Securing the Bab el-Mandeb: Can Threats to the Red Sea Drive Regional Cooperation?
As the negotiations to end the war in Yemen continue, policymakers on all sides must carefully evaluate the security situation in the neighboring Red Sea. The Red Sea is a critical waterway for world commerce, and spillover from Yemen presents a significant threat to international trade and transportation through it. Although the objectives of the various foreign parties in Yemen—the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iran—differ in many respects, each has an interest in stabilizing the security situation in the Red Sea, and particularly in the Bab el-Mandeb, the narrow strait to the west of Yemen that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
Throughout the conflict, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their allies have seized strategic ports along the Yemeni coast and used them to attack foreign vessels navigating through Red Sea waters. In response, Emirati and Saudi forces have competed with one another to protect their access to the Red Sea.
Under President Joe Biden, the United States has shown increasing reluctance to be involved in the Yemen conflict, and has actively sought a role in facilitating negotiations to end it. As a deeply globalized nation, America is itself a major player in Red Sea commerce, and its interests are not served by an uncertain security situation there. However, it fails to gain from individual nations—Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for instance—working exclusively to protect their own interests in the Red Sea. For this reason, the Biden Administration should work alongside other regional nations to develop a comprehensive and sustainable plan to mitigate further disruption to the Red Sea’s security.
A Strategic Location
The Red Sea is a highly strategic arena for international and regional actors. Its role as a waterway for global trade makes the Red Sea region a key geopolitical interest. By 2050, the Red Sea region’s GDP is projected to more than triple, from $1.8 trillion to $6.1 trillion, and its volume of trade is expected to grow more than fivefold, from $881 billion to $4.7 trillion. This amassing of wealth, driven by the oil and energy sectors, is just one aspect of what the Red Sea region has to offer. While approximately 10% of all global trade passes through its waters, it is a critical zone for armed conflict, military entanglement, and great power competition and projection. One of the most visible aspects of this presence is the construction of foreign military installations around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the entrance to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Such installations could confront terrorist operations, or even support military expansion by several nations into the Horn of Africa. Opportunities for maritime trade and international commerce are often suffocated by the security situation.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait, situated between Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa and Yemen in the Gulf, is now more than ever affected by the economic and military entanglement of major players in the Red Sea region. The Strait, a vital “choke point” for the flow of oil and international commerce, and the shortest trade route between the Mediterranean region, the Indian Ocean and East Asia, funnels billions of dollars in maritime trade. Roughly 6.2 million barrels per day of crude oil and petroleum products pass through the Strait toward Europe, the United States, and Asia, and over 50 million tons of agricultural products pass through it every year. However, as violence between Iran’s allies Yemeni Houthi rebels and the opposing Saudi-UAE bloc continues to escalate, fallout from Yemen’s war threatens the security of the Strait and the Red Sea as a whole.
The War in Yemen Threatens the Strait
Yemeni ports lining the Bab el-Mandeb extend northward along the coast to the Midi district in Yemen’s northwest Hajjah Governorate. These ports have been a strong naval asset for the Houthis since the outbreak of the civil war in 2015, and a constant source of instability for naval and commercial voyages. Fallout from the Yemen War has already put the security of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in a precarious position, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Since the start of the civil war, Houthi rebels and their allies have seized strategic Yemeni ports and coastal areas, compromising the security of shipments and naval vessels navigating through the Strait (by, for example, activating explosive boats and anti-ship missiles to attack American and Saudi naval presence in the Red Sea).
The latest incident occurred on December 14, 2020, when Houthi rebels allegedly attacked a Singapore oil tanker, BW Rhine, discharging its cargo near Jeddah port. But these attacks have been ongoing since the beginning of the Yemen War. Houthis attacked Saudi vessels in 2015, and their threat to block the strait or the assault on Emirati shipments in 2016 are some concerning examples. These actions have tremendous effects on the global market and are frequently compared to the “Tanker Wars” between Iran and Iraq from 1980-1988.
Attacks on shipments in the Red Sea have led several times to the halting of transport and the blocking of access to oil supply through the Suez Canal or the Sumed pipeline. A closure of the Strait altogether would have massive implications. First, because the Red Sea connects the Atlantic and the Mediterranean–via the Suez Canal–to the waters of southeast Asia, it would force commercial maritime traffic to transit around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, drastically increasing shipping costs, transit time, and insurance costs. This would lead to higher prices for consumers on such items as fuel and food, and directly impact African, Asian, and American markets. It would also make Saudi and American counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen more challenging.
