What really happened in Fuğayra?

            On 12 May an incident happened in the port of Fuğayra, which is one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates. Emirati and Saudi reports claim 4 oil tanker vessels were sabotaged, 2 of them being Saudi, one Emirati and one Norwegian. Initially Arab sources close to Iran claimed huge explosions shook the port in the early dawn, but Emirati sources rushed to deny these rumors and started to claim “sabotage” was inflicted on the ships. Yet, without disclosing practically any details. Which leaves the matter even after almost a month very oblique. We really wanted to wait until more is exposed, but without that to happen there are already results by it. Which would indicate that those concerned are already perfectly clear about the incident and its details, only for one reason or another hesitate to share more. Since major political deliberations are already on the way, it time now do bring this incident closer.

            For the last days of Ramadan Saudi Arabia conveyed three emergency meeting. One on Gulf, one on Arabic and one on Islamic level. Whoever knows the Middle East knows perfectly that at Ramadan rarely ever any major steps are taken, especially not in the last days, when everyone is tired and awaits holidays. So something really unnerved Riyadh, whether it was Fuğayra, or something else. To discuss those, we cannot escape any further to deal with this accident, which might prove a major game-changer in the long run. Not the least, because there is a very strange silence in the Western, but even in the Arab media, which already raised suspicions.


One unique statelet

            Naturally we all know that the UAE stands for United Arab Emirates, and the plural clearly indicates more than one emirate in that state, most of us fail to mention any of them apart from Abū Zabī and Dubai. Even less it is known that the UAE is actually formed by seven small statelets, which all gained their independence in 1971[1] by the British, only to form a new collective political unity, and which initially planned to incorporate Qatar and Bahrain as well. The UAE is actually a unique entity, which is only united to the outside, but the seven components, the emirates are actually all run by their own royal families, laws, traditions and set of policies and retain considerable internal freedom. One loves history can find the closest comparisons with the Astro-Hungarian Empire, though with serious limitations. The union is lead by the Federal Supreme Council, where all seven rulers are represented and have veto in all major decisions, though externally the state is represented by its monarch, the ruler of Abū Zabī and its PM, the ruler of Dubai. For long decades there was an equilibrium between these two most powerful duwaylas, Abū Zabī being the political center, while Dubai the running engine of the economy. Though that, as we shall seen, changed considerably in the last decade or so.

            Most of those vaguely know the region would image the UAE facing the Persian Gulf. Those more familiar with the Gulf would say that it has an exit to the Gulf of Oman, though the tip of the Musandam Peninsula belongs to Oman, only the cities around which the emirates are formed facing the the Gulf of Oman. In fact Fuğayra is a unique exception. Though it is ruled and lead by the same emir, Ḥamad ibn Muḥammad aš-Šarqī since 1975, until the 2000s it lived a relatively isolated life. Only in 2002 a modern freeway was started to connect Fuğayra with Dubai, which was opened in 2011. The project was to serve as part a much bigger investment package to boost the other emirates with accumulated capital in the three major ones. But there was a much more strategic plan with it. As this is the only one major city and developed deep-water port in the UAE facing the Indian Ocean, this is actually the only one not dependent on the Straits of Hormuz for its oil export. The inauguration of the freeway not only took so many years due the gradual building in pieces, but because along it a major oil pipeline system was built, which connected Fuğayra with the reserves of Dubai officially, and with all other safe deposits, supposedly. This transformed Fuğayra – a major producer itself – to the biggest oil reserve bank in the UAE with an estimated 24 million barrels stored, which is actually rising steadily in the last few years. So why is it so important? A matter of logistical convenience we could say, but the matter is much more than that. It is a far more vital issue.

            Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran there is a major animosity between the two sides of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia with its smaller and even feebler Arab satellites did their best to thwart what they perceive as tašayyu‘[2] by Iran, but it is in fact of existential fear from the example set by the Iran. That is why they supported Ṣaddām Ḥussayn’s Iraq in the ‘80s, and ever since the war ended in 1988 they support any American attempt to engage militarily with Iran. As we saw last week, the UAE and its ambitious de facto ruler, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid plays now a pivotal role to provoke tension amidst major American-Iranian diplomatic debacle. While the Emirates plays a very delicate role in this complex story, since one of the main reason Abū Zabī protested against the JCPOA back in 2015 was because the sanctions against Iran are in its very direct economic interest, since the UAE is a major illegal, semi-legal trade point for Tehran. Even the official trade scale was about $16 billion – 3/4 of it Emirati export – in 2016, when most of the pre-JCPOA sanctions were still on. That made the UAE to take 90% of the Gulf trade before the economic war started against Qatar in June 2017. 

