Recent attacks on two oil tankers on the Strait of Hormuz have sparked global conversation due to the passageway's strategic location, and its role as a vital gateway to the global oil industry.
But what is it and why is this so important?
What is the Strait of Hormuz?
The strait lies between Oman and Iran. It unites the Persian Gulf to the north-east, with the Gulf of Oman to the south, which empties into the Arabian Sea.
It is 33 kilometres at its narrowest point, with a navigation route only three kilometres wide in both directions. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have tried to find other routes to bypass the troubled passage of the Strait, including the construction of oil pipelines.
Why is this significant?
- Almost a fifth of the world's oil passes through the Strait - some 17.4 million barrels per day (bpd). This can be compared to consumption of close to 100 million bpd in 2018 (data from Vortexa).
- Members of OPEC, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq, export most of their crude across the Strait.
- Qatar, the world's largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter, sends almost all its production across the Strait.
Strait of political tension
- The United States has imposed sanctions on Iran with the objective of cutting its oil exports, a position that favours Saudi Arabia, its regional ally and Iran's enemy.
- Iran has threatened to stop oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the United States tries to strangle its economy.
- The United States Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is tasked with protecting commercial shipping in the area.
Past major incidents
During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, the two sides sought to disrupt the other's oil exports in what was known as the tanker war.
In July 1988, the US warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 people on board, in what Washington called an accident, and Tehran a deliberate attack.
In early 2008, the United States said Iranian vessels had threatened three US military vessels in the deep sea.
In July 2010, the Japanese tanker M Star was attacked in the Strait by a militant group called Abdullah Azzam Brigades, linked to the Islamist terrorists of al-Qaeda, who claimed responsibility.
In January 2012, Iran threatened to block the Strait in retaliation for US and European sanctions against its oil production to try to stop its nuclear program.
In May 2015, Iranian vessels seized a container ship in the port of Tehran.
In July 2018, President Hassan Rouhani hinted that Iran could disrupt cross-strait oil trade in response to US appeals to reduce Iran's oil exports to zero.
In May 2019, four vessels - including two Saudi oil tankers - were attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates near Fujairah, one of the world's largest fuel supply centers, at the gates of the Strait of Hormuz.