Threats escalate in the Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz

USS Bataan transits the Strait of Hormuz. Credit: U.S. Navy/Quartermaster 1st Class Thomas E. Dowling

In the Middle East, the Straits of Hormuz (SOH) and the Gulf of Oman (GOO) have swiftly and dramatically overtaken the Southern Red Sea as the area of highest risk to maritime traffic in the past two months. The threat of mines, water-borne IEDs, and surface-to-surface missiles off Yemen has been eclipsed by four threatening acts in the approaches to the GOO, two of which could have cost lives.

On 12 May 2019, four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs. The vessels were two Saudi-owned crude oil tankers, VLCC Amjad and LR2 Al Marzoqah, a UAE-flagged bunker barge, A Michel, and a Norwegian-registered oil products tanker, Andrea Victory. No oil was spilled but the attack caused significant damage to the ships’ structures. An initial inspection pointed to the use of limpet mines.

Then, on 13 June the Marshall Islands flagged crude tanker Front Altair and the Singaporean-managed product tanker Kokuka Courageous suffered explosions while under way some 10 miles off the southeastern coast of Iran. The explosions were at or above the waterline. Neither vessel was flagged to a nation related to the Saudi-led coalition. The attack appears to have been well planned and co-ordinated and bore a resemblance to the Fujairah attacks. On 20 June, a US surveillance drone was shot down by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The US came close to retaliating but called off its attack due to the potential for civilian casualties.

Most recently, on 10 July 2019, the British Heritage, owned by BP Shipping, was approached by three IRGC Navy boats as it sailed through the Arabian Gulf towards the SOH. The Iranians ordered the vessel to stop in nearby Iranian territorial waters, according to the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), but withdrew after HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy frigate that had been escorting the tanker, trained its guns on the Iranians and warned them to move away.

Tensions are high in the Arabian Gulf and its approaches. The Iranians are considering their options since the US withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal in May 2018 and imposed sanctions on the republic. For the UK side, the detention on 5 July off Gibraltar of a tanker carrying Iranian oil, supposedly bound for Syria, caused the IRGC Navy to threaten to go after a British tanker. Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen is also likely to explain its supposed targeting of the Saudi-flagged tankers off Fujairah. In short, in an economically weakened position, Iran still feels it can and should flex its muscles in its own back yard.

As reported by Gard, the threat level to oil and gas related shipping was assessed as high in mid-June by the Norwegian Shipowners’ Mutual War Risk Insurance Association and clear guidance has been issued. This urges ship operators and masters to exercise extreme caution when operating in the region and to:

  • follow the relevant guidance provided by BMP5 and the Global Counter-Piracy Guidance;
  • undertake a new ship and voyage specific threat assessment before entering any region where there has been an incident, or the threat level has changed, and review the Ship’s Security Plan; and
  • stay in close contact with the ship’s agent and other local sources to obtain the most up-to-date information available at any given time.

Additional advice is provided by Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) and International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO) and includes maintaining full and vigilant bridge watches; and strict communications with all vessels coming close. It advises on the state of gangways and ladders, to rig extra lighting and to report any suspicious activity immediately.

At the time of writing, the UK Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan had been deployed early to the Gulf, although just at the time when, strategically, the UK wishes to de-escalate tensions. There is an obvious conflict here: there are usually between 15 and 30 British-flagged ships operating in the vicinity of the SOH at any day – more than for which the Royal Navy can realistically provide escorts.