            Iran, as a deterrent always threatens to close the Straits of Hormuz in case of any war, which would cripple the Gulf monarchies’ economy. Should we remember, that apart from Oman, and the UAE thanks to Fuğayra all of them are dependent of the trade route here. It is true that Saudi Arabia has another seashore, but the vast majority of the oil in along the Gulf. It can transport its oil towards the Red Sea, to the port of Yanbū‘, but right at juncture at Riyadh the Yemenis scored a major hit by drones only two days after Fuğayra. Showing that even that line is vulnerable. Iran used that card in the ‘80s, as the other threat card, the bombing of the oil facilities and carriers, but to very limited effect. Since than, however, time has changed. What was almost impossible than for the tired and bogged than Iran, which did not want to risk war with America that time escorting a transport vessels, is surely not impossible for the well prepared Iran of today. That is perfectly known both for Abū Zabī and in Riyadh. And that is exactly where Fuğayra, the otherwise globally little-known duwayla, becomes priceless. From the port of Fuğayra any oil vessel can hast to international or strait to Omani waters away from the Iranian shores. Therefore, in case of any war international oil trade can continue, at least for the UAE, and presumably for Saudi.


Amidst tension

            As was last week’s topic, tension is rising between Washington and Tehran in the last couple months or so. The Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain under its occupation, thought to the concern of the the other GCC members, try their best now to achieve war between the US and Iran in one way or another, in which they can take part. In this situation, right after Trump sounded a retreat, at least for now, international diplomatic climate was very stiff. Just like the calm before a major storm, Trump’s partial withdrawal was even more frightening than his previous threats, as many anticipated some sort of major provocation, a possible false flag attack. Or in other narrative, just one wrong step, which will inflame the whole region. Because if there is a war between Iran and the US, a major regional showdown, than it is for sure all other frontiers will open up as well, and all forces on the other side will hit back not only to Saudi, but to Israel as well, behind its back. And for that even one tiny mistake is enough. After all as the great Iranian historian, Ervand Abrahamian said: “One should never underestimate the role of stupidity in history.”

            The Emirates would be an ideal scene for a desired incident, for a spark to blow up the torch. It is much smaller on the map, and by far much more visited by the Western tourists than Saudi. Much less negative emotions are attached to it, and seemingly way smaller and weaker, the story of and aggressor dictatorial Iran attacking the innocent exotic Emirates, a truly Hollywood style of screenplay indeed, is much better selling than the same with Riyadh. And provocations are even more easy to pick, since there is a border dispute between Tehran and Abū Zabī for decades. Abū Mūsā, and the Smaller and the Bigger Tumb are three uninhabited islands in the inner entrance of Hormuz. Though Abū Zabī claims them to be Emirati land, Iran is in effective control. So for all logical reason, it was even expected that if the spark ever comes, it would hit the Emirates. And for a more innocent looking story, it would happen in one of the smaller statelets, not Dubai or Abū Zabī.

            Than suddenly, what was awaited happened, but not the expected result came out of it. At least so far. Since even for Bolton it took 17 days – more than two weeks! – to go the Emirates and jump to his usual conclusion. As if Iran was the culprit. Behind an action which is still not disclosed. And this time even the Gulf media was keen to point out that it is Bolton’s conclusion, not official standing. But was he wrong this time? And if not, will he end up like boy crying a wolf?


Screenplays for a drama

            After almost a month, this week the final report came out, though it was not made public. That was claimed to based on the joint investigation of Norwegian, Saudi and Emirati services. The report, or the news about it shared very little details for some reason, but for days Israeli media was loud to blame Iran, as was expected. And Iran responded quite firmly to point the finger on Mossad to fabricate a story and create a screenplay for a false flag operation. Since we still don’t have a final version on the claim, and it is doubtful this report will see light any time soon, evaluating the matter we still have to rely on possible scenarios.

            Practically there are two possible variants. Either Iran through its proxies stand behind the operation or the B-Team staged some sort of false flag operation. Seeing all the tension in the Gulf in the last few months it was logical to assume the later, however, certain factors contract this hypothesis. Generally such false flag operation aims to obtain media attention, which would attract public attention for the desired retaliation. In these cases, like it happened so many times in Syria, narratives are clearly ready with details even before the accident takes place. That was present, but right after the attack no sensation came to follow. So if it was a false flag operation, where is the aimed goal if no move is to follow? Even more strange that Israel and the most aggressive circles of American decision makers – Pompeo and Bolton – push for more action, not really the Saudis and the Emiratis. The Saudi reaction was to convey three emergency meeting not even mentioning the Fuğayra attack directly. The Emiratis response, also sort of late, came from none other than Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, who directly took charge, raised the level of emergency, and spread out Patriot air defense battalions for the safety of sensitive positions in the UAE. These steps indicate as if the two Gulf states were caught by surprise by an attack they did not anticipate. Nonetheless, the hawks in Washington and Tel-Aviv saw an ideal opportunity to raise tension and they push the Gulf to further action.

