A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Relax, Oil Prices: There's Really Very Little Chance of Anyone Closing Bab al-Mandab, Let Alone the Houthis

NASA photo: Bab al-Mandab with Perim Island
Oil prices are rising steeply due to the Saudi and allied attacks on Yemen. Business reporters in particular may be fueling this with articles like this one and this one, suggesting that if the Houthis take over Yemen they could block the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, a critical choke point for the passage of much of the world's oil. Like the Strait of Hormuz to the east, this is a critical international passage that technically lies within the territorial waters of the neighboring states. And like the Strait of Hormuz, whenever tensions rise, people start worrying about a closure of the Strait. Egypt has explicitly cited this as a reason for its joining the Saudi coalition (though there are doubtless monetary reasons too). But there are multiple reasons to doubt that any Yemeni government, even a Houthi one would do it, since Yemen's own oilfields and the Aden refinery are outside the Strait and it is their lifeline to world markets, but even if a Yemeni government should be self-destructive enough to try, I don't think it could be done.

Let's start with this: you and what navy?

In response to the far less lethal threat of Somali piracy, the United States, NATO, the European Union, and even Russia, China, and Japan, dispatched warships to assure freedom of navigation. Do you think they'd let the Strait be closed? If somebody fires on a ship from Perim Island, I think they'll get an up-close and personal visit from an Aegis Cruiser (if anything is still standing after the Predator strikes).

Even if the international warships in the Gulf and Indian Ocean were not in the neighborhood, the Egyptian, Saudi, and Israeli navies are sufficient, I suspect, to deter or meet any threat. It's not the days of Alfred Thayer Mahan or Teddy Roosevelt. Sea power is global, three dimensional, and rapidly deployable.

I'm reminded of my days writing on defense issues in the region in the early 1980s, when the Soviets had bases in South Yemen and Ethiopia, the US had bases in Oman and the French in Djibouti, and there was a lot of talk about Bab al-Mandab. Unlike the Houthis, the Soviets could have closed the Strait. (At the cost, of course, of starting World War III.),

Iran has from time to time threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. And it has a navy that could credibly make the attempt. At the cost of war with the US, NATO, and probably loss of its own oil production facilities.

Though international traffic passes through territorial waters of Yemen and Djibouti (as Hormuz does between Iran and Oman and the UAE), these are international straits where the right of innocent passage (or "transit passage" as the International Convention on the Law of the Sea calls it) is guaranteed.

The closest thing to a closure of the Strait I know of was an Egyptian Navy blockade during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which was not aimed at the world's oil supply but at intercepting shipments bound for the Israeli port of Eilat. And at the time, the Suez Canal had been closed since 1967 anyway. And it was wartime, when the rules change.

Which brings me to another point. Blocking Bab al-Mandab might be possible with a serious naval force, which Yemen lacks. But is it really the most vulnerable point in the oil supply? Let's run some numbers:

Bab al-Mandab: Width 18-20 miles (16 miles between Perim Island (Yemeni) and Djibouti coast.

Hormuz: Width 21 miles, but with shipping channels only two miles wide in each direction, separated by a two-mile buffer.

Suez Canal: Width 673 feet.

SUMED Pipeline: two 42-inch pipes

If you want to block international tanker traffic, which choke point is chokiest?

Due to Arab-Israeli wars, the Suez Canal was closed for several months in 1956-57 and again from 1967-75. Sinking a few ships in the shallow canal can block it for weeks. If bad guys also attacked the SUMED (Suez-Mediterranean) pipeline (two 42-inch wide lines running from ‘Ayn Sukhna on the Red Sea to a terminal off Alexandria), not only would passage of Gulf and Yemeni oil to Europe be blocked, but so would Saudi oil from the terminal at Yanbu‘ and Sudanese oil from Port Sudan.

I really am less worried about the Houthis blocking Bab al-Mandab than I am about the instability in Sinai threatening the Canal and SUMED.


Paul Mutter said...

Iran actually has (had?) naval units in the area too, as part of the piracy interdiction force active around the Horn. They often called at Port Sudan:

"A typical Iran Navy 'Fleet' operating at the Gulf of Aden comprises a frigate or corvette, and a logistics vessel. At least one vessel in such a fleet equipped with helipad."

David Mack said...

This is a good corrective to the hand wringing that sent the price of Brent crude oil futures soaring last week. Big worry is that Saudi Arabia or its Arab coalition or the U.S. might think they can solve Yemen's basic problems by a primarily military response. GCC states could have done a lot more over the years to stabilize Yemen by opening jobs now filled mainly by South Asians to Yemenis. A population this large on the Arabian Peninsula could be an economic asset rather than a time bomb waiting to explode.