Two weeks ago there were six British-flagged oil tankers in the Persian Gulf going about their business. A week later there were none. Iran’s threat to seize a British ship in retaliation for the arrest of the Grace 1 off Gibraltar has effectively closed the world’s most prolific oil region to U.K. carriers.
The tankers in the Persian Gulf on July 9 were all registered in the Isle of Man, a self-governing British crown dependency, but that wasn’t enough to spare them from Iranian harassment. One of them, the British Heritage, left the region without loading its intended cargo of Iraqi crude and needed the Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose to chase off Iranian patrol boats as it entered Hormuz. At least two others were also escorted out of the Gulf.
There are 243 oil tankers — either listed as crude oil tankers, oil products tankers, or chemical/oil products tankers — sailing under the flag of the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man, or Gibraltar, according to tanker tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. About half of them are registered in the Isle of Man, with the other half divided roughly equally between Gibraltar and the U.K.
Ships usually enter the region, load their cargoes and depart again within a matter of days. What is abnormal, is that no British-flagged oil tankers have arrived in the region in the past two weeks. On any one day, there would normally be three or four of them somewhere in the Persian Gulf. Since July 15, none have been observed.
The only British-flagged tanker to try entering the Persian Gulf in the past two weeks, the Stena Impero, was boarded and impounded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as it sailed through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway that connects the Middle East’s major oil and gas export facilities to the open seas, on July 19.
Its capture shows just how easy it is for Iran to hinder traffic through Hormuz. Until tensions ease, British tankers are likely to keep away from the Persian Gulf.