Saudi Arabia joins US-led maritime coalition in Gulf amid rising tensions
Saudi Arabia on Wednesday said it would join a US-led international maritime safety coalition in the Gulf in the wake of an attack on its oil facilities over the weekend.
Saudi Arabia said Wednesday it joined a U.S.-led coalition to secure the Mideast's waterways amid threats from Iran after an attack targeting its crucial oil industry, while Iran's president told the kingdom it should see the attack as a warning to end its yearslong war in Yemen.
The kingdom's decision to enter the International Maritime Security Construct came ahead of a planned visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Saudi officials separately planned to share information about the weapons used to attack a Saudi oil field and the world's largest crude oil processing plant Saturday.
Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have claimed the attack. The U.S. accuses Iran of being behind the assault, while Saudi Arabia already has said "Iranian weaponry" was used. Iran denies that, though it comes amid a summer of heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency carried a statement Wednesday morning quoting an unnamed official saying the kingdom had joined the International Maritime Security Construct.
Australia, Bahrain and the United Kingdom already have joined the mission.
"The kingdom's accession to this international alliance comes in support of regional and international efforts to deter and counter threats to maritime navigation and global trade," the news agency said.
Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, declined to comment on the Saudi announcement, saying it "would be inappropriate to comment on the status of individual nations and the nature of any potential support."
The coalition aims to secure the broader Persian Gulf region. It includes surveillance of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of the world's oil travels, and the Bab el-Mandeb, another narrow strait that connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden off Yemen and East Africa. Smaller patrol boats and other craft will be available for rapid response. The plan also allows for nations to escort their own ships through the region.
The U.S. blames Iran for the apparent limpet mine explosions on four vessels in May and another two in June sailing in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, something Iran denies being behind. Iran also seized a British-flagged oil tanker and another based in the United Arab Emirates.
It's unclear what role the kingdom will play in the coalition. Bahrain already serves at the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
In Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told his Cabinet that Saudi Arabia should see the attack as a warning to end its war in Yemen, where it has fought the Houthi rebels since 2015 and sought to restore the internationally recognized government.
Rouhani said Yemenis "did not hit hospitals, they did not hit schools or the Sanaa bazaar," mentioning the Saudi-led coalition's widely criticized airstrikes.
He added that Iran does not want conflict in the region, but it was the Saudi-led coalition that "waged the war in the region and ruined Yemen."
"They attacked an industrial center to warn you. Learn the lesson from the warning," he said, portraying the Houthis as responsible for the drone strikes.
He did not address accusations Iran was behind the attacks in the video shown on state television.
Wednesday's announcements comes after Saudi Arabia's energy minister said late Tuesday that more than half of the country's daily crude oil production that was knocked out by an attack had been recovered and that production capacity at its targeted plants would be fully restored by the end of the month.
"Where would you find a company in this whole world that went through such a devastating attack and came out like a phoenix?" Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said about state-owned Saudi Aramco, which was the target of the attacks. His question to reporters, many of them Saudi, drew applause.
Prince Abdulaziz said Aramco will honor its commitments to its customers this month by drawing from its reserves of crude oil and offering additional crude production from other oil fields. He said production capacity would reach up to 11 million barrels a day by the end of September and 12 million barrels in November.
He said production at the Abqaiq processing facility is currently at 2 million barrels per day.
Oil prices spiked Monday, with benchmark Brent crude having the biggest percentage gain since the 1991 Gulf War. Prices dropped Tuesday around the Saudi announcement. Brent traded Wednesday morning around the same prices as the day before, with a barrel costing over $64.
Pompeo was due to land in the Red Sea city of Jiddah, where he was scheduled to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Pompeo later will travel to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday to meet with Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Both nations are U.S. allies and have been fighting against the Houthis in Yemen since March 2015.
The Saudi military planned to speak to journalists Wednesday in Riyadh to discuss the investigation into Saturday's attack "and present material evidence and Iranian weapons proving the Iranian regime's involvement." It did not elaborate.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that U.S. military experts were in Saudi Arabia working with their counterparts to "do the forensics on the attack" — gleaning evidence that could help build a convincing case for where the weapons originated.
On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron's office announced experts from his nation would be traveling to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom shed light " on the origin and methods" of the attacks. France has been trying to find a diplomatic solution to the tensions between Iran and the U.S., so any conclusion they draw could be used to show what a third-party assessed happened.