العربية

Bab El-Mandeb Strait and its impact on Red Sea security and stability

Major General Ashraf Labib

The geographic region of the southern Red Sea gained great significance after the 1973 War, as the closure of the Bab El-Mandeb Strait by Egyptian Navy ships and submarines played a fundamental and influential role in the course of the Egyptian-Israeli war, during which the traffic of trading ships heading to the Israeli port of Eilat was cut off, which drew attention to the importance of this strait in affecting the countries of the region in general, and the security of the Red Sea in particular.

The countries overlooking the Gulf of Aden and the Bab El-Mandeb Strait enjoy geopolitical advantages, as they overlook the entrance to the Red Sea, in addition to many strategic advantages, including the scattered uninhabited islands and the oil and gas wealth inherent in the Red Sea basin. This geographical region also controls the global trade movements, especially the Arabian Gulf oil heading to Europe, as well as ships heading from the ports of the Arabian Gulf and Southeast Asia, to the countries overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the European continent through the Suez Canal.

It is noteworthy that the importance of the Bab El-Mandeb Strait was limited until the first opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the beginning of navigation in it, after which the Strait became one of the most important shipping lanes and straits in the entire world, by linking transportation lines between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, through merging lines Maritime navigation lines between European countries and the Red Sea countries on the one hand, as well as between the Indian Ocean countries and Southeast Asia countries besides the countries of the Mediterranean, passing to the Atlantic Ocean and northwestern Europe on the other hand, which led to the dispensing of the Cape of Good Hope, due to  its financial and temporal costs.

Given the geographical environment of the strait, we find that it has two canals; the first is located between the Yemeni coast and the Yemeni island of “Perim”, also known as “Mayun”, that measures roughly 3 km in width, and its maximum depth (roughly in the middle) ranges between 20 To 30 meters, which the majority of large international ships avoid moving through. As for the second canal, which is the largest, it is located between the Yemeni island of Perim and the African coast of Djibouti, and it measures approximately 22 km in width, while its depth is about 280 meters, which allows various ships and oil tankers to cross this canal easily on two opposite and distant axes. Furthermore, a meteorological station is located inside the island to broadcast sea and weather conditions, as well as a lighthouse to guide ships crossing the strait.

There are 40 large islands and 380 medium-sized islands in the red sea, which in general do not pose any threat to international maritime navigation, because they are visible, clear and located on navigational charts, and are not affected by tidal stages throughout the year. There are other small islands, estimated at approximately 1,400 islands, that pose some risks to navigation in the Red Sea, as the depths around most of them do not exceed 15 meters, and even less than that depending on tidal stages throughout the year, and the islands – especially the uninhabited – might be exploited for criminal activities, such as drug and weapons smuggling, piracy and ship hijacking.

The strategic significance of the islands scattered in the Red Sea stems from the fact that they are considered advanced bases for the coasts of the countries to which these islands belong (Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea) and the possibility of exploiting them as sites for maritime surveillance and reconnaissance, taking into account that the spread of the islands in that region leads to restricting maritime navigation there, and increases the tightness of the land’s control over the water, considering that these islands are an extension of the countries’ control over their coast deep into the sea, which makes them coveted by major powers.

Some countries located in the southern Red Sea region (Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia) overlooking the Bab El-Mandeb Strait have a unique strategic advantage, due to their view over the entrances and exits of the Strait and thus the ability to control it, as it is called the “strategic bottleneck”. However, major powers and their allies have been keen to establish military bases near and around the strait, due to its global importance in the trade and transport movements.

Yemen enjoys a strategic advantage in controlling the Bab El-Mandeb Strait because it owns Perim Island, located exactly at the entrance of the Red Sea. It also possesses a group of other islands along the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. The total number of Yemeni islands is about 186 islands, including 150 islands in the Red Sea, and the most important and largest islands inhabited in Yemen are Perim, Hanish, Zuqar, Kamaran, and Socotra (in the Gulf of Aden).

While Eritrea has 126 islands, the most important of which are Haleb, Fatima, Nora, and Hermil, and the Dahlak Archipelago group of islands, which consists of about 100 islands located on 700 square kilometers, the largest of which is Dahlak Kebir. As for Djibouti, it occupies a number of islands, such as Al-Saba (which are seven small islands extended westward from the Gulf of Aden, just before the Bab El-Mandeb Strait’s entry), in addition to the islands of Moucha, Kalida, and Abou Maya.

Throughout history, the southern Red Sea region has witnessed competition for military presence between the major powers – especially with regard to the occupation or control of the islands there, as this allows them to enhance control over the navigational course of the southern and central Red Sea – starting with the competition between traditional colonial powers, such as: Spain, Portugal, Britain, Italy, and France, and through the period of the Cold War during which the Soviet Union established a military base in Berbera in Somalia, but the existence of that base soon ended following the collapse of relations between the Soviet Union and Somalia as a result of its support for Ethiopia in its war against Somalia then.

This region is currently witnessing a growing state of global and regional competition, as it is now among the regions in the globe with the largest number of military bases, with bases for countries such as France, the United States, Japan, China, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and the European Union. In this context, tasks and responsibilities of foreign forces at the bases of those countries vary in terms of combating piracy crimes in the Gulf of Aden and the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, as well as monitoring and protecting the movement of trading ships in the southern Red Sea, based on agreements with the governments of the countries hosting their bases, under which these governments obtain financial, military, technical, or civil incentives or facilities.

The foreign naval military presence in the southern Red Sea is a double-edged deterrent weapon, as any escalation of conflict regarding political or economic interests of those international and regional powers, and between the countries bordering the Red Sea, such as the current attacks on trading ships in the southern Red Sea , would likely lead to the expansion of the conflict to include other parties that will try to impose their will as well and their control over the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, and hence the possibility of its closure, thus creating more complications and crises in that region, besides the negative effects that this would have on the international trade and the global economy, as well as on the security of the countries of that region.

By reaching this, there will be no winner in the battle, as all parties will suffer losses. Therefore, the countries bordering the Red Sea must strive collectively by consensus to strengthen cooperative relations and search for common political, economic, cultural, and military interests between them.

To sum up, it can be emphasized that the security and stability of the Bab El-Mandeb Strait are closely linked to the security of the Red Sea, in addition to the Suez Canal remaining open to international navigation in the first place, as their security and safety, and the preservation of navigation in them, are considered among the most important factors for the stability and security of the movement of trading ships and oil tankers around the globe, as well as the stability of the flow of global trade supply chains in their usual and natural way between the countries of the East and the West. Moreover, it is expected that ships, that took the Cape of Good Hope route, will return to the Red Sea and Suez Canal routes after the current threats and escalation come to an end, as the Suez Canal is a vital, ingenious, and indispensable route for international commercial ships around the world.

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