Gulf of Aden and Bab Al Mandab: Reshaping the Regional Security Tracks


Tue, 19-10-2021 01:36 PM, Aden

Nancy Zidan (South24) 

The Bab Al Mandab Strait has witnessed several conflicts, disputes and wars of influence relevant to politics on the surface but deep inside, they are about oil and global trade. From the African side, It is bordered by Djibouti while its Asian one is bordered by Yemen. It is located in the middle of the five continents to form a vital strategic link in the maritime trade route between the  Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal at the north and the Gulf of Aden at south. The percentage of the annual international trade volume passing through the 30m-width Strait equals 700 Billion dollars which represent about 13-14% of the total volume. (1). The Perim Island divides it in South Yemen into 2 canals, including the  Eastern one with 3km width and 30m depth, and the Western with a width of about 25km and a depth of 310m (2).

In an attempt to read the impact of the political geography on the developments regarding the overlap of interests and influence across the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al Mandab area and its regional surroundings, this paper focuses on the regional competition in that theatre, especially Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran and its Houthis arm, and the Muslim Brotherhood- affiliated Turkey as well as their approaches towards dynamics the international interests.

First: the influence race and the regional alliances shifts

The Arab states overlooking the Red Sea and its extension connected with Bab Al Mandab and the Gulf of Aden are seen as an Arab lake for important geopolitical considerations that are not limited to the economic aspects.

Over the last decade, the KSA and the UAE have merged their efforts in the Bab Al Mandab and the Gulf of Aden, or the so-called Horn of Africa Region, as being “part and parcel of their basic security surroundings”. The initial incentives for that were the escalation of piracy activities and maritime crimes. The growing fears of Gulf states towards the Arab Spring uprisings, the increase of political Islamic influence, the accelerated Iranian activities in the region, the Yemeni conflict as well as the remarkable American policies' fluctuation and the decline in the US. supremacy led to more focus and interest in the region. In 2014, they established influence in Sudan and Eritrea to prevent an Iranian foothold on their western wing. In 2015, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi established military bases in Djibouti and Eritrea to launch a widespread war against Iran’s proxies and their Islamic rivals in Yemen. (3)Thus, the Gulf states notably have adopted more independent and strict foreign policies compared to what they used to be. They developed integral trade and security strategies, designed to secure a leadership role. Consequently, competition has emerged among the Gulf countries over the spread of military bases and the solidification of maritime forces in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.

It is noteworthy that between 2000 and 2017, the Gulf states, top of which are the KSA and the UAE, have invested about 13 Billion dollars in the Horn of Africa, and spent 6.6 Billion dollars in the form of development aid (4). Additionally, Riyadh attempted to encourage creditors, the World Bank's partners, to approve relieving Sudan’s debts (about 60 Billion dollars in total), during the Paris Conference held on May 17th, 2021 (5). Days later, the US. Treasury formally removed Sudan from the list of states sponsoring terrorism on May 20th (6). A series of meetings between Khartoum and Riyadh resulted in making a partnership to coordinate 3 Billion dollars-investments in Sudan, In addition to the Saudi commitment to send relief teams to different areas in Sudan. The KSA’s support of Sudan encouraged Saudi agricultural companies such as Al Rajhi Group to inject more investments in Sudan, especially in Darfur which was torn by war.  This produced a total of more than 35 Billion dollars investments in Sudan. Moreover, as of 2020, the investments in the agricultural sector alone reached 26.5 Billion dollars as the Sudanese coast bordering the KSA that extends over a distance of 750km makes the region and the state vulnerable to the kingdom’s local and regional interests (7).

On the other hand, the recent dynamics of events are paired with several sources of concern, prominent of which is the Sudanese Army’s increasing restoration of relationships recently with both Turkey and Qatar. This reveals the army’s intention to retain power in Sudan through the involvement with the Gulf interests after the end of the transitional period in 2023-2024 (8).

We can’t ignore the changes in the regional security patterns between 2015-2017 due to the nature of the Turkish presence in Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia(9), as well as the military intervention, led by the KSA, in Yemen, in addition to the rifts inside the GCC  with the emergence of the anti-Doha blockade because of the support, provided by Turkey-ally Qatar to the Muslim Brotherhood and their hostility towards Egypt. This created momentum for the commercial seaports and the military locations along the Red Sea coast in Africa (10). It is notable that the Saudi-Emirati diplomacy, backed with economic aid commitments, proved useful for the Horn of Africa such as mediating in the peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018, and to facilitate the dialogue between Eritrea and Djibouti (Qatar participated in mediating efforts in Darfur, Eritrea and Djibouti) (11).

