US aiding UAE investigation into ‘sabotage attack’ off Fujairah

The threat to a vital shipping route and the risk of conflict has experts concerned

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The US is assisting the UAE investigation after a reported sabotage operation targeted four vessels in the Gulf of Oman late on Sunday.

A US defence official told Reuters on Monday that the “US military is assisting in the investigation on the attack on the commercial vessels near Fujairah emirate, just outside the Strait of Hormuz.”

The State Department, like the UAE government, has remained tight-lipped about the exact nature of the incident.

A US coast guard statement on Sunday indicated that a “maritime incident” had been reported off the coast of Fujairah.

“The nature of the event is reported to be attacks or sabotage on one or more vessels,” the statement said. “The precise means of attack or sabotage is unknown.”

The coast guard advised vessels to “exercise caution when transiting this area” until Sunday, unless another alert is issued.

The incident has raised concerns among former US officials and security experts over threats to maritime security, the potential impact on the global economy and energy transit in the Gulf region.

“Reports of hostile actions against oil tankers in the Gulf are extremely worrisome,” said Stephen Seche, a former US ambassador to Yemen and executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“It is imperative at a moment of such peril that all nations exercise caution and prudence as investigations continue into the incidents and what caused the damage suffered by these ships.”

Following an investigation and if “sufficient evidence emerges to enable conclusions to be drawn regarding responsibility for these apparent attacks, the international community should use the mechanisms available to it through the United Nations to respond resolutely to ensure the safe transit of energy supplies essential to the global economy,” he added.

The timing of the incident makes the sabotage off Fujairah even more alarming and increases the risk of miscalculation, as tensions between the US and Iran escalate and Washington dispatches two warships to the Gulf waters, said Ryan Bohl, a middle east and north Africa analyst at US intelligence firm Stratfor.

“Given that tensions are as high as they are, an accidental escalation is likely from an incident like this,” Mr Bohl said.

Shipping firms may consider increasing security while sailing through the Gulf, Mr Bohl told The National.

“If it's shown to be an intentional act, especially by Iran or an Iranian proxy, then we're getting closer to seeing ships needing to beef up their security and for the US to get more involved in patrolling these routes,” Mr Bohl said.

But an increased US naval presence in the Gulf could heighten tensions further. “The more US ships there are in the region, the more likely we're looking at an accidental escalation, since the increased volume of boats means there are more opportunities for run-ins between the Navy and the Iranians,” he said.

The White House and the US military’s Central Command – which covers the Middle East region – were not available for comment.