The Yemen war is often regarded as a remote, localized conflict in Saudi Arabia’s backyard. But US military strategists warn that developments in Yemen pose a geostrategic threat to world trade and the regional balance of power.
For those concerned with global shipping, the Suez Canal and Bab Al-Mandab at either end of the Red Sea represent two vital chokepoints. The severing of either would have catastrophic consequences for world trade and energy security, not least because of the 4 million barrels of oil passing through the Mandab Strait each day.
In almost every global and regional war over the last 150 years, control of Suez and safe passage through the Red Sea was a strategic priority and sometimes a trigger of the conflict itself. Likewise, hegemonic control of the Aden coast and Mandab over the centuries often signaled who was the dominant world power.
The Houthis from the north and the Saudi-led coalition from the south are today battling for control of this coastal region. Even though the Houthis have been pushed back from the narrowest point of the Mandab Strait, their patrons in Tehran have given them military hardware that poses a lethal threat to shipping, including medium-range missiles, explosives-laden boats, mines and drone technology.
The largely indiscriminate nature of such weapons means it matters little whether you are a direct participant in the conflict or involved in commercial shipping. The threat is growing as the Houthis master the technology and Iran gives them more military hardware. By supporting the Houthis, Tehran clearly seeks to dominate Yemen and menace the Gulf states. But the ability to strike at a crucial global shipping corridor gives Iran new options. As a brinkmanship tactic, it previously threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. The ability to strike Mandab gives Iran a new chokepoint. Its access to the Mediterranean via its hegemonic role in Syria and Lebanon could be seen as the apex of a triangle, giving Iran maritime control bestriding the entire Middle East.
I recently interviewed Vice Admiral Kevin M. Donegan, commander of the US Fifth Fleet. He reiterated to me the dangers of allowing an Iranian proxy to threaten Red Sea shipping. He said while the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya are primarily land-based, the violence in Yemen is increasingly “spilling into the maritime.”
Donegan questioned why any nation would try to impede shipping at a key node “for the lifeblood of the world economy,” citing attacks on Saudi and Emirati ships and a recent attempt to use a boat of explosives against Saudi oil infrastructure.
Donegan has been at the center of international efforts to halt illegal Iranian arms shipments into Yemen. While the boats successfully intercepted may be the tip of the iceberg, he noted the escalatory dangers of giving the Houthis heavy armaments such as anti-tank weapons, RPGs, rifles and technology for attacking shipping. “When you look at the evidence that was on the ships,” he added, “those weapons originated from Iran.”
With Iranian proxies in the north, Al-Qaeda in the center and separatists in the south, perhaps the greatest threat is the Somalia-style fragmentation of Yemen into multiple failed states and extremist fiefdoms. This could make Yemen a permanent exporter of terrorism, regional instability, piracy and threats to trade.
Recent tensions between President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the UAE are largely due to security successes in the south fueling separatist aspirations there, which undermines coalition efforts to further progress against the Houthis and Al-Qaeda.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin propped up Bashar Assad’s genocidal regime in Syria and sought to stir the pot in Libya, Moscow now appears inclined toward Iran and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s camp over Yemen. Saleh has reciprocated with promises of granting Russia military basing rights on the Yemen coast, allowing Moscow to project its power in the Mandab Strait.
Like a slow-motion car accident, Yemen experts have long warned that the country is sliding into the abyss. Yet international responses come too little, too late. The humanitarian ramifications are similarly terrifying. Last month, the World Food Programme could only afford to feed 3 million out of 7 million Yemenis at risk of starvation; with one child under 5 dying of preventable causes every 10 minutes. “Nowhere on Earth are as many lives at risk.” warned humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland.
When Donald Trump travels to Saudi Arabia later this month on his first presidential foreign travel, he will get a bird’s-eye view of Yemen’s strategic location in the Arabian Peninsula. He may even catch a glimpse of the narrow and precarious Mandab Strait, and how easily this international trade corridor could be severed. We hope he will be attentive to reasonable arguments about why efforts to block Iranian arms proliferation and restore peace in Yemen are in America’s domestic strategic interest (abridged).
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK.
Source: Arab News