The Red Sea's Bab Al-Mandab Strait: Tangled webs

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 2 Aug 2018

Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping are part and parcel of wider regional power plays

Bab-el-Mandeb area
Bab-el-Mandeb area (Photo: NASA)

“We have been very closely monitoring the escalation of tension. We have been careful not to make many public statements and to assure all concerned that any further escalation must be avoided. It is the last thing we need, to add more tension to the region.”

So ran the only response from an Egyptian government official to a question by Al-Ahram Weekly on developments around the Bab Al-Mandeb following last week’s attack on a Saudi oil tanker by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

On the same day, 25 July, there were reports — later denied by the UAE — of an attack against a target in Abu Dhabi.

“It is a wave of tension that does little for regional stability though I can’t say we are anticipating any dramatic military metamorphosis because it is not just about the safety of the Red Sea but also about the interests of a great many powers that depend on the security and stability of this strategic maritime route,” said the anonymous source.

He was speaking hours before US President Donald Trump’s announcement he was willing to meet up with “anyone”, including President of Iran Hassan Rouhani, without preconditions, to consider a possible deal with Iran.

“I’d meet with anybody. I believe in meetings,” the US president told reporters at the White House.

Later on same day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed Trump’s willingness to seek a high-level meeting with Iranian leaders to strike a possible deal but said that it was neither an invitation nor an unqualified offer.

“It is not clear what the Americans have in mind. Is this just another unpredictable statement from Trump that has had to be qualified by the US foreign service or is it something substantial, like Trump’s North Korean endeavour? The only thing that is clear is that there has been serious European pressure on Washington to slow down its escalation with Iran for fear of serious regional complications,” said a Washington-based European diplomat.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — leading members of the Riyadh-led alliance to restore legitimacy in Yemen — have been intensifying their strikes against the rebel-held port of Hodeida.

On Monday, UN humanitarian coordinator Lisa Grande warned that Hodeida was one more strike away from a humanitarian catastrophe.

A source in the UN Yemen mission, who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, said on Monday that the “heavy and non-stop strikes of the Saudis and the Emiratis were complicating the situation and making it impossible for” UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths to pursue a political settlement to the four year-old conflict.

“He had made some progress against overwhelming odds, not least the positions adopted by most regional powers who do not want to upset Saudi Arabia — and now this,” said the source at the UN mission.

Speaking in Cairo, hours before the Trump statement, Baligh Mekhlaf, a member of the Yemeni diplomatic mission that represents the Saudi/UAE backed Yemeni regime of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, said that “the Houthis do not want a political settlement — they are just trying to buy time.”

According to Mekhlaf, the Houthis “should be faced with a firm military approach, especially since they have no legitimate grievances”.

“They are just a cat’s paw for the Iranians, and obviously Tehran is upset about its confrontation with the US.”

Prior to his dramatic Monday statements Trump, who had already unilaterally pulled out of the 5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, warned Tehran it would face tough times if it continued to defy US interests.

Cairo-based foreign diplomatic sources say both Saudi Arabia and Israel are only too pleased to see Iran coming under so much US pressure, especially the expected US ban on all Iranian oil exports.

In Cairo, however, there is growing concern about the wider regional consequences of a new confrontation involving Iran.

Egypt, closely allied with Riyadh, is currently hosting senior Yemeni figures, including associates of the son of the late Ali Abdallah Saleh, Yemen’s ousted president. But Cairo is far from seeking a political fight with Iran.

Egyptian diplomats worry about escalating any confrontation with Iran, which would have ramifications in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Tehran wields considerable influence, and also on the situation around the Red Sea.

Cairo, which is member of the Saudi-led alliance but has declined to contribute any ground troops for operations in Yemen despite heavy pressure from Riyadh, is keeping a close eye on developments in the Horn of Africa, an area that is vital to Egypt’s strategic interests.

Egyptian diplomatic missions have been closely following Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s communications with Eritrea and Djibouti.

They have also been monitoring the messaging between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on the one hand, and Addis Ababa on the other.

A keen eye is being kept on the interaction of all international players with a direct military presence overlooking Bab Al-Mandab, and on Israel.

According to Cairo sources, the objective is not only to avert any escalation but to prevent the emergence of future security plans for an area that is central to Egyptian interests that by-pass Cairo.

“Saudi Arabia and the UAE are endeavouring to reduce the Iranian presence in Dijbouti and Somalia/Somaliland. This is about the management of the situation in Yemen but also about the economic interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE across the Red Sea,” says Amira Abdel-Halim, an East Africa expert from Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

The recent rapprochement between Asmara and Addis Ababa, argues Abdel-Halim, means Cairo has also to keep a close eye on this front, especially that this week Ethiopia began operating two land lines to Eritrean ports on the Red Sea.

The last thing Cairo wants to see is new coalitions emerging, even under the pretext of facing up to the Iranian threat, that exclude Egypt.

Foreign diplomats say Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has already hinted at a new regional security arrangement to monitor the Red Sea.

Concerned Egyptian officials refer to “legitimate security questions” facing East African states. Ethiopia has faced two major security challenges in just one week — the first the assassination of the director of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the second the arrest of a group of armed men near the airport in Addis Ababa.

A major foreign military presence already exists in the area. The Americans have a large base in Djibouti and a number of European states maintain a military presence around Somalia to combat piracy.

“Egypt has always had a presence there. Its contribution to the Saudi alliance is about securing Bab Al-Mandeb, something Egypt cannot forgo given the security of maritime routes to the Suez Canal is central to its Red Sea interests,” says Abdel-Halim.

And in any future arrangements for the region “it goes without saying” that Egypt must have a central role.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tangled webs

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