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Two Saudi oil tankers attacked on way to Persian Gulf

Incident adds to heightened tensions in the Gulf as the US increases pressure on Iran

Dubai

SAUDI Arabia said two of its oil tankers were attacked while sailing towards the Persian Gulf, adding to regional tensions as the US increases pressure on Iran.

The Saudi tankers were damaged in "a sabotage attack" off the United Arab Emirates coast on Sunday, state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported. The vessels were approaching the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most important chokepoint for oil shipments. The UAE foreign ministry on Sunday reported an attack on four commercial ships near its territorial waters. No one has claimed responsibility.

The precise nature of the incident remained unclear - neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE said exactly what happened - but the report comes at a time of heightened tensions in the Gulf. The US has deployed an aircraft carrier, bomber planes and defence missiles to the region amid worsening friction with Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.

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Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said the incident aims "to undermine the freedom of maritime navigation, and the security of oil supplies to consumers all over the world," according to SPA. He urged the international community to ensure the security of oil tankers "to mitigate against the adverse consequences of such incidents on energy markets, and the danger they pose to the global economy".

Antagonism between the US and Iran intensified this month after President Donald Trump ended exceptions to US sanctions on Iranian oil sales. The Islamic Republic has threatened to block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the US halts Iranian energy exports and threatened to scale back its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi described the maritime incident as "concerning and regrettable" and called for efforts to shed light on what exactly happened, the semi-official Tasnim News reported. He warned against "foreign seditious plots to upset the region's security and stability".

Global crude benchmark Brent for July settlement rose as much as 71 cents, or 1 per cent, to US$71.33 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange on Monday. Oil had been losing ground since late last month on signs that Saudi Arabia would pump more to make up for lost Iranian barrels and a looming trade war between the world's two largest economies, the US and China.

Rising geopolitical tension has also weighed on stock markets in the Gulf this week. Dubai's benchmark dropped 1.5 per cent at 11.06am local time, outpacing losses on the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. Saudi Arabia's Tadawul All Share Index retreated 0.9 per cent, heading for the lowest close since March 17.

The UAE's foreign ministry said it's investigating the tanker incident with local and international parties. No one was hurt, and no fuel or chemicals were spilled, the state-run WAM news agency quoted the ministry as saying. One of the two Saudi tankers was on its way to the port of Ras Tanura to load oil for shipment to the US, according to SPA.

Attacks on oil tankers in the turbulent Gulf have been rare since 1991. Saudi Arabia continued shipping through the Strait of Hormuz during the so-called tanker war, a phase of the 1981-88 conflict between Iraq and Iran when both foes attacked vessels in the Gulf. Oil exports flowed also during the first Gulf War in 1990-91.

A Japanese tanker, the M Star, was damaged in a bomb attack in 2010 when it was docked about 14 miles (22 kilometres) off the UAE coast near the port of Fujairah. The Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, a militant jihadist group, claimed responsibility.

The Strait of Hormuz connects the Gulf to the Indian Ocean. Iran lies to the north and the UAE and Oman to the south. Hormuz is the single most important waterway for global oil shipments, with tankers hauling about 40 per cent of all the crude traded internationally every day. All oil exports from Kuwait, Iran, Qatar and Bahrain, more than 90 per cent of those from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and 75 per cent of shipments from the UAE pass through the strait. BLOOMBERG