MUSCAT, Oman, (AP) -A cyclone expected to be the strongest storm ever recorded in the Arabian Peninsula churned toward the oil-rich Gulf on Tuesday, forcing thousands of residents of Oman’s coastal towns to flee their homes.
The storm was expected to lose strength before hitting the most important installations in the Persian Gulf off of Saudi Arabia and southern Iran, but oil analysts said it could delay the loading of tankers in the Gulf — something that could cause a spike in oil prices.
With winds of 160 miles per hour and gusts of 195 miles per hour — the equivalent of a Category Five hurricane — Cyclone Gonu headed northwest through the Indian Ocean toward Oman’s east coast, with rain from its outer edges already reaching some areas.
The U.S. military said safety precautions were being taken in Oman but its personnel had not been ordered evacuated. Oman allows the U.S. to use four air bases in the sultanate for refueling, logistics and storage, though little has been revealed publicly about U.S.-Oman military ties.
U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the region were also taking precautions to avoid Gonu, but there was no major overhaul of operations, said Lt. Denise Garcia, a spokeswoman for U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which is based in Bahrain. The U.S. military has offered its assistance to Oman, but so far, Omani authorities have not requested help, she said.
One of the bases is on Masirah Island, in the storm’s projected path. The base hosted U.S. B-1B bombers, C-130 transports and U.S. Special Forces AC-130 gunships during the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. has continued to have basing rights on the island.
The U.S. military is preparing for Gonu “just like anyone would prepare for such a cyclone,” Garcia said. She declined to provide more details.
Oman’s major oil installations, which were not directly in the projected path and nowhere near as extensive as those of its neighbors, continued operations but took precautions as Gonu approached.
The government in neighboring Saudi Arabia said the country and oil markets would not be seriously affected by the storm.
But some oil analysts said the storm could have a damaging effect on the oil market.
Manouchehr Takin, an analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies in London, said the real fear is that the loading of tankers might be delayed by the storm.
“About 17-21 million barrels a day of oil are coming out of the Persian Gulf. Even if only some of the tankers are delayed that could reduce the supply of oil and increase prices,” Takin said.
Authorities on Monday evacuated nearly 7,000 people from Masirah, a lowland island off the east coast of Oman, said General Malik bin Suleiman al-Muamri, head of the country’s civil defense. Oman’s Muscat Airport also was closed.
Al-Muamri said a state of emergency was declared in the affected area, including mobilizing army and police forces to help provide shelter and medical services. More families were also leaving their homes in towns on the mainland on Tuesday, officials said. The government said schools and public building were emptied to make room for the evacuees.
Oil prices rose on Monday but retreated Tuesday, though the storm weighed heavily on the market.
The most powerful part of the storm was expected to hit Oman on Thursday, before moving north into southern Iran. A U.S. Navy weather agency predicted the eye would veer to the northwest, skirting the eastern coast of Oman near the capital Muscat and heading north toward southern Iran.
The forecast indicated rough seas within the Straits of Hormuz, a transportation route for two-fifths of the world’s oil, westward to the outskirts of Dubai.
Even with the weaker wind speeds, Gonu is expected to be the strongest cyclone to hit the Arabian Peninsula since record keeping started in 1945. A cyclone is the term used for hurricanes in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.