On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia's state oil company announced that it would suspend all shipments through the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb in the Red Sea after its tankers were attacked off the coast of Yemen. The halt will affect the flow of crude from the world's top oil exporter to markets in Europe and the United States.
"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 with immediate effect. The company is carefully assessing the situation and will take further action as prudence demands," Aramco said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Khalid Al-Falih, confirmed that two VLCCs operated by state-owned shipping company Bahri were attacked by Houthi rebels Wednesday morning in the Red Sea. One of the ships sustained minimal damage, according to Saudi Aramco. No injuries or pollution have been reported.
Earlier in the day, Houthi rebels had claimed responsibility for an attack on an unnamed Saudi tanker off the contested port of Hodeidah, Yemen.
Stopping crude shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb strait—which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden—marks another escalation in the war between an Arab military coalition and Houthi rebels for control of Yemen. Saudi Arabia is attempting to ramp up oil exports amid an effort to keep the world well-supplied with oil as the U.S. squeezes Iran’s oil exports.
Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthi rebels in a three-year war, lies beside the southern mouth of the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers. The tankers pass near Yemen’s shores while heading from the Middle East through the Suez Canal to Europe.
Wednesday's incidents were the latest in a long series of Houthi attacks on merchant and naval vessels off the coast of Yemen. In April, Houthi armed militias conducted a missile attack on the tanker Abqaiq, resulting slight damage to her bow. At the time, Minister al Falih said that the attack would not "affect economic activity or stall oil supplies."
The Houthi rebels are widely believed to be backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia's primary competitor for regional influence. Separately, Iran has also threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz - the strategic chokepoint at the mouth of the Persian Gulf - if the United States should reimpose sanctions on Iranian oil exports after the Trump Administration pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal earlier this year.