            The other possibility is the Iran via one of its allies, or one one of these allies acting individually performed this attack. The most likely suspect would be the al-Ḥūtī movement in Yemen, against which the Gulf forces are waging war for years now, causing large scale destruction, but haven’t managed to break their resistance. Their proximity to Tehran and the support they are getting from it is a lightly guarded secret. They apart from causing the biggest casualties among the Saudi lines and regularly inflicting humiliating losses to them, many times managed to hit back to the Saudis with precision attacks by long-range missiles and drones, and the last one in May – acknowledged by both sides – targeted Saudi oil installations deep inside the kingdom. This eventuality is further supported by recent announcements from the al-Ḥūtīs that they acquired very developed armaments and they have “surprises” for the Saudis if the war goes on. But Fuğayra is more than 1500 km away from Sana’a, which puts all al-Ḥūtī controlled area well above 1000 km distance. Drone hits into Saudi Arabia is one thing, but this level of precision seems impossible for a force besieged and fought against for years. Controlling drones to this distance and bypassing all air defense systems is a very sophisticated maneuver. The al-Ḥūtīs – allegedly – even claimed responsibility for the Fuğayra attack, but it that even possible? Recent reports suggest that it is, as in 26 July 2018 they managed to hit Dubai airport – causing mostly confusion than material damage – with a drone, for which they even provided footages. If that is true that shows the complete and utter failure of the Saudi and Emirati air defenses, which cast very serious doubts how much would they stand their ground against Iran in case of war.

            What makes this supposition unlikely is that such an attack and a possible reason for condemnation is seemingly the least what Iran wants. Amidst such tension now, and the B-Team obviously busy in fermenting a case against Tehran it is not logical to give excuse to them for an attack. The al-Ḥūtīs might perform a foolish operation, but given the closeness between them and knowing that any mistake by them falls back on Iran it is unlikely Tehran would have not prevented a move, which was against its intentions. Questions lingered back and forth until 31 May, when in the usual Jerusalem Day commemoration Ḥasan Naṣr Allah addressed his audience with his usual prompt and insightful remarks. Briefly, but he touched this topic pointing out how utterly weak Saudi and Emirati defenses are. His words indicate that he acknowledged the attack as a step taken by the al-Ḥūtīs. Given he is generally well informed and far from lacking vision that can even be regarded as an open message. Also, he is not under direct threat by the events, therefore this is not a spontaneous gesture by him and he would surely not jeopardize Iranian interests without reason.

            Than, what can be the motive, if it was an Iranian, or Iranian authorized move? Tehran surely has considerable intel on Saudi-Emirati intentions, and as we saw events are heading straight to major confrontation. Now right at the time Trump was stepping back and emphasizing the importance of negotiations what could set the war machinery in motion was some move by the B-Team. In this light the attack on Fuğayra might have been a firm message to point out the weakness of Riyadh and Abū Zabī. Because if the al-Ḥūtīs, sieged for years and clearly not the most potent combatant in a possible all-out war, managed to bypass all air defense and deliver a precision hit, than what should be expected by Iran and Syria? And the message, given this reading is correct, might not even have been to Riyadh and Abū Zabī, but much more to the other states under their influence. That if these two can’t even defend themselves, what would happen to the others if Iran chooses to hit back?

            So either scripts are to be proven eventually, certain lessons can be drawn. First is that the two Gulf states are clearly gearing for war, silently, as the buildup in Fuğayra is obviously a reserve option in case of war. That was now pointed out for all those ready to listen. The attack, if it was not a false flag, clearly got them by surprise. And far above the material damage it was a devastating blow to the image. Since if the country with the third biggest military budget in the world performs so poorly there is not much future for their appeal to be the leading force in the Middle East.


Where the roads lead

            In a desperate attempt, which further affirms that is was not a false flag operation, Riyadh hastily conveyed three emergency meetings with the clear aim to rally support behind Saudi against Iran. And the weight of the matter is clear by the fact that king Salmān personally chaired the meeting, not leaving any chance of blunter for his son.

            If Salmān hoped for support in the Mecca summit, he had to taste bitter failure since even very close allies suggested immediate moderation. Now going back to the scenarios if Fuğayra was designed by the B-Team they failed miserably. At least so far. While if it was a covert Iranian move it succeeded perfectly. Because beyond the military weaknesses it pointed out to the Saudi leadership how shockingly isolated they are. In this sense Tehran might just made a remarkable gesture to the old king Salmān proving how the approaches by his son were catastrophic in the last few years. The Mecca summit not only infuriated Riyadh, but very obviously surprised it as well, not expecting the lectures from friends and foes alike. These meeting will prove decisive game changers in the strategic deliberations for the region. But these details shall be covered next week.


[1] The formation of the new state was a delicate matter, since initially not only Qatar and Bahrain stayed out. The seventh duwayla, Rās al-Hayma only joined the union two moths later, in 1972. Short lived as it was, the independent Emirate Rās al-Hayma still played an important role in the UAE’s history, as in January 1971 that was the entry point for the troops of an usurper of the throne of Šāriqa. The leftist coup lead by an exiled prince, a truly modern Arabian Night tale, failed, but further prompted the incorporation of this statelet and unification of certain state bodies.

[2] The propagation of Shia doctrines for the sake of conversion, mostly among Sunnis.