Regional Competition over the Bab el-Mandeb Strait
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait has become a hotbed of competing interests between regional and international powers seeking to protect and control the corridor. In particular, Yemen’s location near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait naturally attracts the attention of countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Such countries have raced to secure their interests in Yemen, achieve their economic and political ambitions, and build more influence in the Red Sea arena in order to address their security goals. Any outside party seeking to enhance regional chaos could cause serious damage at little cost, and perhaps even draw other nations, such as Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Sudan, into the Yemen conflict.
Through its presence in Yemen, the UAE is looking to build regional influence and grow its presence in the Horn of Africa. This includes its efforts to expand its geopolitical influence, commercial activity, and military presence around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Yemeni Socotra archipelago, as well as to forge a more durable connection to its own naval bases in Eritrea, Berbera, and Somaliland. Abu Dhabi’s strategy includes a maritime dimension in addition to various military efforts to breach the gap between the Gulf and the Horn of Africa. Since at least 2015, Abu Dhabi has made efforts to seize control of strategically significant shipping routes and has successfully gained control over some of Yemen’s coastline.
Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia has a particular interest in Socotra, and has built a military base there, enabling Saudi officers to monitor the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and to mobilise rapidly in the event of any maritime problems. The country also aims to use its presence in Yemen to combat the Houthi rebels and stop Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia is an oil manufacturing giant and also aims to build infrastructure that allows the production and distribution of petroleum products. Its plans to build a port and extend an oil pipeline in Al-Mahra province, north of Yemen on the border with Oman, are already being executed, as are its military plans to maintain control over land, sea, and airports to the Mahra.
U.S. Policy Towards the Red Sea
The Biden Administration has much to gain by stabilizing the Red Sea corridor. On February 4, 2021, President Biden announced an end of U.S. support for offensive operations carried out by the Saudi-led Arab coalition in its war in Yemen, but promised an ongoing U.S. commitment to defensive ones–mainly the interception of Houthi-launched missiles and drones into Saudi territories. Biden’s new Yemen policy will focus on engaging diplomatic missions to put an end for the war and find a political resolution for the conflict. To cement its promise, the new administration appointed a special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking.
While the appointment of a U.S. envoy to Yemen is a significant step forward in rehabilitating Yemen and securing the Bab el-Mandeb, it is yet to be seen how implications from Biden’s announcement will play out. Due to Saudi Arabia’s limited naval capabilities, the growing interests of several Gulf states in Yemen, and an increase of Chinese and Russian presence in the Red Sea, the United States will likely have a major interest in keeping the Strait neutralized from regional and foreign competition. However, it is uncertain whether the United States will link the security of the vital waterway to the resolution of the war in Yemen. It is equally uncertain whether Washington will develop policy to secure the Bab el-Mandeb and protect the commerce passing through the Strait.
Possible Policy Solutions
Due to the aforementioned threats and challenges to the security of the Bab el-Mandeb, it is becoming abundantly clear that a dual-pronged approach should be made towards protecting the security of the Strait.
First, the United States, and other regional partners, should continue to build diplomatic channels with the Yemeni and Saudi governments in regards to the Yemeni conflict, in order to mitigate the fallout from the war and defend against possible escalation between neighboring Gulf countries.
Second, the United States should consider a technical plan to defend the Strait from unwanted activity – for instance, by creating a partnership with Gulf and African countries to form a regional task force composed of naval, legal, and diplomatic frameworks to keep the Strait open to shipping. Such a step is not impossible; in recent years, joint efforts between Arab and African countries to end piracy and combat other ongoing threats from non-state actors in Yemen and Somalia have proven fruitful.
While all of these efforts will take considerable time, financial support, and cooperation, and will invariably lead to failures as well as successes, the Red Sea-adjacent countries have a clear and abiding interest in the security of the Bab el-Mandeb. By using a combination of diplomacy and force to ensure freedom of navigation through the Red Sea, these nations, as well as partners further afield such as the United States, have a tremendous opportunity to use their capabilities for good.
Hannah Kuperman is a Research Assistant Intern at Gulf International Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.