Saudis, UAE report ‘sabotage’ of commercial ships near Fujairah port, south of Strait of Hormuz

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By J.E. Dyer
Source: Liberty Unyeilding

 

A tanker and other commercial ships off Fujairah on 13 May 2019. Video via Twitter, @NicRobertsonCNN

On Sunday 12 May, reports emerged that four commercial ships (all oil tankers) had suffered damage near the port of Fujairah on the UAE’s East coast, which faces the Gulf of Oman just south of the Strait of Hormuz.

A few hours before these reports (about 7:30 AM local time in Fujairah, or 4:30 AM GMT/UTC), there were unconfirmed reports of explosions in Fujairah’s Gulf Petroleum Oil Terminal’s shore facilities.  These reports, according to some Twitter users (one citing a critical treatment by The National), were observed coming originally from Hezbollah and Iranian sources.  For the purposes of this report, I stress that that latter detail is unconfirmed (although it may be true).


There does appear to have been at least some rush by Iranian officials to affirm and politically exploit the early reports: 

However, Twitter user @OBS_IL later supplied satellite imagery from an hour after the initial reports of explosions, which showed no damage at all to the oil terminal infrastructure.  The “explosions” reporting seems to have been in error.


Reports began circulating a few hours later that ships had received damage in or near Fujairah.  At this point, it’s best to go with a tight filter and convey what the national authorities have said. 

UAE, having denied that any explosions occurred ashore, issued a statement that four ships had sustained damage near Fujairah.  The Emiratis described it as “sabotage.”  They said there were no oil/fuel or chemical spills:

It said that there had been no injuries or fatalities on board the vessels and that there had been no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel.

The Saudis also issued a statement, indicating that two of the damaged ships were Saudi-flagged.  The Saudi Press Agency gave the incident time as 6 AM (which would have put it a bit before the time of the supposed explosions in the shore-side infrastructure of the oil terminal).  The SPA statement referred to “sabotage” as well.

It also said both tankers were heading to “cross into the Arabian Gulf” (i.e., the Persian Gulf) when the incident occurred.  It gave additional details on one of the ships:

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.

Which is interesting (i.e., that these details were announced).  And it confirmed damage to the ships, but no environmental spills.

Fortunately, the attack didn’t lead to any casualties or oil spill; however, it caused significant damage to the structures of the two vessels.

The third official report is that of the U.S. Maritime Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation, which issued a Maritime Alert on 12 May.  The real point about this communication is that it means the United States has reason to take this seriously, including as an incident possibly perpetrated intentionally.  Again, the word “sabotage” is cited.

The alert reads in full as follows:

2019-002A-Anchorage off Fujairah-Reported Vessel Attack or Sabotage

Description: 

A maritime incident has been reported in the vicinity of the anchorages off Fujairah, UAE in the vicinity of 25-18N 56-28E on May 12, 2019.  The incident has not been confirmed.  The nature of the event is reported to be attacks or sabotage on one or more vessels.  The precise means of attack or sabotage is unknown.  Exercise caution when transiting this area.  Further updates will be provided when available.  This alert will automatically expire on May 19, 2019.  Any questions regarding this alert should be directed to GMCC@uscg.mil.

(Note: I believe there is a digit off in the longitude, and that it should read 56-38E.  That would put the location in the anchorages off Fujairah, whereas 56-28E puts the location inland, well west of Fujairah itself.  The coordinates are plotted at 56-38E on the map.)

Click to enlarge for legibility. Google imagery, map; author annotation

The two Saudi ships have been identified by Saudi media sources as M/V Amjad, an Aframax Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), and a smaller tanker, M/V Al Marzoqah.  My guess would be that the Aframax, Amjad, is the one that was supposed to proceed to Ras Tanura and load crude there for transport to the U.S.

Both ships were reported a few hours ago (at the tracking website Vesselfinder.com) to be lingering in the vicinity of Fujairah, presumably because of the damage suffered and the investigation now underway.

The  screen caps show their locations in the gaggle offshore from the Gulf Petroleum Oil Terminal.

 

AIS location of M/V Amjad off Fujairah, 13 May 2019. Vesselfinder.com

 

AIS location of M/V Al Marzoqah off Fujairah, 13 May 2019. Vesselfinder.com

This screen cap is provided to give a feel for the giant cluster of vessels always present in and near the Strait of Hormuz.

Screen cap, traffic map at Vesselfinder,com


So far, Iran has said that the reports of sabotage are regrettable and alarming. 

This incident comes 13 days after the report of the Iranian tanker that suddenly lost propulsion and steering off Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the Red Sea on 30 April.  An unconfirmed social media post claimed afterward that the tanker had been hit, possibly by a rocket or a missile, which caused the ship to begin sinking by the stern, although there was no breach of the oil cargo tanks.

It also comes three days after the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) Strike Group made its southbound transit of the Suez Canal, which occurred on 9 May.

 

Abraham Lincoln and at least one escort could be preparing to transit the Strait of Hormuz at any time, if they’ve made a high speed approach from the Red Sea.  By the time you read this, the carrier could already have passed through the strait – if she’s going directly in, which isn’t a given.  Under normal circumstances, no announcement of that is made in advance.

In the current situation, I would expect the U.S. 5th Fleet and the strike group commander to prefer two escorts for the carrier going through the strait.

But, again, it’s possible the carrier won’t follow previous patterns by heading straight into the Gulf.

Back when being in the Gulf was the routine posture, it was because the main effort the carrier was dedicated to was supporting ground operations in Iraq and Syria.  That priority has changed.

The main effort for the carrier on this visit is deterring Iran.  That could well dictate a more dynamic posture: one that’s not about assuming conditions in the Strait of Hormuz, but shaping them with focus and purpose.  And that could mean remaining outside the strait for now, to retain operational latitude and avoid disadvantage.

The local problem will be multifaceted.  If there has been sabotage of ships near Fujairah, and if Iran was behind it, Iran’s initial purpose is probably to complicate the operational problem for the U.S. coalition by tying up escort ships in some scheme to protect commercial shipping.  Iran isn’t likely to go directly for a closure of the Strait of Hormuz; it will be sufficient for now to stretch coalition forces thin dealing with a host of scattered threats.

Fujairah is an obvious place to make a statement about our vulnerability to that general method.  The UAE pipeline that now bypasses the Strait of Hormuz, which came online in 2012, runs from Habshan in the west to Fujairah in the east, where the oil that flows through it is loaded on tankers for export.  Stealthy sabotage of tankers sitting off Fujairah would send a big signal.

Google map; author annotation

Moreover, if the U.S. and coalition forces adopt a posture that requires operating mostly outside the Gulf, the coalition navy ships would be expected to make even more use than they already do of Fujairah and other east coast ports in UAE and Oman.  Sabotage off Fujairah would send quite as big a signal about Iran’s ability to get to navy assets, if we try to park too close when stopping for gas and stores.

It could also function as a signal about vulnerability to asymmetric attacks for our shore infrastructure, including that of the service contractors who cooperate with us in the host nations.

It is wise to wait and see what develops out of this, rather than trying to preview all potential scenarios now.  But if there really have been four tankers damaged in the same place on the same day, and two regional nations are calling it sabotage, the odds aren’t good that it was merely an accident of some kind.  A mere accident would be better for insurance rates, insurability, and business in general.  Neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis would say “sabotage” lightly.

But they did say it.  We probably haven’t heard the last of this sequence of events.

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