by Dr. Shaul Shay
As one of the world's most important trade routes, with its southern tip in Bab el-Mandeb -- and its northern edge in the Suez Canal, the Red Sea is a central component in this struggle.
Although it has yet to draw the focus of media and diplomatic attention, a geostrategic process with long-term global repercussions for the world – including Israel – is already underway.
Between September 2014 and March 2015, the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels took control of a number of areas inside Yemen, including its capital Sanaa, the port city of Aden and Bab el-Mandeb strait. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia announced it had formed a coalition of 10 (mostly Sunni Arab) states in a campaign against the Houthis aimed at restoring power to the government of Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The civil war in Yemen has since become an important arena in Iran and Saudi Arabia's struggle for regional hegemony.
As one of the world's most important trade routes, with its southern tip in Bab el-Mandeb (between Yemen and Djibouti) and its northern edge in the Suez Canal, the Red Sea is a central component in this struggle. Bab el-Mandeb is among the world's busiest waterways; every day, 3.3 million barrels of Persian Gulf oil pass through the waterway on their way to Europe. It is also the thoroughfare for a majority of the trade between Europe and Asia, and in particular China, Japan and India.
The Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, is a major source of revenue for Egypt, and as such, freedom of navigation from the Red Sea into the canal is considered a strategic interest of the first order. Access to the Red Sea is also essential for Israel's economic ties with Asia. Iran, through its Houthi allies, has tried to take control of Bab el-Mandeb, while at the same time wielding political and economic influence in Eritrea and Sudan, countries situated on the western shores of the Red Sea where Iran also maintains a military presence.
Although the Saudi-led coalition has succeeded in taking control of the area around Bab el-Mandeb, as well as two important ports in Yemen located north of Egypt, the military campaign is far from over as the Houthis continue to threaten the waterways with anti-ship cruise missiles, explosives-laden suicide boats and naval mines.
On the diplomatic front, the Sunni coalition has made some impressive achievements. A majority of African countries situated on the shores of the Red Sea have cut ties with Iran. Three of those said countries – Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea, have allowed Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to set up military and naval bases in their territory.
In 2016, Egypt and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to return to Saudi Arabia the Tiran and Sanafir Islands, located in the Straits of Tiran, the narrow sea passages between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas that separate the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea. This agreement created a new geostrategic reality in the Red Sea basin, where the Saudi-led coalition (of which Egypt is a key member) has both direct and indirect control of the entire length of the Red Sea, from the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal in the north to Bab el-Mandeb in the south. It seems some of the vast resources being invested in the reinforcement of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt's naval fleets is aimed at maintaining control over the strategic space.
The region's strategic importance has not escaped the world's superpowers and is quickly becoming the source of confrontations between them. China has decided to establish its first military base outside of its borders in Djibouti, a country that hosts the United States' largest base in Africa, and where the French and the Japanese also have military bases.
From Israel's standpoint, a Red Sea area under the influence of a Saudi and Egyptian-led Sunni coalition is preferable to a Red Sea controlled by Iran. Israel and the Sunni Arab coalition share a number of interests on a variety of strategic issues, among them the need to prevent Iran from taking control of the Red Sea basin. Be that as it may, Israel must also be prepared for the possibility a crisis between Saudi Arabia and its partners and the risks inherent in such a change to geostrategic circumstances in the region.
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