London — The Middle East's key oil and shipping artery, the Strait of Hormuz, is once again under the microscope after the volume was turned up in the war of words between the US administration and Iranian regime.
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US President Donald Trump has warned Iran not to threaten the US or face the consequences after the Persian producer, which has a strategic position in the Gulf and with the waterway, suggested the idea of blocking Middle East exports if the OPEC member is unable to sell its crude.
Key maritime route. The Strait of Hormuz is the key maritime transit route through which Persian Gulf exporters (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Bahrain) ship their oil.
World's busiest oil transit choke point. The EIA estimates that 18.5 million b/d, or 30%, of all seaborne oil exports, passed through the choke point in 2016 mainly to customers in East Asia. Japan, China, India and South Korea are the biggest buyers of the heavier sourer, or high sulfur, crudes the Middle East producers tend to supply.
Not just oil. Almost a third of global LNG supplies also pass through the waterway. Qatar dominates LNG export flows through the Gulf with the UAE shipping smaller volumes. LNG transit volumes are 3.7 Tcf/year.
Limited shipping alternatives. Bordered by Iran and Oman -- at 21 miles wide -- only Iran and Saudi Arabia have alternative access routes to maritime shipping lanes. OPEC's largest producer also has access to the Red Sea via the Yanbu Port. Saudi's King Fahd crude export terminal has a loading capacity of 6.6 million b/d. Saudi Aramco also plans to begin exports from the Muajjiz oil terminal on the Red Sea possibly before the end of 2018.
Pipeline options. Saudi Arabia operates the Petroline (East-West Pipeline) which has a capacity of 4.8 million b/d, a throughput of 1.9 million b/d and an unused capacity of 2.9 million b/d which bypasses the strait, according to the EIA. That services Yanbu Port. The UAE meanwhile, operates the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline, which has a capacity of 1.5 million b/d, a throughput of 0.5 million b/d and an unused capacity of 1 million b/d, the EIA notes.
US naval presence. The US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is tasked with protecting the commercial ships in the area and has said it stands ready to protect trade flows through the Gulf if threatened. "Together, we stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows," the US Central Command said recently. Strategists believe Iran would struggle to maintain a blockade given the constant US naval presence.
Saber-rattling. Iran has threatened to block shipping access to the Gulf by closing the waterway, for example in 2012, which prompted US, UK and France to deploy warships. More recently, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani floated the notion that Iran could disrupt oil flows through the strait in response to US calls to bring down Iran's oil exports to zero. It appears the rhetoric has been ramped up again even though Iran is well aware of its limited ability to close the strait for long.
--Paul Hickin, firstname.lastname@example.org
--Edited by Jeremy Lovell, email@example.com