Smoke billows from one of the two tankers after they came under attack in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Fujairah, UAE recently (File photo)
America’s trade war with China seems to be entering a new phase with the Huawei ban in full force and Trump administration mulling further tariffs on Chinese imports. It is causing China to further strengthen its relationship with Russia in the year that marks 70 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Whilst these were the important developments that were shaping global discourse last week, the intensification of war of words led by US and Saudi Arabia against Iran is in a steady rise. The attacks on two oil tankers last week, off the coast of UAE have led to a latest round of escalation of tensions in the region and possibly have wider regional implications that affect countries like Sri Lanka.
The tensions in the Gulf will have repercussions across the globe if the energy supply chain is disrupted especially if tankers become constant targets. Sri Lanka is going through a multitude of political crises and it is compelled to deal with economic woes and energy short comings. Sri Lanka’s energy security conversations will have to be rethought given the events of the aftermath of Easter Sunday bombings and potential oil crises that may grip the world with sporadic price hikes given the tensions in the Middle East.
Heating Middle East
There were two major trends that were affecting politics in the Middle East in the last five years, primarily the sectarian divide that has become a new power rivalry within the region, pitting Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shi’a Iran and the proxy wars that have unravelled, especially in Yemen that has drawn a direct Saudi intervention to battle Iranian backed Houthi rebels.
The Houthi rebelshave become bold in their counter attacks against Saudi Arabia, and a couple of days back they launched a cruise missile attack on the Saudi civilian airport at Abha, in the capital of Southern Asir Province. The attack hit the arrivals terminal injuring nearly 30 civilians. Houthis used drones to attack oil transit facility in Riyad in May of this year. The Yemen war since its initiation in 2015 seems to be changing the conflict landscape in the Middle East and furthering the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Secondly, the Syrian conflict that has seen the internationalization of ISIS affiliates and drawing global players such as US, Russia and Iran and generating new forms of violent extremism that have created a global appeal. Sri Lankan cell that carried out a series of suicide attacks were directly influenced by the ideology of ISIS that went global due to its campaigns in Iraq but predominantly in Syria.
Fujairah, a new flashpoint
In May this year, four tankers; two belonging to Saudia Arabia the Amjad and Al Marzoqah, the Norwegian flagged Andrea Victory, and a barge of the UAE A.Michelall suffered catastrophic failures and were crippled. The governments involved have not provided what really crippled the ships, they claimed they were all sabotaged and claimed Iran was behind the acts of sabotage.
On June 12, two tankers one Front Altair registered with the Norwegian-basedFrontline group and the second Panama flagged Kokua Courageous, registered to the shipping giant Bernhard Schulte, suffered attacks off the coast of Fujairah. The attacks were attributed to magnetic sea mines or potential torpedo hits. Neither of which sank but crippled and its crews evacuated.
The attacks on tankers off the UAE coast of Fujairah shows the signs of a third hot spot in the region especially in an ocean system which is connecting it to the larger Indo-Pacific. Thus, the attacks represent divisions and tensions among Middle Eastern powers and the US yet given the location it signifies a larger strategic challenge to the energy security of Asia-Pacific region and further militarization of the Indian Ocean.
Fujairah is not just off the coast of UAE, it is one of the largest bunkering hubs in the world, but more importantly it is located on the seaward side of the strait of Hormuz. One of the most strategically important straits in the world with the presence of numerous military of the globe.
Fujairah is a strategically important port, both for its status as a bunkering hub and for its location on the seaward side of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow choke point between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Hormuz is known as the world’s most strategically vital choke-point with nearly 19 million barrels of oil transported a year. That amounts to nearly 30% of all seaborne crude oil and other liquid fuels. An equal amount of Liquid natural gas is also transited through Hormuz. Nearly one third of all oil and related products that are produced in the Gulf transit the Strait of Hormuz daily. Making it a strategically priced and competed neighbourhood.
Fallout from attacks
USA have already accused Iran being behind the attacks and claimed its guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge, provided support and aided the rescue of crew of the crippled tankers. Iran broadcast footage of the ships’s crew that were rescued by the Iranian navy that comprised of nearly a dozen Russians and Filipinos.
Iranian Authorities are blaming the attack as part of a conspiracy orchestrated to derail the ongoing visit of Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, who is the first Japanese PM to visit Iran in nearly four decades. Abe during his visit is trying to break the deadlock between Iran and the US and to de-escalate the tensions. This year marks the 90th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Iran and Japan.Despite the attempts of the Japanese PM, things are still bleak, the attacks off Fujairah will contribute further not just to tensions in the Middle East it will clearly spill over to the Indo- Pacific region. Prompting the regional and global players like the US to deepen and widen their naval and military presence in the region.
Implications on Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka which is encountering a gradual political decay while its social cohesion is imploding the last thing it needed was a Gulf crisis, not just because of our energy security concerns but because of the massive reliance on remittances from Sri Lankans working in the region. While the government needs to be careful about how the country navigates its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and Iran given the sectarian divisions that becoming international relations nightmares, a volatile oil market and militarized Indian ocean are both shocks that need attention to seek mitigation. The reason for Sri Lanka’s concerns are not just found on oil prices, remittances, or diplomatic relations with Gulf countries. US, India and China have clearly demonstrated their interests when it comes to Sri Lanka, the US is seeking to finalize a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) with Sri Lanka, the Indian establishment has made it quite clear with the recent visit of Prime Minister Modi to Sri Lanka about their reinvigorated neighborhood policy and China has reassured its interest to deepen security ties with Sri Lanka. Gulf tensions spilling to the Indian Ocean may accelerate pressure on Sri Lanka, the visit of United States secretary of State, Michael Pompeo to Sri Lanka has to be understood from this context.