Sea lanes are a Geopolitical Battleground

The water border strip puts Yemen on the front line
Ali Mayas
March 9, 2024

Sea lanes are a Geopolitical Battleground

The water border strip puts Yemen on the front line
Ali Mayas
March 9, 2024

The issue of security takes precedence among the priorities of Middle Eastern countries due to the region's descent into chaos and warfare. The escalating tensions have resulted in excessive alliances and rivalries, prompting countries to constantly seek ways to bolster their military capabilities in order to enhance national security. Maintaining survival in a complex and chaotic international system necessitates a high degree of hard power. However, efforts to enhance the security of one country, such as military interventions and alliances, often come at the expense of another country's security. As a result, the prevailing strategic logic in the region revolves around maximizing power.

The United States, as the leader of the international system, has not demonstrated a serious commitment to achieving stability in the face of armed conflicts spreading throughout the Middle East. This has raised concerns among several regional countries whose fears of increasing risks have converged over the past few decades, particularly following the American invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring revolutions. The ongoing civil wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq have proven to be intractable issues, exacerbated by the lack of clear standards for war management and conflict resolution mechanisms in the region, unlike other parts of the world.

The coastal strip of Yemen holds significant geopolitical and security importance in relation to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, as well as the international safety measures implemented in those areas. Yemen's extensive coastal strip, spanning over 2,000 kilometers, overlooks the international trade route that passes through the Gulf of Aden and the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

When considering the geopolitical and security landscape, it is crucial to examine the role of naval power in addressing a wide range of challenges, including deterrence, risk management, and maintaining a safe maritime environment. The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden have assumed great global economic significance since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as they provide direct communication between Europe, East Asia, and Australia.

The importance of the Yemeni coastal strip from a geopolitical and security perspective

The coastal strip of Yemen holds significant geopolitical and security importance in relation to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, as well as the international safety measures implemented in those areas. Yemen's extensive coastal strip, spanning over 2,000 kilometers, overlooks the international trade route that passes through the Gulf of Aden and the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Bab al-Mandab Strait is a crucial and mandatory crossing point for the global economy, but it is also one of the most dangerous and turbulent waterways in the world, posing threats to regular transit, particularly in the energy sector. Spanning around ten miles at its narrowest point, the strait features the Yemeni island of Perim, visible in the middle of the waterway towards Eritrea and Djibouti.

Under an international traffic separation scheme, northbound international shipping utilizes a two-mile-wide sea lane on the Yemeni side west of the island, while southbound traffic uses a similar lane on the African side, with just over a mile of water separating the two lanes. More than sixty commercial ships navigate through the strait on a daily basis. The name "Bab al-Mandab" translates to "Gate of Tears," reflecting the treacherous navigation conditions in the strait.

The Yemeni islands in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden hold strategic positions in terms of security. The Greater and Lesser Hanish Islands, situated in the southern Red Sea across from Bab al-Mandab Strait, serve as important locations for both commercial and military ships. The Socotra archipelago and island occupy an exceptional position of security importance along the international trade route passing through the Gulf of Aden.

Yemen's strategic location has raised concerns within the international community, as the Yemeni state has failed to address fears surrounding the escalating risks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region. The inability to exert control over all parts of its coastal strip has led to concerns that terrorist groups may exploit the situation to threaten or temporarily halt the international shipping route, as demonstrated by the targeting of the American destroyer "USS Cole" in the Gulf of Aden. The security situation has become even more critical since the outbreak of the war in Yemen in late 2014. Securing the Yemeni coastal strip during the conflict has been crucial in preventing armed groups controlling the coast from utilizing radar control sites and other coastal facilities that could pose a threat to the international shipping route.

The important waterway has faced risks since the emergence of piracy and smuggling along the Somali coast in 2008, as well as political instability in the countries bordering the African coast of the Red Sea.

International and regional military presence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden

The shipping route that passes through the Gulf of Aden, Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the Red Sea is widely regarded as the world's most perilous. To ensure the safety of cargo vessels, international and regional military forces have taken up the responsibility of providing security services. As part of this effort, naval patrols have been deployed north and south of Bab al-Mandab Strait, originating from military bases established along the African coastline. The primary objectives of these patrols are to combat terrorism and piracy while safeguarding the geopolitical interests of the countries in the region. These military bases are situated in Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia and are equipped with war fleets, aircraft carriers, and military battleships.

