Jeddah Port in Saudi Arabia. For illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: File

Abu Dhabi: An oil tanker off Saudi Arabia’s port city of Jeddah was attacked on Monday by a smaller boat rigged with explosives, causing a small fire onboard the ship, but all sailors on board escaped without injury and firefighters later extinguished the blaze, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported, citing an official from the state energy ministry.

The unnamed official did not name any suspects, but pointed to the seriousness of such criminal acts and the threat they pose to maritime traffic, the security of oil exports and the freedom of global trade, in addition to the environmental consequences of potential gas or oil leakage.

The source stressed that “the world today, more than ever before, is in an urgent need to stand together, standing together, against such subversive terrorist acts, and to take practical deterrent measures against all terrorist actors that carry them out and support them.”

The terrorist attack was met with widespread Arab, Islamic and international condemnation, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League and the Presidency of the Arab Parliament issued statements of condemnation.

Several countries, including Egypt and Pakistan, have also condemned the terrorist attack, and affirmed that they stand with Saudi Arabia in the measures it takes to defend its territory and sovereignty and maintain its security and stability.

Earlier a shipping company said the tanker had suffered an explosion after being hit by “an external source,” suggesting another vessel had come under attack amid Saudi Arabia’s years-long war in Yemen.

The attack on the Singapore-flagged BW Rhine, which had been contracted by the trading arm of the kingdom’s massive Saudi Arabian Oil Co., marks the fourth assault targeting Saudi energy infrastructure in a month.

The attack renews concerns about ship safety in the Red Sea, a crucial transit zone for global shipping and energy supplies that largely had avoided the chaos of regional tensions involving the US and Iran last year.

The BW Rhine had berthed at Jeddah on Saturday, carrying over 60,000 metric tons of unleaded gasoline from an Aramco refinery at Yanbu for consumption in the kingdom, according to the data-analysis firm Refinitiv. It was there that the incident appears to have occurred.

The ship was “hit from an external source whilst discharging,” said Haifna, a tanker company under the BW Group that owns and operates the ship.

The strike caused an explosion and fire onboard the ship, though all 22 sailors on board escaped without injury and firefighters later extinguished the blaze, Haifna said. Some oil may have polluted the water along the ship, though the company said it was still assessing the damage.

The United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations, an organisation under Britain’s royal navy, urged ships in the area to exercise caution and said investigations were ongoing. It later said Jeddah port had been shut down for a “duration unknown,” without elaborating.

The explosion comes after a mine exploded and damaged a ship off Saudi Arabia last month. Another mysterious attack targeted a cargo ship off the small port city of Nishtun in Yemen’s far east earlier this month.

Yemen’s Iranian-backed Al Houthi rebels have used sea mines before in their long war against a Saudi-led coalition. However, the Al Houthis have not commented last month’s attack, nor the one on Monday.

Since mid-November, there’s also been what Saudi Arabia described as a bomb-laden drone boat attempted attack at Jazan, as well as a cruise missile attack claimed by the Houthis that struck an Aramco oil facility in Jeddah.

The incidents come after tensions between the US and Iran last year saw a series of escalating incidents in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the nearby Gulf of Oman. While the US has put together a new coalition to monitor shipping there after those incidents, it doesn’t operate in the Red Sea.

The Red Sea, with the Suez Canal to the north and the Bab el Mandeb Strait to the south, is a vital shipping lane for both cargo and global energy supplies. Its currents change seasonally and now run north. Saudi Arabia recently accused Al Houthis of dumping mines into the southern Red Sea, which could be carried toward Jeddah.

The Red Sea has been mined previously. In 1984, some 19 ships reported striking mines there, with only one ever being recovered and disarmed, according to a UN panel of experts investigating Yemen’s war. Any new mining could endanger global shipping and be difficult to find for any minesweeping operation - raising the risks and potentially the cost of insurance for those sailing in the region.