LONDON - Tensions in the Gulf region have seen a significant spike with possible ramifications beyond the Middle East.
The collapse of the international nuclear agreement and dealing with demonstrations at home have led to heightened rhetoric from Iranian officials, while their proxies, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, continue to fire missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia.
“You [Americans] made the Red Sea, which was once safe, an unsafe sea. You have put Riyadh and Saudi Arabia, which were not hit by a mortar for 100 years, under fire,” Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force said in reaction to a Twitter spat between US President Donald Trump and Iranian officials on July 22.
Soleimani, who also said the Red Sea was no longer safe for the United States, was referencing ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels. They have been battling a Saudi-led coalition supporting Yemen’s internationally recognised government for control of the strategic port city of Hodeidah.
Since the start of the military drive to liberate the port and the city, the Houthis have increased missile attacks targeting civilian areas in Saudi Arabia and allegedly also attempted a drone attack on the Abu Dhabi airport. The UAE government denied such an attack took place.
The Houthis also attacked two Saudi tankers on July 25, leading Riyadh to suspend shipments through the Bab el Mandeb Strait, a decision that caused a spike in oil prices.
“In the interest of the safety of ships and their crews and to avoid the risk of oil spill, Saudi Aramco has temporarily halted all oil shipments through Bab [el] Mandeb Strait with immediate effect,” a Saudi Aramco statement said. “The company is carefully assessing the situation and will take further action as prudence demands.”
The international community and Saudi allies labelled the tanker attack an act of terror. Kuwait said it was considering suspending oil shipments through Bab el Mandeb, which has long been considered a high-risk area.
“The attack is a flagrant violation of international conventions and law stipulating freedom of navigation in international waterways,” Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“The targeted attack on the Saudi oil tankers in the Red Sea confirms the necessity to liberate [Hodeidah] from Houthi militias,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash posted on Twitter. “This systematic attack is a terrorist act which shows the nature and aggression of the Houthis.”
“We are worried about a divergence of views between us and Europe over Iran,” Gargash said during a talk at the Policy Exchange think-tank in London. He said the UAE favours the US method in dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions over European efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear agreement, which many in the Gulf said empowered Iran to further regional destabilising projects, including the war in Yemen.
“You can’t take a quietist view of all this or you’re allowing Iran to build another Hezbollah in the Arabian Peninsula,” Gargash said regarding the Houthis.
The Saudi-led coalition has increased bombardment of rebel-held areas in western Hodeidah and preparations for a major offensive to take the historic city of Zabid, were also under way.
“We have to address this. We’re not happy to be fighting in Yemen but we have to do some of the burden-sharing.” Gargash said. “We know that we can no longer rely on the United States or the United Kingdom to lead such military operations.”
“In this current international system, it is no longer ‘write a cheque and someone is going to come and secure the stability in the region.’ You have to do some of the burden-sharing,” Gargash explained.
Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.