(CNSNews.com) – The United Arab Emirates’ foreign ministry confirmed Sunday that four commercial ships had been “sabotaged” near a major oil tanker hub about 80 nautical miles from the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz, but denied reports claiming that the port itself had been targeted and disabled.
Reports about multiple blasts early Sunday morning come at a time of stepped up tensions in the Persian Gulf, amid ongoing Iranian threats to block the crucial chokepoint and the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier group and bombers to the region.
Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih confirmed early Monday that two Saudi oil tankers were damaged in the incident, which he said occurred as they were heading towards the Gulf. One had been en route to pick up crude from a Saudi terminal, to be delivered to the U.S., the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) quoted him as saying.
Al-Falih denounced this attack, saying it was aimed at undermining freedom of navigation and the security of oil supplies.
The incident was reported two days after the U.S. Maritime Administration warned of potential risk of attacks on ships in the region, including oil tankers and U.S. naval vessels, by “Iran or its proxies.”
On Sunday Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese media outlet viewed as sympathetic towards Hezbollah and Iran, claimed that heavy explosions had occurred in the port of Fujairah – one of the seven emirates making up the UAE – and cited unnamed “sources” as saying U.S. and French warplanes had been seen flying over the area at the time.
It claimed that between seven and ten oil tankers in the port were in flames.
Iranian news outlets and a pro-Kremlin news agency in Russia then picked up the Al-Mayadeen reports.
Later Sunday, the UAE foreign ministry confirmed that four vessels in waters east of Fujairah had been “subjected to sabotage operations,” saying that no injuries or deaths had been reported, and that no fuel or harmful chemicals had been spilled as a result of the incidents. Investigations were underway.
Quoted by the WAM state news agency, the ministry said committing acts of sabotage on commercial vessels and jeopardizing the lives of those onboard was “a serious development,” and that the international community should “assume its responsibilities to prevent such actions by parties attempting to undermine maritime traffic safety and security.”
It also said that despite “baseless and unfounded” rumors, the port of Fujairah was not affected, and that operations there were underway as usual.
Fujairah is based on UAE’s east coast and thus lies south of the Strait of Hormuz. The strategic location means departing oil tankers can avoid the narrow waterway and Iranian territorial waters as they head for the open sea en route to international energy markets.
An oil pipeline linking UAE’s onshore fields to Fujairah began operating in 2012, and the world’s biggest crude oil storage facility is being built there, all in line with efforts to cut costs and reduce the need for tankers to navigate Hormuz. Currently about 30 percent of the world’s daily seaborne-traded crude oil traverses the narrow Hormuz channel on its way to world markets, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Dozens of vessels are typically anchored around Fujairah on any given day.
Exactly how the ships were sabotaged remains unclear, but condemnation of the incident came from the UAE’s allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council and from Egypt and Jordan.
The SPA cited GCC secretary general Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani as saying the incident “reflects evil intents of the sides who planned and executed those operations, putting the safety of navigation in the region to a great jeopardy and threatening the lives of civil crews working on sea vessels.”
He warned that such actions would only “increase the degree of tension and struggle in the region and jeopardize the interests of their peoples.”
Not unexpectedly, the reports in Lebanese, Iranian and Russian media led to a proliferation of rumor and theorizing on social media about who would benefit from an attack in the area. Depending on viewpoint, suspicions were directed at the U.S., the Israelis, the anti-Iran Gulf states, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
Dramatic posted photos of a burning tanker purportedly damaged in Sunday’s incident turned out to show a tanker damaged in a collision off Dubai a decade ago.
Kayhan, a hardline Iranian newspaper whose editor is appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, published a column by a staff writer repeating the contested Al-Mayadeen claims, and saying speculation about responsibility included the suspicion that U.S. forces “looking for pretexts to ignite tensions in the region” had dropped bombs on the ships.
Whatever the cause, the writer said, it “cannot be ignored that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are sitting ducks for such attacks which might increase in view of the dangerous policies of these two American client states in terrorizing their own populations and neighbors on behalf of their masters.”
Last week the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike group vessels transited the Suez Canal en route to the Gulf region and B-52 strategic bombers arrived in Qatar’s Al-Udeid air base, according to U.S. Central Command.
Tensions in the region have been rising over the year since President Trump quit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. This month the U.S. ended waivers on Iran’s shipments of crude, meaning any customer continuing to buy the Iranian product risks U.S. sanctions.