Kamran Jebreili, Associated Press
FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates — By night, the lights of dozens of ships anchored off this eastern Emirati port create the mirage of a far-off city at sea.
The crowded anchorage reflects Fujairah's rise as one of the world's busiest maritime refueling stations. Soon it will also become a vital new exit route for Arabian crude oil destined for world markets.
The United Arab Emirates is nearing completion of a pipeline through the mountainous sheikdom that will allow it to reroute the bulk of its oil exports around the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, the path for a fifth of the world's oil supply.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strategically sensitive waterway, which is patrolled by Iranian and U.S. warships, in retaliation for ramped-up Western sanctions over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
That threat has raised worries among Gulf countries that conflicts could block the route to market for their most lucrative resource. But only the UAE and Oman have coastlines on Indian Ocean side of the strait that would enable them to go around the chokepoint by land. Saudi Arabia also can avoid Hormuz by shipping its Gulf fields' oil production out of its Red Sea ports, but it would have to increase the capacity of those ports and of pipelines running across the breadth of the country to handle its total output.
With the Emirates' new pipeline, oil from fields deep in the Abu Dhabi desert would travel 236 miles (380 kilometers) overland and across the barren Hajar mountains to this fast-growing port on edge of the Indian Ocean.
At the moment, Emirati oil exports are loaded in the Gulf and must pass through Hormuz. Once it's running at full volume, the pipeline will let the UAE get two-thirds of its peak oil production to market even if the strait is shut. That's about 10 percent of the total 17 million barrels of oil a day that currently goes through Hormuz.
The director general of Fujairah municipality, Mohammed Saif al-Afkham, told The Associated Press he expects the pipeline to be commissioned this month.
"This will add a lot to the shipment of oil, and it will make it faster and easier instead of going to the Gulf," he said.
Officials have not announced a firm starting date. But al-Afkham's comments and those of other Emirati officials suggest exports could begin soon.
Energy Minister Mohammed bin Dhaen al-Hamli told a Paris conference last month the four-foot-wide pipeline is finished and is being tested.
It is designed to handle 1.5 million barrels of crude a day. Al-Hamli has said that figure could rise to 1.8 million barrels.
Al-Hamli and the state-run International Petroleum Investment Co., which is building the pipeline, did not respond to Associated Press requests for comment about the project. Neither did the China National Petroleum Corp., a subsidiary of which was contracted to construct the pipeline.
The project is immensely important for the UAE, an important American ally. The seven state federation is OPEC's third largest exporter of oil, after neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran.
"If there are effective bypass routes, it makes it less likely that Iran would try to block it," said Robin Mills, head of consulting at Manaar Energy Consulting & Project Management in Dubai.
The Emirates' Sunni leadership is wary of Tehran's regional influence, especially in Shiite-led countries such as Iraq and Syria and Shiite-majority Bahrain in the Gulf.
A longstanding tussle over three Gulf islands claimed by the Emirates and Iran along the shipping lanes approaching the Strait of Hormuz continues to fester. The dispute flared up again last week when the commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard traveled to the islands, almost a month after a similar visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
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