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The Geostrategy of Straits: Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb

Security of navigation and port security are becoming an economic priority for all players in the Gulf.

by Eleonora Ardemagni
19 March 2019
14 min read
byEleonora Ardemagni
19 March 2019
14 min read

Maritime straits, or chokepoints, have always been vital for international trade and security and now play a key role in the new geostrategic competition taking place in the Persian Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean, is still one of the major hotspots in the Middle East due to the tension between the United States and Iran as well as between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia. However, the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb, which links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, does not provide a safe alternative to problem-ridden Hormuz since the civil war in Yemen has unleashed new dynamics of insecurity. Moreover, the area stretching from the Horn of Africa to the western Indian Ocean is now at the center of multiple commercial and military rivalries, with strategic implications for the Mediterranean region and Europe.

Maritime trade has been growing in recent years. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), global seaborne trade expanded by 4 percent in 2017 and is projected to increase by 3.8 percent in the period 2018-2023. This trend is driven by booming infrastructure investments generated by China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR), India through its connectivity strategy and the Gulf monarchies with their projects for building container ports and other efforts to forge energy and trade alliances in the East. Asian powers, now the leading importers of oil and gas from the Gulf, have played a key role in enhancing the significance of the straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb in global geostrategic balances.

Against this background, the major challenges to maritime security in and around chokepoints come from state actors such as Iran, insurgency and terrorist groups like Yemen’s Houthi rebels and the jihadists operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, as well as from other unresolved geopolitical tensions in the Gulf. They also stem from the resurfacing of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the waters of Somalia, and from the growing nationalist ambitions of the monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar. In the medium to long term, the need to counter rising maritime terrorism and to guarantee the security of the many container ports currently under construction or expansion means that freedom of navigation through these chokepoints is becoming an increasingly important issue for both the national interest and the interests of the global community, providing scope for possible bilateral and/or multilateral cooperation, albeit in a context marked by strong competition.

Players, Dynamics and Imbalances

The threat to block or even close maritime transit through Hormuz is part of the usual rhetoric employed by post-revolutionary Iran as a major tool of geopolitical pressure and as a weapon of verbal deterrence. Since Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran’s highest authorities have become more vocal in their threats over Hormuz. A possible U.S. military intervention against Iran, just like the possibility of military action by Israel and/or Saudi Arabia in Iranian territory, would cause disarray in any scenario. Nevertheless, in a situation of escalating political tensions, there are three elements that need to be considered, all of which militate against Iran closing and/or blocking access through the strait. Firstly, Tehran is still massively dependent on the ability to pass through Hormuz in order to export its crude oil, since Chabahar port, in the Sistan va Baluchestan province east of the strait, financed primarily by India, will not be fully operational in the medium term. In 2018, the volume of trade activities of Chabahar increased by around 50 percent, but the port is undergoing expansion, and the plan for a Free Trade Zone is evolving, although the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions is likely to slow down and reduce its development. Secondly, blocking Hormuz would mean bringing Iraq’s economy to its knees as the Gulf is Iraq’s only outlet to the sea. This would have a direct impact on the social stability of southern Iraq and its Shia majority population, which is dependent on oil exports and is now seeing a growing military, political and economic presence of the pro-Iranian Iraqi militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces. By causing a major crisis in Hormuz, the Iranians would thus jeopardize their strategic depth into the Eastern Mediterranean, depth gained through proxies that hinge on Iraq. Finally, the other country that holds the “geopolitical key” to Hormuz, namely the Sultanate of Oman through the Musandam Peninsula, has never broken off dialogue with the Islamic Republic and actually facilitated informal talks prior to nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States in 2013.  Muscat remains an irreplaceable asset for regional diplomacy, this despite growing pressure from Saudi Arabia to align itself with the positions of the Saudi Arabia-Arab Emirates diarchy.

Looking at the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb, although the percentage of oil barrels per day passing through it is lower than that of Hormuz, approximately 4 percent of global supplies compared to 20 percent, it currently poses greater challenges for the bordering region because Yemen is the epicenter of sub-regional insecurity. Most of Yemen’s western coastline along the Red Sea is still controlled by the Houthis, the Iran-backed Shiite insurgents in the north of the country, while the port city of Hodeidah is at the center of United Nations negotiations. The Houthi rebels actually launch their missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia from the Hodeidah-Sanaa-Saada triangle. The west coast of Yemen is still a war zone: since 2016, the Houthis’ long-range missiles and remote-controlled boats filled with explosives have hit American, Saudi and Emirati warships as well as Saudi Oil tankers and merchant ships passing through the southern end of the Red Sea. In summer 2018, Riyadh suspended its oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandeb strait after one of its oil tankers was attacked. The Houthis have also made extensive use of mines, including naval mines, not only in the port of Hodeidah but also in Mokha harbor. Yemen’s port city of Aden is still a long way from achieving political stability. It is the seat of the internationally recognized government as well as of the Southern Transitional Council, an institutional body with its own military wing working for southern independence created in 2017. Although the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and of the local branch of so-called Islamic State has grown weaker, Aden is still subject to extensive jihadist infiltration.

From a strategic standpoint, Bab al-Mandeb has become an extension of the Gulf, as shown by the key role played by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. East Africa is becoming an important arena for the geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as between the Middle Eastern powers themselves, Emirates and Saudi Arabia versus Qatar and Turkey, through the construction/concession of commercial ports, military facilities and permanent bases. Also, Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb have grown increasingly interdependent as a result of Iranian support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, which means that a crisis in one of the straits could have political and military repercussions on the other, thereby making escalation scenarios more likely and, conversely, de-escalation scenarios more complex.

