Huthi attack in key strait could provoke intervention

Escalation of tensions in the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait could encourage outside powers to intervene in Yemen's "forgotten" war.

DUBAI - Saudi Arabia's halt to oil shipments through a strategic waterway after Yemeni rebel attacks could provoke an international intervention in Yemen's "forgotten" war, analysts say.

The world's top oil exporter on Wednesday suspended all oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandab Strait after accusing Iran-aligned Huthis of having attacked two giant tankers carrying four million barrels of crude.

"All oil shipments through Bab al-Mandab Strait have been suspended temporarily until... maritime transit through the area is safe," Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih announced.

One of the vessels sustained only minor damage in Wednesday's attack and there were no casualties, the Saudi national oil company Aramco said, while the Huthis said they targeted a Saudi warship.

The escalation of tensions in the strategic region could encourage outside powers to intervene, said Ellen Wald, author of the book "Saudi Inc".

"The Red Sea is a very important shipping lane. If there is a major disruption, European powers, Egypt and the United States would all have reason to intervene," she wrote in Forbes magazine.

"An international intervention against the Huthis may be just what Saudi Arabia wants."

Global oil prices rose slightly after the incident but industry experts said the increase was likely to be minimal and short-lived.

The incident, however, draws the attention of the international community to the dangers of spillover from Yemen's festering three-year-old war.

The Bab al-Mandab connects the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea and is a narrow, strategic navigation lane for oil and international trade.

"The Saudi halt will cause prices to increase slightly and for a limited period," Kuwaiti oil expert Kamel al-Harami said.

"It will cause a 15-day delay in oil shipments as they have to re-route through south of the African continent," Harami said.

The main impact of the incident appears to be military, according to Harami.

"It could be a reason for increased naval presence for many countries, mainly the United States and Russia, thus resulting in an escalation of tensions," he said.

The suspension comes as Saudi Arabia seeks to ramp up oil production under pressure from the United States.

Already there are concerns over the implication of US-Iran tensions on oil markets.

James Dorsey, an expert on Middle East affairs, said the attacks on oil tankers would draw international attention to Yemen.

"A spike in oil prices.. may be short-lived, but the impact on Yemen's forgotten war is likely to put the devastating conflict on the front burner," he said.

"The halt of oil shipments could provoke an escalation of the conflict with external powers intervening in a bid to assist Saudi Arabia."

'Threat to international trade'

"The halt potentially offers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates an opportunity to focus international attention on resolving a civil war aggravated and turned into a regional conflict by the two Gulf states' military intervention," Dorsey said.

Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015, leading a military coalition backing the country's government after Huthi rebels ousted it from the capital Sanaa the previous year.

At least 10,000 people have been killed and thousands others wounded in Yemen, one of the world's most impoverished nations.

Over 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian aid, millions are on the brink of famine and hundreds of thousands have been infected with diseases, mainly cholera.

Oil tankers from the Gulf pass through the Bab al-Mandab to enter the Red Sea headed for Europe through the Suez Canal.

About 4.8 million barrels of crude oil and refined products pass through the waterway each day, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly raised alarm that Huthi rebels threaten vessels in the Red Sea through their control of the strategic Hodeida port.

"This terrorist attack is a dangerous threat to the freedom of navigation and international trade in the Red Sea," said Turki al-Maliki, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition.

Pro-government forces backed up by the coalition have paused an assault on Hodeida port in a bid they say to give UN-led peace efforts a chance.