Is the Middle East ignoring Gulf tanker crisis?

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June 16, 2019 14:28
2 minute read.
An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. (photo credit: ISNA/REUTERS)

 
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The attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which led to a massive fire on one of them and the evacuation of both, appeared to be the curtain-raiser to a larger crisis.

However, regional powers are treading carefully, looking to Washington for leadership amid worries of another conflict in the Middle East.

On Saturday both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two countries that have been most critical of Iran’s aggressive foreign policy over the years, did not have major reactions to the tanker attack. Saudi Arabia instead was dealing with yet another drone attack, which have become an almost daily occurrence. Saudi Arabia targeted Houthi rebel forces in retaliation on Saturday, according to Al-Arabiya.

The National in the UAE, which one might assume would have wall-to-wall coverage of tankers being attacked in a shipping lane so vital to the Emirates, also had only limited coverage of the fallout from the tanker attack. It’s main article noted that officials of an unnamed country were “playing down” any speculation that the US would respond promptly. Instead the issue was depicted as mostly a western problem. The UK, Europeans, the US, Japan and Norway were said to be integral to any response. And “Gulf allies.” One might think that the Gulf powers – Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia – would be taking the lead here. They have an organization, the Gulf Cooperation Council, that could lead the effort. They could investigate.

They already had to deal with a May 12 incident in which four ships were sabotaged, two from the UAE and one from Saudi Arabia and Norway. In the June 13 attack a Norwegian and Japanese-owned ship were attacked. Qatar, although it is in the Gulf, appears to busy meeting with the Iranians to actually do much about the incident. The Qataris were in Tajikistan for the fifth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia on Saturday. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the event, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and then the Iranians. He discussed “bilateral relations” with Iran and the importance of “dialogue to resolve differences,” thanking Iran for its support against a blockade imposed by Qatar’s neighbors in 2017.

Other issues seem to dominate problems in the Middle East, besides the tanker attack. The US and other countries are concerned about a crackdown on protests in Sudan. Here Qatar’s hands are again influential. Kuwait praised Qatar’s role in Darfur in support of an African Union mission and political solutions there.

This doesn’t mean that there are no concerns about what comes next in the Gulf. Oil tankers navigating the Straits of Hormuz will have additional security, sources say. There will be increased patrols in the area, liked backed by the US. In addition an article in Al-Jarida says Kuwait may change the route of some of its tankers. The main message is “calm.” No one wants a new tanker war, or a war at all in this key economic area where thirty percent of the world’s seaborne oil is carried. Clearly Iran, which the US accuses of being behind the attack, is not being treated like a pariah by other regional countries and global powers, such as Russia, China or Turkey. This represents a major win for Tehran and also shows that Washington is considering the next step with extreme caution.

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