The UAE foreign ministry said on Sunday that four commercial vessels had been sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s biggest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. US intelligence sources have alleged Iran is behind the unexplained attacks, but added Washington does not have enough proof to back that claim. Responding to the event, Mr Philippe told a French parliamentary session on Tuesday: “These acts of sabotage … against four ships in the Arabian sea and near the UAE’s territorial waters are obviously preoccupying.”
One of the vessels was a UAE-flagged fuel bunker barge and another a Norwegian-registered oil products tanker. The other two were crude oil tankers owned by the Saudi shipping firm Bahri.
Saudi Arabia has since described the incident as a threat to the security of global oil supplies.
The owner of the Norwegian vessel, Thome Ship Management, said the vessel had been “struck by an unknown object”.
Gulf officials, for their part, have refused to describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it, but the incident took place after a pro-Iran satellite channel in Lebanon and Iranian media wrongly claimed that the port of Fujairah had been hit by mysterious explosions.
Iran, which is ensnared in an escalating war of words with the United States over sanctions and the US military presence in the region, moved to distance itself from the controversy on Monday.
Its foreign ministry branded the attacks “worrisome and dreadful” and called for an investigation.
A senior Iranian official said that “saboteurs from a third country” had likely carried out the attacks, after saying on Sunday that the incident showed that the security of Gulf states was fragile.
However, an official familiar with American intelligence said that Iran was a leading candidate for having carried out the attacks but that the US did not have conclusive proof to confirm this.
“It fits their MO [modus operandi],” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. The source also suggested that Iran’s statements condemning the attacks were an attempt to “muddy the waters”.
Experts from France, the US and Norway are said to be assisting with the investigation into the tanker attacks.
Mr Philippe also addressed the ongoing unease over French arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a particularly thorny issue for the government.
The conservative premier said that Paris was “extremely determined” to adhere to international rules related to arms sales and had “intensified” its exports controls regime.
France is one of Saudi Arabia’s main arms’ suppliers but has also faced increasing domestic pressure to review that trade relationship as the human cost of Yemen’s war has risen.
Riyadh leads the pro-government military coalition in the four-year civil war that has torn Yemen apart, killed tens of thousands and left much of the population on the brink of famine.
Mr Philippe described the situation in Yemen as “appalling” and “dramatic,” but stressed that French weapons were not being used by the Saudis to commit war crimes or target civilians.