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Unladen Saudi VLCC crosses Bab el-Mandeb despite temporary halt

London — An unladen Saudi-owned VLCC crossed the key Bab el-Mandeb strait over the weekend, a few days after the kingdom temporarily halted all its oil shipments through the southern tip of the Red Sea after an attack by Yemeni Houthi militants.

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The Hilwah, owned by Saudi state shipping company Bahri, appeared to cross the strait on Sunday on its way from Yanbu to Saudi's main export terminal Ras Tanura, according to S&P Global Platts trade flow software cFlow. The VLCC is currently in the Gulf of Aden heading east at a speed of 16 knots.

But cFlow analysis shows the tanker appears to be unladen, and it remains unclear whether the Saudi ban was only intended to apply to tankers carrying a cargo.

State-owned Saudi Aramco suspended its oil shipments through the strait late Wednesday after it said two of its VLCCs were attacked by the Houthis. One tanker was slightly damaged.

"In the interest of the safety of ships and their crews and to avoid the risk of oil spill, Saudi Aramco has temporarily halted all oil shipments through Bab el-Mandeb with immediate effect," it said in a statement.

Another Bahri VLCC, the Khuzama, was heading towards Bab el-Mandeb over the weekend but appeared to have turned around overnight.

The ship appears to be laden, and now shows its destination as Ulsan in South Korea, according to cFlow.

Sources have said the measure is likely to be short-lived, with Saudi Arabia and its partners capable of using military vessels to escort tankers.

Two other Bahri-owned VLCCs the Abqaiq and Arsan, were seen approaching the Bab el-Mandeb last week but neither had updated their locations on the automatic identification system since then, according to cFlow.

The Abqaiq was previously damaged in a Houthi attack off the west coast of Yemen in April.

A spokesman for Bahri was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

While not as well-transited as the nearby Strait of Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb is nonetheless a critical chokepoint for oil shipments, with some 4.8 million b/d of crude and products passing through in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

The bulk of Europe's crude oil imports from the Middle East pass through Bab el-Mandeb into the Red Sea and then through the SUMED pipeline via northern Egypt or the Suez Canal, while the Middle East and Asia receive key refined products from Europe via the strait.

--Eklavya Gupte, eklavya.gupte@spglobal.com

--Edited by Jonathan Dart, newsdesk@spglobal.com