Djibouti is host to military bases belonging to the United States of America, France, China, Japan, and Italy. Additionally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is working on establishing its own military base there. In Eritrea, the Dahlak archipelago is home to an Israeli military base, which serves the purpose of monitoring navigation in Bab al-Mandab Strait and gathering intelligence on military activities in the Red Sea, particularly those involving Iran. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also established its first military base on the African coast in the Eritrean port of Assab. This base has transformed the previously barren desert into a modern air base, a deep-water port, and a military training facility.

Turning to Somalia, Turkey established a significant military base in the capital city of Mogadishu in September 2014, primarily for training Somali soldiers. The UAE, on the other hand, opted to build a military base in the port of Berbera in the self-declared state of Somaliland in February 2017, which is considered a part of federal Somalia.

On the eastern shores of the Red Sea, the UAE has secured control over the Yemeni water border area. Since the Arab coalition's intervention in Yemen in 2015, the UAE, as a member of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, has established military bases in several Yemeni ports. However, the UAE announced its withdrawal in mid-2019 and handed over these bases to Yemeni forces loyal to them. Some of the notable locations include the port of Al-Haymah and the Al-Khawkhah area in Al- Hodeidah Governorate, the port of Al-Mukha and the strategically important Dhu Bab area overlooking Bab al-Mandab Strait in Taiz, and Perim "Mayon" Island in Bab al-Mandab Strait. Satellite images published by Jane's, a military research magazine, in 2017 revealed that the UAE had initiated the construction of a military base on Perim Island, featuring a 3,200-meter-long aircraft runway.

In the Gulf of Aden, UAE forces have a presence in the port of Buraiqa in Aden and on Socotra Island. The Abraham Agreement, signed between the UAE and Israel in mid-September 2020, has facilitated coordination and cooperation between the two countries across various domains, including security and intelligence. Socotra Island holds significant strategic importance and has become a focal point of this collaboration. The UAE and Israel intend to establish a joint spy and surveillance base on the island. They have already deployed spy equipment to strategic locations approximately 350 km away from the Yemeni mainland. The construction of an Emirati-Israeli military base on Socotra Island is seen as a critical defense line in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa, serving to safeguard economic, security, and political interests in this vital waterway. Furthermore, UAE forces are stationed in the ports of Mukalla and Al-Dabbah in Hadramaut, as well as the port of Balhaf in Shabwa, located in the southern part of Yemen.

The coastal countries on both sides of the Red Sea, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel, have established military bases. These countries have consistently sought to compete with Western nations in controlling the Red Sea and ensuring its security. This endeavor began with the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the Bundwig Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, and continued with the establishment of post-colonial states by national liberation movements. In early 2020, Saudi Arabia took the initiative to establish an alliance known as the Council of Arab and African States, with a focus on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The alliance includes eight Arab and African countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti. Riyadh has been designated as the headquarters of the council, which aims to protect common interests, address risks, and collaborate in harnessing available opportunities. The Red Sea region holds significant commercial importance and abundant resources, and the council seeks to foster regional prosperity for the benefit of all.

International and regional conflict in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden

Bab al-Mandab Strait, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden have become a highly contested area for various international and regional powers. Countries such as the United States, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Turkey are actively involved in this maritime region, deploying aircraft carriers and warships to protect their interests.

Recent events have highlighted the significant role of the maritime dimension in the ongoing conflict in Yemen and its impact on the regional scene. The military intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen has sparked a regional war across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, reminiscent of the "Tanker War" witnessed in the region in 1982. The coalition initially closed Yemeni ports and imposed a naval blockade to prevent weapons smuggling to the Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the former President Saleh, in accordance with UN Resolution 2216.

The Arab coalition enhanced its military presence in the Red Sea waters after Saudi Arabia successfully removed Iranian military presence from the Eritrean port of Assab in 2015. The UAE then established a military base in Assab, granting them strategic depth and the ability to counter any Iranian threats or confrontations. The UAE's geographical proximity to Iran, along with the military assets stationed in Assab, positions them to intercept Iranian naval movements along the coastline in the event of a long-term conflict. While the Assab military base initially emerged to support the Yemeni war effort, its development may signal a new phase of Emirati military expansion with its own set of objectives.