However, these changes in the regional security patterns made Somalia another battlefield for the political competition between the conflicting parties, and attempts to enhance the Emirati influence with development aids and investment in the Somali port of Berbera in the face of the huge Turkish influence. Over the last decade, the total Turkish aid to Somalia exceeds one Billion dollars (12), in addition to the announcement by the Turkish President in August 2021 about donating 30 million dollars to Somalia to renew and extend the Port of Mogadishu despite his government financial crisis inside Turkey, Moreover, the Turkish presence in Somalia took a bigger security dimension after the decision of opening a military base in Mogadishu(the biggest turkish military base abroad and an official base to train the Somali army so it constitutes a possible threat against the Arab interests. (13)
The American-Saudi oil policies disputes pushed President Biden to lift sanctions imposed on the two important Iranian companies (involved in and specialized in manufacturing Iranian nuclear missiles (14). This comes in conjunction with the Houthi advancement and their control over new areas in the oil-rich Marib. Some observers said that this is a strong indicator to provide huge concessions in favour of Iran, and accordingly enhancing the Iranian ability to support the Houthis who don’t hesitate in targeting their rivals in South Yemen and inside the Saudi territories as well as the existence of Iranian military forces in the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al Mandab, in addition to the ability of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to close the Strait of Hormuz (15). 
This probably pushed the KSA to develop a deeper relationship with Oman through some agreements and to open a direct 800 km-long highway between the two countries through which it can reduce its reliance on exporting oil through the Strait of Hormuz. This leaves the Saudi trade prone to the Iranian siege as shown in previous incidents (16). This is expected to happen again in light of the US partially relaxing its grip on Iran.
The Military presence and engineering interests internationally
This narrow spot has not been limited to attempts to extend regional influence but enlarged by an influence race involving several international forces such as China which established its first military base in Djibouti in addition to injecting development investments in the region’s countries, deemed as a target for the Belt and Road Initiatives, only 6 miles away from the only American military base in Africa (17). This pushed the US Defence establishment to show high interest, whether in the Pentagon, or the command headquarters of the American forces in Africa and the Middle East.
Due to the importance of this maritime stronghold for the trade route,  the free navigation across the world (18) and the vital regional impact in international policies, the Biden administration appointed Jeffrey Feltman as President’s Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa to ensure the US follow-up and involvement in the course of events and the development of issues especially the Yemeni War. and the necessity to manage the Iranian influence which is hostile to the stability of the Gulf states. 
The following map (19) was issued by the "Stockholm International Peace Research Institute" shows to what extent the major powers jostled for military stationing in the countries adjacent to the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al Mandab. It shows the intense spread points for the military bases for countries such as the US, China, France and Japan in Djibouti, Britain in Kenya, Turkey in Somalia, India in Madagascar and Seychelles as well as Israel in Eritrea.

In May 2021, the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen announced its presence in the Perim Island, at the entrance to the Red Sea to face the perceived maritime trade threats by the Iran-affiliated Houthis. This statement was a response to an Associated Press report which claimed that the UAE seeks to build an air base in the Island (20) known also as Mayyun in the Bab Al Mandab Strait. The statement pointed out that “all types of equipment in the Island are under the control of the Coalition command to confront the Houthis, secure the maritime navigation and support the Western Coast Forces” stressing that there are no Emirati troops in the islands of Perim and Socotra. the UAE current efforts are based on providing air support for the Coalition operations in the city of Marib which the Houthi Forces are trying to control (21). 

- Activating the Council of the Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, established in Jan 2020, led by the KSA, and with the participation of Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia and Eritrea, as a regional entity which serves the national security capabilities of the member states, and acts as a blocking wall against the Turkish and Iranian moves in the Horn of Africa, to form an idea that guarantees the idea of meeting, political and diplomatic coordinating and the revision of the economic file with regional states such as Yemen and Sudan.
- The necessity to enhance the regional efforts, with an American sponsorship, to agree upon ending the War in Yemen, and strengthening the political solutions for finding practical solutions for various crises that destroy Yemen with the involvement of all active parties.
-Backing and boosting the local security forces in South Yemen, and  those which are concentrated in the coasts of Ras Omran and Bab Al Mandab, especially those which proved high security and military capabilities along with the Emirati forces (2016-2019).
- Encouraging investments, enhancing the infrastructure and saving the collapsing economy in the liberated South Yemen's areas would reduce the local threats of the local parties backed by Iran or Turkey, such as the Houthis and the Muslim Brotherhood on the security of Bab Al Mandab and the Gulf of Aden’s security. 

Nancy Talal Zidan
A researcher based in Cairo, specialized in political science and media analysis.
Picture: the Bab Al Mandab strategic Strait (Al-Hurra)

1-  Zach Vertin, Red Sea geopolitics: Six plotlines to watch, December 15, 2019 
3-   Zach Vertin, op.cite.      
4-   Ibid. 
5- Jihad Mashamoun, Winners and Losers of Red Sea Politics in Sudan, August 6, 2021 
7-   Jihad Mashamoun, op.cite.      
8-   Ibid.  
10-   Zach Vertin, Red Sea geopolitics, op.cite.      
12- Federico Donelli, Somalia and Beyond: Turkey in the Horn of Africa, 1 June 2020 
13- Ibid. 
15-   Zach Vertin, Red Sea geopolitics, op.cite.      
16-   Jihad Mashamoun, op.cite.      
18-   Zach Vertin, Red Sea geopolitics, op.cite.      
20- The Arab Coalition and the Southern local Yemeni Forces seized control of Perim, which is a block of volcanic rocks that provides a foothold on the main trade routes in 2015 after it intervened in Yemen against the Houthis, affiliated with Iran, and who overthrew the internationally-recognized government in the capital city of Sanaa.
21- Ghaida Ghantous & Mark Heinrich, Saudi-led coalition says it’s behind military build-up on Red Sea island, Reuters,27/5/2021

South YemenBab AlMandebGulf of AdenRed SeaSaudi ArabiaUAESocotraSouthern forcesHouthiYemeni government