A small boat laden with explosives rammed an oil tanker at the port of Jeddah along the coast of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia on December 14th. The attack, which no one has taken credit for, struck the Singapore-flagged BW Rhine, causing hull damage, a fire, and a small oil leak. In recent years, Saudi oil facilities and strategic targets have faced attacks from drones and missiles with similarly vague culprits.
In a statement as reported by the Wall Street Journal, a spokesman at the Saudi Ministry of Energy said, “These acts of terrorism and vandalism, directed against vital installations, go beyond the Kingdom and its vital facilities, to the security and stability of energy supplies to the world and the global economy.” It was further reported that two European maritime security officials claim the attack was likely carried out by Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have been fighting against Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen. A similar incident occurred in Jeddah recently where explosive laden boats were intercepted by the Saudi coalition close to the Yemeni port of Hodeidah in the days leading up to the attack.
While this attack caused only minor damage and no casualties, experts have pointed to the greater potential threat to Saudi infrastructure. The Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote a brief in August 2019 in which the group detailed the threats to Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. These threats include the vulnerabilities of major oil fields and crude storage facilities, as well as desalination sites which would severely threaten the water source of millions of people if taken offline. The attacks also threaten worldwide economic activities. Bloomberg news reported that experts believe that this most recent attack was “intended to cause panic throughout the international shipping community and in turn impact Saudi commercial interests.” In this way, targeting oil transportation mimics Iranian actions in the spring and summer of 2019 when multiple oil tankers were attacked or harassed in the Persian Gulf en route to or from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Those incidents prompted significant international attention, especially after the Iranian military shot down an American drone which they claimed had breached Iranian airspace.
This string of attacks alongside the ongoing war in Yemen speak to a deeper issue on the Arabian Peninsula and in the Persian Gulf. The regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and their respective allies and proxies continues to generate instability and uncertainty with no resolution in sight. As these conflicts persist, unclaimed attacks likely carried out by Iran or its partners on civilian infrastructure grow to threaten critical services and economic activity in Saudi Arabia and throughout the world. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen continues to contribute to famine, the bombing of civilians, and the breakdown of governance. International actors can reign in this conflict by strengthening regulations on arms sales and their use, and by promoting multilateral agreements for de-escalation such as the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement.
The attacks in Jeddah follow the covert assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in late November, calling into question the strength of the Iranian government to defend its interests. According to Kamran Bokhari at the Center for Global Policy, the nature of this attack may indicate Iran’s desire to also demonstrate its ability to strike close to home against its enemies’ targets. The struggle for power in the Middle East continues in tit-for-tat retributive strikes, with the potential for spillover if anyone treads too far. While relatively minor in direct impact, this incident represents the current instabilities of ongoing regional conflicts.