Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday afternoon it is suspending oil shipments through the Red Sea after a Saudi oil tanker was attacked and damaged by Houthi forces in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The move is extraordinarily swift and decisive, and holds the potential to disrupt shipping in the area. The Red Sea shipping lanes are a highly used route for Saudi Arabian oil tankers, as well as international commerce. The Saudi move could motivate other nations to follow suit if the attacks continue.
This is not the first time the Bab el Mandeb Straits has been used by Houthi rebels to launch attacks on shipping. In 2016 US Naval forces intercepted two anti-ship missiles that were launched by Houthis and targeted at US ships in the area. This past April a Saudi oil tanker was attacked in the strait, receiving minor damage. Saudi Arabia’s response then was more restrained. Oil shipments continued, and Riyadh assured nervous observers the incident would not affect oil supplies.
The war of words between Iran and the United States, and the coming snapback of sanctions against Iran on 6 August threaten to heighten current tensions. Wednesday’s attack on the tanker could be a sign of things to come. In response to the sanctions, Iran might encourage the Houthis, and other proxy groups to intensify attacks against tankers, and resume confrontational skirmishes between Iranian naval forces and the US Navy in the Persian Gulf and surrounding areas. So far in 2018 there have been no incidents between US and Iranian vessels. Before the Iranian nuclear deal was implemented, and even afterward, Tehran has used the harassment tactics to try and strengthen its position. They might turn to it once again, if some of the rhetoric coming from inside of Iran is any indication.