Saudi Arabia, Iran and the 'Gateway of Tears'

Saudi Arabia, Iran and the 'Gateway of Tears'
The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which separates Yemen and Africa, witnesses daily transit of approximately 4 million barrels of crude oil.

Since the construction of the Suez Canal, Bab-el-Mandeb has assumed vastly increased significance as an important transit route connecting Europe and the Americas to Asia. The narrow strait separating Yemen with Africa translates into “Gateway of Tears." It has gained notoriety as a treacherous proposition for seafarers since antiquity, owing to the difficulties in navigating the shallow waters.

Today the strait witnesses daily transit of approximately 4 million barrels of crude to various destinations across the world. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Bab-el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or Suez-Mediterranean (SUMED) Pipeline. In such a scenario, crude vessels would be forced to navigate around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost. In addition, European and North African southbound oil flows could no longer take the most direct route to Asian markets via the Suez Canal and Bab-el-Mandeb.

The current civil war in Yemen pits the rebels against the government backed by Saudi Arabia. However, the Saudis are not concerned about any attacks on their oil and gas infrastructure because the rebels lack the capabilities to strike Abqaiq on Saudi Arabia's eastern coast where most of the Kingdom's crude processing facilities are located. “Terrorist activity targeting oil and gas infrastructure in Saudi territory is very unlikely as security over the border has been increased and producing fields are several hundred kilometers away,” Giorgos Beleris, senior analyst with Thomson Reuters' Oil Research & Forecasts unit, told DownstreamToday.

Moreover, should Bab-el-Mandeb close in a worst-case scenario, the Kingdom can still ship crude oil to Western markets via the East West Pipeline running from Abqaiq in the east to Yanbu terminal on the western coast. Also known as "Petroline," the 746-mile-long pipeline system consists of two pipelines with a total nameplate capacity of about 4.8 million barrels per day.

As of now, there seems to be no particular danger across the Bab-el-Mandeb, “Even if tankers become targets, the current status of the oil market indicates that the impact would be reflected more on the sentiment side rather than the actual fundamental outlook," Beleris said. "However, the military superiority of Saudi Arabia combined with assistance from fellow Gulf countries and Western intelligence should keep violence in check."

The Raging Civil War and its Stakeholders

Yemen is no stranger to tears, suffering immensely from infighting among various tribes and sects that inhabit the west Asian country. The narrow Bab-el-Mandeb has once again become the focus of attention. The Zaidis – constituting more than one-third of Yemen's population and led by the Houthis– have grouped against the government led by deposed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi is backed by Arab allies comprising the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) along with a host of other nations while the Houthis are believed to carry the support of Iran. The Houthis have also tied up with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has broken away some units of the Yemini army and thus complicated the situation.

With uncertainty looming large across the region and violence rapidly spreading in Yemen even as the Saudi-led campaign of air strikes has ended, it remains to be seen if the situation normalizes eventually. Compounding the situation is the fact that Yemen boasts the third-highest number of guns per capita in the world. Yemen has been rife with internal rivalries and sectarian violence, but the current situation has exposed and magnified the fault lines to an unprecedented level.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a bitter proxy war, both militarily and politically, across the Middle East owing to Iran’s support to the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Likewise in Lebanon and Palestine, Iran has been providing logistical and material support to Hezbollah and Hamas. The theatre of hostile engagements, both covert and overt, runs from Iraq to Yemen bordering the northern, eastern and southern frontiers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the face of these circumstances, Yemen remains a dangerous place, prompting countries all over the world to evacuate their citizens.

For Saudi Arabia, the battle for Yemen is an important one because it is imperative to secure the Kingdom's backyard. Unlike Syria and Lebanon where Iran is on a stronger footing with the ruling regimes allied to it, Yemen has been a traditional ally of Saudi Arabia. Apart from being an Arab country, Yemen is located on an important strategic location – and Bab-el-Mandeb makes it an even more vital concern. Failure to secure Yemen would surround the Kingdom with hostile governments from all sides.

Emerging Threats

Bab-el-Mandeb presents a complicated conundrum for Saudi Arabia as well as Yemen – and for the global community. The strategic importance of the strait is universally recognized, and the U.S. has deployed warships to maintain the security of the passage. France has also sent a minesweeper to provide added security. Iran’s brinkmanship in testing Yemini waters has not gone unnoticed; a flotilla of ships believed to be laden with supplies for the Houthi rebels was spotted. Iran has revealed plans to send additional navy vessels to the Gulf of Aden – a move that could raise tensions.

Perhaps the most potent threat would be from Al Qaida in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Although AQAP has been weakened, it appears to have held its ground despite extensive bombing campaigns in Yemen by the U.S. Air Force. AQAP is generally opposed to both the Yemini government as well as the Houthis, and it could emerge with renewed power in this struggle. AQAP had attempted to attack the Abqaiq facilities back in 2006, prompting the Kingdom to strengthen its security arrangements. In view of these circumstances, the strategic importance of Bab-el-Mandeb makes maintaining its security critical for all stakeholders – including Iran and Saudi Arabia.