As the conflict between the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi militia and opposing Saudi-UAE-led coalition continues to escalate in Yemen, peace remains elusive. The current conflict continues to threaten the free flow of oil through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to the rest of the world.

It is now widespread knowledge that a civil war has been raging in Yemen for five years, resulting in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The conflict has caused extensive damage to the nation’s infrastructure, killed more than 10,000 people, and displaced millions, adding to the global toll of an increasing number of refugees worldwide. However, few people know about the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait, which lies on the Red Sea between Djibouti and Yemen. The fate of the strait, which is a vital economic waterway,  could affect global economies and societies.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) joined a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in October 2015 under the guise of restoring the legitimate government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. However, Abu Dhabi seems to have had an ulterior motive in joining the fray. 

Since 2015, the UAE has seized control of the island of Perim (which is on the Yemeni side of the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait) as part of a strategic operation called “Golden Arrow.” Through this operation, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to expel the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi militia group from Yemen’s long western coast, in addition to securing the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea town of Mokha, just 50 miles north. Perched on the edge of Bab-El-Mandeb is the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, which is currently under the control of the Houthis.

Strait of Bab al-Mandeb Strait map location

Bab-El-Mandeb’s Strategic Value

The Bab-El-Mandeb Strait (or “The Gate of Lamentation” in Arabic) has long been an important economic hub. It is the shortest trade route between the Mediterranean region, the Indian Ocean, and the rest of East Asia. Each year, billions of dollars in maritime trade passes through the strait. In 2016, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that “4.8 million barrels a day of crude and petroleum products flowed through the strait, with about 2.8 million going north toward Europe, and another 2 million moving in the opposite direction.”

When the man-made Suez Canal opened in 1869, it created a link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Consequently, the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait became even more important and is now considered one of the most vital gateways of maritime transport.

When the man-made Suez Canal opened in 1869, it created a link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Consequently, the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait became even more important and is now considered one of the most vital gateways of maritime transport. Its width and depth allow ships and tankers of varying sizes and builds to cross on opposite sides.

Oil-rich Arabian Gulf nations rely heavily on the Bab-El-Mandab Strait: approximately 57 giant oil vessels from these countries pass through the strait each day, over 21,000 each year. Houthi control over part of the busy passage has been problematic for Gulf states and the countries that rely on their oil. Aside from regional players, other foreign powers, including the U.S., Israel, Russia, China, Italy, Turkey, and Iran, have all been making moves recently to strengthen their presence along the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait. 

After 9/11, Washington made Djibouti the headquarters of the largest and most modern U.S. intelligence center in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. From this base, troops were deployed to Somalia, even within Djibouti itself, to block al-Qaeda from capturing the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait, thus guaranteeing the uncompromised flow of oil to its intended destinations. The competition for the strategic strait has only escalated since Russia announced that it would be building a logistical base in Eritrea in August 2018. 

Confronting Iran and the War in Yemen

The rivalry for control of the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea is part of a greater regional conflict between Iran and its Shi’ite allies and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and their Sunni allies.

The rivalry for control of the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea is part of a greater regional conflict between Iran and its Shi’ite allies and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and their Sunni allies. Since the beginning of the civil war in Yemen, the Houthi rebel forces and their allies from the armed forces of late president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, have been quick to take control of strategic Yemeni ports and coastal areas, the most important of these seizures being the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait. 

Since taking control of the strait, the Houthis reportedly have placed land mines throughout the coastal land areas, and used explosive boats and anti-ship missiles to attack American and Saudi naval vessels. In July, 2018, the Houthis also targeted Saudi oil-tankers. As a result, Riyadh announced the suspension of its oil exports through the strait in an effort to urge American and European lawmakers to support the coalition’s intervention in Yemen while simultaneously exerting more pressure on Iran. 

Hours after the Saudi announcement, Qasem Soleimani, the Major General of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, claimed that the Red Sea was “no longer safe with the presence of U.S. forces.” Soleimani vowed that if Washington started a war, Tehran would end it with just a fraction of its armed forces. 

From the perspective of Israel, the U.S., and other western allies, the greatest source of instability in the region is Iran. With Tehran’s increasing naval presence in the Gulf of Aden, which is south of the Red Sea, there is growing fear of a potential attack. 

Iran, however, claims that it is only there to fight pirates. On March 7, 2019, Iran claimed that its naval forces had foiled a pirate attack on an Iranian oil tanker in the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait. The claim seems dubious as pirate activity in the area has sharply declined in recent years thanks to international intervention. 

The then-commander of the U.S. Central Command,  Joseph Votel, said in a statement before the House Armed Services Committee that the conflict in Yemen has opened up opportunities for Iran and enabled it, with the support of the Houthis, to launch rockets at its neighbors and target ships in the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea. 

A week after what it perceived to be a threat from Votel, Tehran sent a naval fleet to the Gulf of Aden and to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in order to secure Iranian shipping lines, according to the statement of a senior Iranian official on March 17. 

These moves undoubtedly put American personnel and its allies at risk, ultimately increasing the lilelihood of a wider regional conflict on the Red Sea. Despite previous reports of Washington’s determination to reduce the number of American special forces stationed in African countries along the Red Sea, no cuts have yet been made to the U.S. military presence. As the situation with Iran continues to escalate, it is more likely that Washington will increase rather than decrease its presence in the region.