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Oil tanker off Saudi Arabia is hit by blast in suspected attack

Seagulls fly across from the Red Sea port city of Jidda, Saudi Arabia.
(Amr Nabil / Associated Press)

An oil tanker off the Saudi Arabian port city of Jidda suffered an explosion early Monday after being hit by “an external source,” a shipping company said, suggesting that another vessel has come under attack off the kingdom amid its years-long war in Yemen.

The apparent attack on the Singapore-flagged BW Rhine, which had been contracted by the trading arm of the kingdom’s massive Saudi Arabian Oil Co., marks the fourth assault targeting Saudi energy infrastructure in a month. It also apparently shut down Jidda’s port, the most important shipping point for the kingdom.

The incident renews concerns about ship safety in the Red Sea, a crucial transit zone for global shipping and energy supplies that had largely avoided the fallout of regional tensions involving the U.S. and Iran last year.

The BW Rhine had berthed at Jidda on Saturday, carrying more than 66,000 tons of unleaded gasoline from an Aramco refinery at Yanbu for consumption in the kingdom, according to the data-analysis firm Refinitiv. It was there that the explosion appears to have occurred.

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The ship was “been hit from an external source whilst discharging,” said Haifna, a tanker company under the BW Group that owns and operates the ship.

The strike caused an explosion and fire onboard the ship. All 22 sailors on board escaped without injury, and firefighters later extinguished the blaze, Haifna said. Some oil may have polluted the water alongside the ship, but the company said it was still assessing the damage.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels say they struck a Saudi oil facility in the port city of Jidda with a new cruise missile.

Saudi Arabia has not yet acknowledged the blast.

The United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations, an organization under Britain’s royal navy, urged ships in the area to exercise caution and said investigations were ongoing. It later said Jidda’s port had been shut down for a “duration unknown,” without elaborating.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, also reported the blast. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Mideast, did not respond to a request for comment.

No one immediately offered a cause for the incident. However, the explosion comes after a mine exploded and damaged a ship off Saudi Arabia last month. Another mysterious attack targeted a cargo ship off the small port city of Nishtun in Yemen’s far east earlier this month.

Houthi rebels are blocking the U.N. from inspecting an abandoned oil tanker off the coast of Yemen laden with more than 1 million barrels of oil.

Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have used sea mines before in their long war against a Saudi-led coalition. However, the Houthis have not commented on last month’s attack.

Dryad Global said that, if the Houthis were behind Monday’s blast, it “would represent a fundamental shift in both targeting capabilities and intent.”

Since mid-November, there has also been what Saudi Arabia described as an attempted attack at Jazan by a bomb-laden drone boat, as well as a cruise-missile attack claimed by the Houthis that struck an Aramco oil facility in Jidda.

The incidents come after tensions between the U.S. and Iran last year saw a series of escalating incidents in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the nearby Gulf of Oman. While the U.S. has put together a new coalition to monitor shipping there after those incidents, it doesn’t operate in the Red Sea.

Despite a civil war and the COVID-19 pandemic, Yemen remains a crossing point for tens of thousands of East African migrants headed for Saudi Arabia.

In recent weeks, an attack in Iran killed a prominent scientist who founded Tehran’s military nuclear program two decades ago, an assault suspected to have been carried out by Israel.

The Red Sea, with the Suez Canal to the north and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to the south, is a vital shipping lane for both cargo and global energy supplies. Its currents change seasonally and now run north. Saudi Arabia recently accused the Houthis of dumping mines into the southern Red Sea, which could be carried toward Jidda.

The Red Sea has previously been planted with mines. In 1984, some 19 ships reported striking mines there, with only one ever being recovered and disarmed, according to a U.N. panel of experts investigating Yemen’s war. Any new mines could endanger global shipping and would be difficult to find for any minesweeping operation — raising the risks and potentially the cost of insurance for those sailing in the region.

“The series of escalations in the Red Sea will certainly raise the risk profile of the region,” said Ranjith Raja, the head of Middle East and North Africa oil and shipping research at Refinitiv. “This could in turn also increase the insurance premiums for added protection on vessels operating in the region, which would have an impact on the cost of shipment.”


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