that they were of various nationalities.  No injuries or fatalities on board the vessels have been reported and as well as no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel.  On Monday 13 May, ship management company Thome Ship Management confirmed that the hull of a Norwegian-registered product tanker was damaged by an unknown object off the coast of Fujairah port on Sunday.  In a statement, Thome reported that “the master of MT Andrea Victory reported the crew were unharmed but there was a hole in the hull area of the aft peak tank.  The ship is not in any danger of sinking.”  A statement released by the Saudi Press Agency on Monday, citing the energy minister, confirmed that two Saudi oil tankers faced a “sabotage attack” off the coast of Fujairah, adding that the tankers were on their way to cross into the Persian Gulf and had suffered “significant damage.” According to the country’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih, “one of the two vessels was on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude oil from the port of Ras Tanura, to be delivered to Saudi Aramco’s customers in the United States.”  Industry sources are reporting that the Saudi tankers affected were the Amjad and Al Marzoqah.  The fourth vessel is reportedly UAE-flagged.

The UAE ministry statement was released after reports emerged on Sunday of an explosion inside Fujairah port during the morning hours.  A senior Iranian lawmaker and head of parliament’s national security committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh disclosed on Sunday that reports of “explosions” near Fujairah port showed that the security situation of Gulf states was fragile.  The media office of the Government of Fujairah however denied in a tweet that blasts had occurred inside Fujairah port, disclosing that the facility was operating normally.  The UAE ministry statement, which also denied that any incident had taken place inside the port, disclosed that the government had taken all necessary measures and launched an investigation in coordination with international authorities. The statement went on to say that “the international community should carry out its responsibilities to prevent any parties trying to harm maritime security and safety, which would be considered a threat to international safety and security.”  In another statement released overnight, the GCC secretary-general, Abdul Lateef Al Zayani, described the sabotage as a “serious escalation,” adding, “such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger.”  Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen’s internationally-recognized government have also condemned the attacks.  Meanwhile Saudi Arabia on Monday expressed support for the UAE following the attacks, with the Saudi foreign ministry disclosing in a statement that the attacks constitute a “dangerous threat to the safety of navigation and affects negatively regional and international security.”

While it currently remains unclear who is behind Sunday’s incident, with the UAE so far not blaming any country or other party for the operation, analysts are reporting that they suspect Iran of being behind the operation as the country has continuously threatened to disrupt shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.  While Iran has called for an investigation, with Iran’s Foreign Ministry calling it “worrisome and dreadful,” the incident comes amidst increasing tensions in the region. Last month, Iran threatened to “close” the Strait of Hormuz if it was prevented from using the waterway.  This followed a US decision to end exemptions from sanctions for major importers of Iranian oil, which came into effect on 2 May. Washington has also stated that it was deploying a US aircraft carrier and other forces to the Middle East as a result of what it said were Iranian threats.  Tehran meanwhile has called the US military presence “a target” rather than a threat.  Sunday’s incident may therefore be an attempt to convey a message to the international community that Iran’s threats should be taken seriously.  Likewise, the incident may be a way of testing Washington and its allies in a bid to see how they will react.  The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia has disclosed that Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war” after it had determined who was behind Sunday’s attack.  In remarks published on 14 May, Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh “we need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war.”  A US official familiar with American intelligence disclosed on Monday that while Iran was a prime suspect in the sabotage, Washington had no conclusive proof.

Sunday’s incident raises concerns relating to the safety of vessels transiting the region and that the shipping lanes in the Gulf region could become a flashpoint as tensions continue to escalate between the US and Iran. On 13 May 2019, the US issued a new alert to maritime traffic in regard to the alleged “acts of sabotage” of vessels off the coast of the UAE.  The US Maritime Administration warned shippers to exercise caution when travelling past Fujairah.  MS Risk advises all vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz to maintain heightened security levels and to be wary of any suspicious activity.