On May 13, 2019, two oil-pumping stations for the East-West Aramco pipeline had been hit by explosive-laden drones. Yemen’s Houthi-run Masirah TV had cited a military official saying seven drones staged attacks on vital Saudi installations.
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid al-Falih said that the drone attack was done with the aim of disrupting world oil supplies. But the Saudi oil output and exports for crude and refined products were continuing without disruption. He added that a fire broke out in one of the stations as a result of the attack, but was quickly contained. Saudi Aramco confirmed that there were no injuries or casualties following the attacks.
The East-West Aramco Pipeline
The East-West pipeline is 1,200 kilometers long and runs from the oil fields in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province to the port at Yanbu along the Red Sea. The pipeline was built in 1981 and its capacity was increased several times to 5 million bpd in 2016. It consists of two pipelines, 11 pumping stations and two breaking stations.
The East-West pipeline was built by state-owned General Petroleum and Mineral Organization (Petromin), while Aramco constructed a parallel pipeline for transporting natural-gas liquids, which reached Yanbu in 1981. Aramco has since become a state-owned company of Saudi Arabia and operates both pipelines.
The energy minister said that Saudi oil production and exports will still continue uninterrupted, adding that the attack “proves the importance of confronting all terrorist organizations.”
The Response of the Saudi-led Coalition
The Saudi Cabinet said that the terrorist acts against the oil-pumping stations are targeting global oil supply and that the terrorist attack on the two Saudi ships is a direct threat to maritime safety and reflects negatively on regional and international peace and security.
The Arab coalition fighting Houthi militia in Yemen said on May 13, 2019, that ballistic missiles and a drone network have been targeted. Drones have been sent into Saudi territory several times this year, with the coalition carrying out strikes on production sites in Yemen.
The Attack on Oil Tankers in the UAE
The drone attack came one day after four commercial vessels were attacked off the emirate of Fujairah – the Saudi oil tankers Al-Marzoqah and Amjad along with the Norwegian tanker Andrea Victory and a UAE ship, the A. Michel. The port of Fujairah continues to operate as normal and there were no casualties.
The sabotage incident follows a US Maritime Administration warning that Iran could target commercial sea traffic. “Since early May, there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against US and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure, after recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz,” the organization said. “Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or US military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb or the Arabian Gulf.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shared information on what he called escalating threats from Iran during meetings with EU counterparts and the head of NATO in Brussels on Monday, the US special representative for Iran Brian Hook said.
The US deployed the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region on May 4, 2019, in response to what it said was an “escalated threat” from Iran. US national security advisor John Bolton has said Washington’s military buildup was “a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime.”
The Iranian Response
Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in case of a military confrontation with the United States. A senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander issued a veiled threat on May 12, 2019, to the US military presence in the Gulf. “An aircraft carrier that has at least 40 to 50 planes on it and 6,000 forces gathered within it was a serious threat for us in the past but now it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities,” said Amirali Hajjizadeh, head of the Guards’ aerospace division. “If they make a move we will hit them in the head.”
Distancing Tehran from the bombing incident, Iran’s Foreign Ministry called it “worrisome and dreadful.”
Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of the Iranian Parliament’s national security committee, said the “explosions” showed that the security of Gulf States was “like glass.”
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on May 14, 2019, that the showdown between the Islamic republic and the United States was a test of resolve rather than a military encounter.
The supreme leader said negotiating with the US was “poison” because the Americans wanted to take away Iran’s strong points such as its missiles or its “strategic depth” in the region. “Negotiating with the present American government is doubly poisonous... they are not decent humans, they don’t stand by anything,” he said referring to the US decision to withdraw from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers.
The terror attacks come after a year of increased American sanctions on Tehran. The US has designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization and said it wants to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. The US accuses Iran of threatening American interests and allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In last week, Tehran said it has stopped respecting limits on its nuclear activities agreed under a 2015 deal that has since been abandoned by Washington.
There are several reasons why Iran is a prime suspect in the latest terror campaign. Firstly, the US has warned ships that “Iran or its proxies” could be targeting maritime traffic in the region, and Washington has moved additional ships and aircraft into the region. The four attacked vessels were targeted near Fujairah at a distance of 115 kilometers from Iran.
Furthermore, Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack against the East-West pipeline. Lebanon’s pro-Iran satellite channel, Al-Mayadeen, was among the first to report that a series of explosions had struck Fujairah’s port, and the reports were repeated by state media in Iran.
Finally, a team of US military experts was sent to investigate the damages at the request of the UAE. The team’s initial assessment is that Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies used explosives to blow large holes in four ships anchored off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. The team’s early belief is that the holes were caused by explosive charges.
The recent attacks against the Saudi oil industry highlighted the need for the international community to act decisively to confront Iran and all terrorist organizations that are supported by Iran, in order to maintain regional and international peace and security and freedom of navigation.
Saudi Arabia is determined to increase oil supplies to Europe by three million barrels. Following the attacks, oil prices made limited gains, not exceeding 1.5 percent following Saudi statements about the continuity of oil supplies.
[Sources: Al Arabiya, Arab news, Ahram Online]