Alliances, Naval Forces and Defense of the Seas: the Role of the Gulf Monarchies

In the geostrategy of the two straits, the Gulf monarchies are playing an increasingly prominent role due to their interventionist and ambitious foreign policies as well as growing investments in their naval forces. It is no coincidence that energy and maritime security are at the core of the courses run by the NATO Regional Center in Kuwait. In conventional naval operations, the monarchies enjoy an advantage over Iran in that they can rely on more modern ships and naval systems as well as on American and British protection. Whereas their traditional focus was on coastal defense, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar are now investing in the development of “blue water capabilities,” the ability to operate in the deep waters of open oceans, but they suffer from a shortage of qualified personnel and training.

Each monarchy, however, has different and sometimes conflicting objectives, strategies and alliances. These differences have been exacerbated since Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in 2017. For Qatar, currently under a land, sea and air embargo, a maritime projection beyond Hormuz means building a network of alternative relations to secure its economic and commercial survival as well as its regional prestige. The crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has led to stronger relations, including maritime ties, between Doha, Iran and Turkey, as well as between Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. In 2018, Qatar and Iran started talks to strengthen their port and maritime cooperation.

With regards to the straits, Saudi Arabia can act on two fronts: Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb-Suez Canal. Riyadh has the biggest fleet in the Gulf and, in 2008, started a modernization program for its Eastern Fleet that is still underway, the Second Naval Enhancement Program II. It is also making substantial investments in its western coast, already the outlet for Petroline, the pipeline that carries crude oil for export from the eastern regions to the terminals. Large-scale infrastructure, tourist and industrial projects linked to the “Vision 2030” plan and post-oil diversification are all being developed on the Red Sea (King Abdullah Economic City, NEOM and Red Sea Project). Freedom of navigation and maritime security along Bab al-Mandeb are therefore a national priority for Riyadh, well beyond energy and trade considerations.

Until a few years ago, the United Arab Emirates’ main focus was on Hormuz, since Iran has occupied the UAE islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs since 1971. Although their geographic boundaries are still the same, the Emirates have successfully redrawn their geopolitical boundaries through the development of the commercial Port of Fujairah (east of Hormuz) followed by a rapid but sophisticated military and commercial penetration of the region between south of Yemen and the Horn of Africa that included concession/management of ports, military bases and logistics support. They have thus turned Bab al-Mandeb into the pivot for their projection “beyond Hormuz,” partly thanks to their navy, which is the most efficient in the GCC area today.

Kuwait finds itself in a “double bottleneck,” one land-based, linked to its long border with previously hostile Iraq, and one sea-based, due to its need to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. This influences its foreign policy, which is geared towards mediation and good neighbor relations while being firmly aligned with Saudi Arabia. Oman enjoys the best geographical position in terms of freedom of navigation. With its coastline facing the Indian Ocean, the Sultanate is engaged in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden and views with serious concern the economic and military penetration of the eastern coasts of Yemen, the govemorate Mahra, and the island of Socotra by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. It has a strong and long-established naval cooperation with India, which it has actively pursued since 1993. Lastly, Bahrain is economically and militarily dependent on Saudi Arabia, and its foreign policy is essentially modeled on Riyadh’s. Manama’s priority, like Kuwait’s, is to secure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, its only sea passage.

Despite spending more on defense than Tehran, none of the monarchies have adequate capabilities for counteracting Iran’s asymmetrical maritime activities that include missiles capable of hitting forces and targets on the coast, as well as mines and explosive boats, a failure due to the lack of coordination and interoperability within the GCC. Oman alone has invested in patrol vessels, corvettes and small frigates as part of its anti-Iran policy. Asymmetry, including in the seas and the straits, remains a key strategic advantage for Tehran compared with the other side of the Gulf coast.

Scenarios: Security Threats and Security Architectures

The Bab al-Mandeb bordering region is seeing the emergence of new security architectures, such as the Red Sea Alliance, launched in late 2018 by Saudi Arabia with Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Jordan, but with the exclusion of the United Arab Emirates, who are now key players in the region. The first naval exercises of this alliance, “Red Wave I,” were held between December 2018 and January 2019. In November 2018, Egypt hosted “Arab Shield 1,” a joint military exercise involving special naval forces from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan. Maritime coordination initiatives, however, remain potential rather than actual, due to internal rivalries, (see the GCC Joint Naval Operations Center in Bahrain), while the role of Asian powers is set to increase, given their extensive commercial interests, as is that of Great Britain, with the revival of its “East of Suez” engagement and the opening of military bases in Bahrain (2018) and Oman (2019). Asymmetric warfare (Hormuz) and maritime terrorism (Bab al-Mandeb), in which Iran and Yemen’s Houthi rebels are the main players, are today’s biggest threats to freedom of navigation in the chokepoints of the Middle East. In this context, NATO recently completed its “Ocean Shield” mission, while The European Union Naval Force Operation Atalanta and Combined Maritime Forces continue their engagement in countering maritime threats between Aden and the Indian Ocean. As Admiral Ferdinando Sanfelice di Monteforte of the Italian Navy pointed out in a recent article, the emerging maritime terrorism perpetrated by Houthi rebels in the Bab al-Mandeb region is distinct from piracy and its military capabilities are much more sophisticated. In the medium to long term, the security of ports constitutes an economic and security priority in a period of rapid infrastructure and logistics development.