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.