Is targeting of Bab al-Mandeb by Houthi militias linked to Iranian threats?

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The Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen said on Wednesday that one of its drones had attacked the Saudi state oil company Aramco’s refinery in Riyadh, according to Houthi-run al-Masira TV, based in Yemen.

Yemeni army also detonated naval mines planted by the Houthis on the west coast off Hajjah province. The attack pushed Saudi Arabia to suspend all shipments of crude oil passing through the Straits of al-Mandeb until navigation becomes safe, Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid al-Falih said on Thursday.

US Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2016, 4.8 million barrels a day of crude and petroleum products flowed through the strait, with about 2.8 million going northbound toward Europe, and another 2 million sailing from Europe into the Middle East and Asia. The strait is an important route for European refined oil products to reach global markets.

Saudi Arabia can still use its East-West mega-pipeline to ship crude from its oil fields in the Gulf into the city of Yanbu on the Red Sea, bypassing the strait and keeping the European market within regular reach. The East-West pipeline has a capacity of about 5 million barrels a day.

However, experts said they do not rule out that this attack is linked, in one way or another, to recent Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which tankers carry 18 million barrels per day if Iranian oil exports are banned under the US sanctions expected to be implemented on November 4.

Whatever the type of weapon used in this attack, it establishes a new qualitative shift in this war, most notably the targeting of oil tankers in the Red Sea and the disruption of international navigation if necessary.

One and for all

Iranian commander of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Major General Mohamad al-Jafari announced that the Strait of Hormuz either is for everyone or it is not for anyone, in support of warnings issued by Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani two days ago.

Al-Jafari said that Hassan Rouhani’s stance was to counter what he described “the recent American threat to impose new oil sanctions against Iran” adding that the “enemies must understand that the Strait of Hormuz is either for everyone or not for anyone.”

The Iranian president said on Monday, during a meeting with the Iranian community in Switzerland as part of a European tour, that “oil supplies from the region cannot be exported when Iran’s oil supplies not exported.” In another event he said that Iran has many “straits” apart from the Strait of Hormuz, through which to ship its oil, in case Iran's exports are blocked.

Prince Khalid bin Salman calls on global community to firmly confront Iran

This comes after United Nations Secretary-General for Political Affairs, last month, confirmed that the technical assessments conducted by the UN on the missile fragments fired at Saudi Arabia were Iranian manufactured.

“Fingers will certainly be pointed at Iran, a long-term backer of the Houthis, although the Saudis and others overstate the extent to which Iran influences the Yemeni group,” Bloomberg quoted Richard Mallinson, the geopolitical analyst at consultant Energy Aspects Ltd. in London as saying.

Easy target

The Bab al-Mandeb, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea, is only 20 km wide, making hundreds of ships potentially an easy target.

The EIA estimates that a full closure of Bab el-Mandeb, would force tankers sailing from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates “around the southern tip of Africa, which would add to transit time and cost,”

Most exports from the Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab al-Mandeb strait. According to the US Energy Information Administration, an estimated 4.8 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2016 toward Europe, the United States and Asia.

Kuwait studying whether to halt oil exports

Kuwait is studying whether to halt oil exports through Bab al-Mandeb strait, an oil official said, after Saudi Arabia said it was suspending all crude shipments through the Red Sea lane following an attack on two of its tankers.

“All options are possible but there is nothing confirmed so far,” Badr al-Khashti, chairman of Kuwait Oil Tanker Company (KOTC), told Reuters, adding no decision had been taken.

(with agencies)