Equations of Bab Al-Mandeb strait

Khaled Okasha , Saturday 4 Aug 2018

The Arab coalition was on the verge of taking from the Houthis in Yemen the port city of Hodeida, but stopped. Why, asks Khaled Okasha

File Photo: Bab El Mandeb Strait. (Photo: AFP)

In the Arab coalition’s operation to gain control over the port of Hodeida, elite forces from the UAE assumed the brunt of the offensive on the ground, alongside some Yemeni army forces that Abu Dhabi had trained and equipped for such missions in the coalition’s war to reinstate the internationally recognised Yemeni government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

As strategically important as the port of Hodeida is to the Houthi militias, the significance of this battle is about more than the port’s function as the Houthi’s portal to the outside world. It is a cornerstone in a large and complex project being carried out by rebel forces.

This is what gives that port, situated so near to the southern entrance to the Red Sea, a broader, regional threat dimension that the Houthis have flaunted from time to time.

It is also a major reason why pro-government forces began to accelerate their campaign to wrest the Hodeida card from the Houthis, shift the military balance of powers definitively in favour of the Arab coalition and capitalise on this to exact concessions from the Houthis in UN-sponsored settlement talks, even if the negotiating tracks and the degree to which the parties are prepared to compromise are far from clear yet.

Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to “temporarily suspend” oil shipments through the Red Sea needs to be viewed against this backdrop.

The halt was in response to missiles fired from the Yemeni mainland targeting two Saudi tankers. This development adds to the mystery surrounding the progress of the coalition’s military operation against Hodeida, which has also ground to a halt for no apparent reason.

All evidence had suggested that the UAE forces were a stone’s throw from capturing both the port and the city of Hodeida. Not only did those forces have full Saudi air coverage in that battle, their march was coordinated with coalition campaigns in the interior.

In particular, the coalition intensified the campaign in the vicinity of Saada, the Houthi homeland, in order to diffuse Houthi attention and facilitate the seizure of the port.

So, who ordered the halt to the Battle of Hodeida at this curious time? Why or in whose interests was that decision taken with respect to that location which is of such strategic significance for the freedom and security of international navigation?

There has been talk of international, and specifically British, pressure on the Saudi-led Arab coalition to call its operation to a halt at this stage in which everything is up in the air.

It has been suggested that the reason was to maintain a more equal balance of powers between the warring parties. Since the beginning of the military hostilities in Yemen, world powers have been reluctant to intervene in a definitive way.

There is a confusing tangle of overlapping and divergent interests among many foreign stakeholders in the Yemeni crisis, but on the whole, they seem to favour a perpetuation of the no winner/no loser scenario. This has generated diverse and visible forms of attrition on all parties involved in the conflict.

If, indeed, there were such pressures, there remains the question as to what end? Is the purpose solely to ensure that the UN envoy for Yemen — a British citizen — keeps a grip on the steering wheel of the settlement process and the results? Or do the British have other hidden ends or ambitions?

Apparently, Britain has been given leave, or an international mandate, to assume the helm and carry out certain designs for a comprehensive arrangement covering key issues in the region.

These questions will remain pending, at least momentarily, as will questions concerning the recent Saudi halt to oil shipments through the Bab Al-Mandeb.

This said, that move seemed calculated to deliver a surprise. This was hardly the first time that navigation in the Red Sea has faced such a threat. US, Saudi, Emirati and Chinese ships, both military and commercial, have been targeted by missiles and booby-trapped speedboats.

Reactions to such attacks have always been restrained, if only in order to keep this tactic from having visible or major repercussions, thereby voiding its efficacy as a pressure card.

The Saudi decision, therefore, seemed a deliberate overreaction, which leads one to suspect that it was linked to the pressures on the Saudi-led coalition to halt its advance into Hodeida.

Was Riyadh’s intent to deliver a more severely worded message to the powers behind those pressures to the effect that Riyadh and its partners may begin to push back, albeit in other directions? One was struck by UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Qarqash’s tweet following the Saudi decision.

After noting that the patience of the UAE and its allies was wearing thin because of the threats to their ships, he underscored two points.

The first was how troubled the UAE and other countries in its axis were by the differences between Europe and the US over Iran.

The second was that the UAE was prepared to undertake more security responsibilities in the Middle East.

If Saudi Arabia is reordering its trump cards, perhaps its recent decision was meant to cause waves — of a calculated degree, so far — in the security equations of the Bab Al-Mandeb and Red Sea.

Iran, naturally, has been perpetually present in these equations since the outset of the Yemeni crisis. It too uses the maritime threat, but so far in very measured doses so as not to let it spiral out of control.

The strategy has come into play again in relation to the Arab coalition’s march on Hodeida, on the one hand, and the escalating set-to between Tehran and the US over sanctions, on the other. But it may be that Iran is bent on transferring the strategy from the Straits of Hormuz to the Bab Al-Mandeb, a strait of considerably more strategic importance where the threat of escalation could, therefore, offer a greater payoff.

Unfortunately, this gives rise to the spectre that the Bab Al-Mandeb and southern Red Sea could shift from a “limited threat” zone, largely restricted to the bounds of the civil war/proxy war in Yemen, to the level of a more general regional security threat should navigation through the Bab Al-Mandeb and Red Sea become a major factor in the tug-of-war between Washington and Tehran.

At that point, some action will be needed to keep the situation under control and to regulate the balances between the countries most immediately concerned with a situation that is tantamount to striking matches next to a haystack.

Egypt, for example, has maintained a carefully calibrated distance from the conflict in Yemen for many years.

Today, it finds itself compelled to study more thoroughly the ramifications of threats of this magnitude. The national security calculations related to the Suez Canal have always begun not with Suez, but with the Bab Al-Mandeb.

This is why Cairo must make its own assessments in this regard, independently of others who may not appreciate the scope of the potential national security threat, not just with respect to maritime security, but also with respect to Egypt’s entire western shoreline inclusive of its Red Sea islands.

Egypt does not have the luxury to expose such locations to any vulnerability which, in itself, should give Egypt incentive to act.

It seems more urgent than ever for Egypt to formulate an Egyptian vision for resolving the Yemeni crisis. Whatever the specifics, this will inherently be a multi-pronged drive that demands quick resolve and coordinated political moves on several fronts, much like a military operation.

It is time that Cairo heeds the call from its southern maritime gateway. It may be more important than the call of any party involved in the prelude to the fire that is about to break out.

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

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