Saudi Arabia, forced out of decades of self-imposed insularity by the political convulsions of the Middle East, is finalising an agreement with the strategic Horn of Africa state of Djibouti to establish a military base to bolster the kingdom’s security as its confrontation with long-time rival Iran heats up, writes Ed Blanche.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s key ally in the Gulf and in its 2-year war in Yemen, is building a military base in the East African state of Eritrea at the port of Assab, 60km across the Red Sea from Yemen.
These expansionist plans by Arab states that have long relied on the United States and other Western allies to protect them are primarily intended as the outer markers of a military alliance among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to confront Iran.
It also has another purpose: To protect the three main maritime checkpoints in the region — the Suez Canal in the north, the Bab el Mandeb Strait between Yemen and Eritrea that links the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz, gateway to the Gulf and bracketed by Oman and Iran.
The U-shaped Hormuz waterway has long been a flashpoint between the Islamic Republic, and the United States and the GCC, with Tehran regularly threatening to close the only way in and out of the Gulf and cut maritime trade, particularly oil and gas exports from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar.
But these days the focal point of concern about maritime security is the Bab el Mandeb, one of the world’s busiest trade routes and only 29km wide at its narrowest point, through which some 4.7 million barrels of Europe-bound oil and petroleum pass every day.
“Almost all maritime trade between Europe and Asia, approximately $700 billion annually, passes through this narrow waterway,” observed analyst James Pothecary in the Maritime Security Review late last year. A security threat there “will have serious economic consequences for global trade… As maritime shipping is approximately 90% of how the world’s goods are transported, interference at these choke points is a serious threat to international business,” he wrote. “The situation in the strait is likely to escalate, leaving both naval and civilian vessels at risk.”
Houthi tribesmen in Yemen, supported by Iran, who are warring with a Saudi-UAE coalition there, have gained a measure of control over the strait in recent months that deeply troubles Riyadh.
On October 9th and 12th, rebel forces unleashed anti-ship cruise missiles — probably Chinese-designed C-802 weapons like those provided to Iran — from Houthi-controlled territory against several vessels, including warships of the US Navy 5th Fleet, which has its headquarters in Bahrain. A UAE ship was badly damaged. The US Navy ships retaliated with a broadside of land-attack missiles that destroyed two Houthi-controlled radar stations on Yemen’s western coast.
The action halted the missile attacks but on October 22nd there was an attempted attack on the Spanish-flagged Galicia Spirit, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier, by militants using a skiff loaded with explosives. The attack was similar to al-Qaeda attacks on the US Navy destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbour in October 2000 and on the French tanker Limburg off Yemen’s Hadramawt coast in the Red Sea in March 2002.
The most severe attack was on January 30th when Riyadh reported a Saudi frigate off rebel-held Hodeidah port was attacked by three suicide boats, one of which exploded when it rammed the vessel, killing two crewmen and wounding three.
The Houthis claimed they hit the frigate with an unspecified missile on January 31st. Whatever the cause or timing of the blast, the attack marked a major escalation in the Red Sea maritime conflict.
Shipping companies have thwarted attacks by Somali pirates in recent years but they face an entirely new threat from ideologically motivated missile attacks and possibly suicide operations. “One thing is certain: If the threat to the Bab el Mandeb shifts from piracy to militancy, shipping companies will have to rethink their safety protocols,” the US-based global intelligence consultancy Stratfor observed in a recent analysis.
“The chances of more attacks occurring in the months ahead are high,” it warned.
“If allowed to continue, Yemeni militants will eventually hit a tanker carrying liquefied natural gas or crude, causing a shock to international shippers that rely on the Bab el Mandeb, as well as the energy markets they service. Mitigating the… militant maritime threats will come down to control over land.”
On January 7th, Yemeni state forces supported by the UAE Army and Air Force launched an offensive code-named Operation Golden Arrow, preceded by two weeks of preparatory air strikes, on the city of Dhubab near the Bab el Mandeb.
The push triggered heavy fighting and the objective seems to be securing the coastline of Taiz province to cut off the rebels’ arms supplies on the Red Sea coast through Mokha and Hodeidah and to prevent further attacks on shipping.
The offensive is moving northward towards Mokha but, as of mid- January, rebel forces still controlled nearly all of Yemen’s Red Sea coast north of the strait.
There has also been trouble in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow 260km channel that links the Arabian Gulf with the Indian Ocean. Some 40% of the world’s tanker traffic passes through its narrow navigable passages.
On January 8th, the USS Mahan fired warning shots at four armed attack craft manned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as they sped towards the destroyer in a threatening manner.
That incident followed a series of similar encounters in recent months as hardliners in Tehran appeared to be challenging the United States over the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement between US-led global powers and the Islamic Republic under which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of crippling sanctions.
Hardliners have defied UN Security Council resolutions by test-firing ballistic missiles, causing great US unease, while Tehran, bolstered by an estimated $100 billion in unfrozen assets under the nuclear deal, has stepped up a military modernisation drive.
The tension has swelled with the election of Donald Trump as US president, who has vowed to get tough with Iran. During his election campaign, Trump threatened to tear up the 2015 deal.
Any escalation in this simmering confrontation could include a face-off in the Strait of Hormuz. Despite earlier threats, Hormuz has never been closed, largely due to pushback by the US military. The last full-scale clash there was in April 1988 when half of Iran’s operational navy was sunk or disabled.
But any escalation would sharpen the conflict in Yemen, which could lead to open confrontation in the shipping lanes of the Red Sea, the Bab el Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden.
Iran’s naval forces remain vastly inferior to those of the United States and its regional allies but its use of weapons such as armed drones and anti-ship missiles, particularly the Chinese-designed C-802 and Iranian-built derivatives, pose a maritime threat — and not just against ships.
C-802 variants Iran has supplied to Hezbollah threaten Israel’s offshore gas facilities in the eastern Mediterranean. With a range of 120km, the C-802s put a large swathe of the southern Red Sea, including the UAE’s new military base in Assab, within reach.
To the north, Israeli intelligence claims Hezbollah has acquired shore-based Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, which could inflict critical damage to Israel’s expanding offshore energy industry, the Jewish state’s key economic pillar.
In this regard, the GCC’s oil and gas facilities are also deemed to be in Iran’s cross hairs from these weapons and the recent deployment of Russian S300-PMU air-defence missiles, with their long-range radars, have added to Iranian firepower.
“Iran could use its air defences to threaten the formation of maritime-or air-exclusion in the Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman, complicating access to and transit through these regions for the US and its regional allies and creating leverage over its adversaries,” observed Farzin Nadimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a January analysis.
The S-300s, which can track 100 targets simultaneously, could be used to create a no-fly zone that would cover the US Navy 5th Fleet and the regional headquarters of Britain’s Royal Navy, both in Bahrain, Qatar’s North Dome gas field and the entire Strait of Hormuz.
Egypt, a major Red Sea power and currently mired in economic woes, has a major stake in maintaining trade through the seaway. It cannot afford to lose vital revenues from the recently expanded Suez Canal.
On January 5th, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated a new naval force based in the Red Sea tasked with ensuring maritime security. It includes a special forces brigade and will have access to two newly acquired French-built Mistral-class helicopter carriers.
This article, written by Beirut-based analyst Ed Blanche, was originally published by The Arab Weekly