Sudan's alliance with the Arab coalition in 2015 marked a significant shift in alliances and contributed to limiting Iranian military presence in the Red Sea region. However, Iran managed to regain its presence in the Red Sea waters by deploying the ship "Saviz" near the Eritrean Dahlak archipelago, facing the Yemeni coast, in late 2016. The "Saviz" served as an intelligence gathering base and weapons depot for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It received supplies and rotated crews through other Iranian ships in the region.

Since the arrival of the "Saviz," the Red Sea has witnessed increased hostilities, with Houthi attacks on warships in or near the Bab al-Mandab Strait occurring at least four times. In October 2016, anti-ship cruise missiles launched from the Houthi-controlled coast severely damaged the UAE's Swift, a landing ship and logistics hub. In response, the US Navy's destroyer USS Mason successfully defended itself against three similar attacks. The US launched a Tomahawk missile strike to destroy coastal radar sites that facilitated the attacks. However, the threat from sea mines in the Bab al-Mandab Strait remains, prompting the US government to issue warnings advising ships to transit the strait only during daylight hours.

In November 2016, Iran expressed its intention to establish naval military bases in Yemen and Syria, aiming to contribute to water security in the region. This move was seen as part of Iran's strategic goal to expand its influence and assert regional hegemony, further contributing to instability in the international waters of the Middle East.

In mid-June 2018, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, along with the UAE, saw an opportunity in the escalating military situation to launch a swift attack on the coastal city of al-Hodeidah in Yemen. Their objective was to gain control of the city's airport and port. The coalition conducted airstrikes and naval operations targeting Houthi fortifications, under the operation name "Golden Victory." The ground advance was carried out by Yemeni joint forces baked by the UAE.

In July of the same year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that one of its oil tankers in the Red Sea had been targeted by the Houthis. Following these events, political consultations began among the countries in the Red Sea basin to strengthen a military alliance that included Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, and Jordan. This alliance was established in early 2020, as mentioned earlier.

Meanwhile, tensions and maritime conflicts between Israel and Iran intensified rapidly starting from late 2019. According to the Wall Street Journal, Israel targeted at least 12 Iranian ships, mostly carrying Iranian oil and heading to Syria. Israel used various weapons, including sea mines, to strike Iranian ships in the Red Sea and other areas in the region. The naval attacks also aimed to disrupt Iranian efforts in transporting other cargo, including weapons. In 2021, several incidents occurred, such as the attack on the Israeli cargo ship MV Helios Ray in the Gulf of Oman, the targeting of the Iranian ship "Shahr Kord" near Syria, the attack on the Israeli container ship "Lori" in the Arabian Sea, and the targeting of the strategically significant Iranian ship "Saviz" in the Red Sea with a limpet sea mine, believed to be an Israeli action. Shortly after that, the Israeli ship "Hyperion Ray" was targeted near the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

In August, Iran replaced the damaged ship "Saviz" with the cargo ship "Shahad," anchoring it in the same sea area off the "Dahlak" archipelago, facing the Yemeni port of Midi. On July 30, a drone targeted the "Mercer Street" ship in the Arabian Sea, an oil tanker owned by an Israeli businessman and flagged by Liberia. The United States, Britain, Israel, and others blamed Iran for the attack. US-Israeli intelligence indicates that the drone was launched from eastern Yemen, and the United Kingdom deployed special forces to Al-Mahra Governorate to track down the perpetrators. Western powers confirm that Iran is responsible for this attack, which resulted in the deaths of two British and Romanian security guards.

The ongoing armed conflict in the Middle East has exposed serious structural imbalances within the regional system since the turn of the millennium. Geopolitical consequences have led to the imposition of strict hegemony over regional sovereignty and the distribution of power centers. Waterways in the Arabian Peninsula have become arenas of conflict between various powers. Military strikes have been exchanged on the high seas, and a security-intelligence barrier has been established to monitor the movements of adversaries in the international waters of the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the Gulf of Aden. Regional and international divisions have overshadowed the conflict in Yemen, turning it into one of the main front lines, as proxy wars have become the prevailing model for pursuing regional interests. It is evident that the regional conflict in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has taken convoluted paths, and the situation is likely to become even more tense and unstable due to mutual retaliatory naval attacks.

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