Many of the great navies, maritime fleets, and governments navigate the littorals’ fraught waters along the Bab-al-Mandab strait (often known as the “BAM”), separating Africa from the Arabian peninsula via an 18-mile-wide chokepoint. Tankers transport nearly five million barrels of oil a day transit to and from the Red Sea via two-mile-wide channels in the strait.
Up to 20 percent of global trade annually transits the Bab-Al-Mandab. The Saudi-led war in Yemen continues, with Iran supporting the Houthi rebels, and South Yemen seeking independence. China sits along the strait in its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Somali pirates; and terror groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Islamic State, and al-Shabaab, have suffered attrition, and yet continue to threaten the region. It is likely that COVID-19 and the global economic downturn will further erode the fragile government of Yemen and Somalia, and reduce Western defense spending in the area.
The Bab-Al-Mandab situation reflects and illustrates many of the competing cross-currents at play in the global straits and littorals that decision-makers must navigate. There are three categories to examine: Military – the regional conflicts, and activities of the great powers; Economic – the impact of State-Owned Enterprises (SOE)s on local ports; and finally, Socio-Political – COVID-19’s effect on failing states and the attendant exacerbated threats they pose to the region.
Yemen: Despite multiple efforts to end the war in Yemen, a resolution seems distant. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) publicly claims that it is involved in Yemen to counter malign Iranian influence. Thus far, it has been unable to extricate itself, though it may be pursuing a strategy of keeping Yemen weak to extend its influence on the peninsula. While the Houthis are too independent to be seen purely as a catspaw of Iran, there is no doubt that Iran has assisted the Houthis to harm its regional rival.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has largely withdrawn from Yemen, having apparently concluded that the military, economic, and diplomatic costs of supporting the KSA had grown too high; though it continues to maintain the port of Mukalla that it seized from AQAP in 2015, as a base for counterterrorism operations Keeping the city allows it to exert influence in the interior as well as in the Gulf of Aden. Southern Yemen also has Yemen’s oil and gas fields, and while the war has shuttered production, export to Asia will more likely run through a stable South managed by Emiratis rather than to the Red Sea through the Houthis.
The UAE and KSA have divergent interests regarding the Southern Transition Council (STC), which declared independence for the South. While the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen only existed from 1967-1990, a unified Yemen is a historical aberration. The two areas are culturally, religiously, and economically distinct. The Zaidi Imamate’s (which largely corresponded to the northern territory now controlled by the Zaidi Houthis), rule ended after more than a millennia only in 1962. The Hadhramaut region dominates the South, and the entrepreneurial Hadhrami diaspora spread along the East African Coast and as far as the Indian ocean and Straits of Malacca. The Hadhramaut fell under varying levels of British control during the Aden protectorate (1882-1967), however, it appears that the current de facto North-South split is merely a return to Yemen’s historical arrangement.
Djibouti & Eritrea: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti. There is some truth to China’s claim that it is merely joining other foreign militaries already in the region. Japan located its first naval base abroad since World War II there as well. The U.S. has 4,000 personnel at Camp Lemonnier, and Italian, German, and Spanish troops engage in counter-piracy operations from Djibouti.
The UAE has been engaged in a diplomatic confrontation with Djibouti since 2014, which largely revolves around President Ismael Omar Guelleh’s withdrawal of the port concession given to Dubai Ports World and Guelleh’s perception that his country was slighted by the UAE siding with Djibouti’s rival, Eritrea. By April 2015, Emirati and Djiboutian relations were in full-crisis, which led to the UAE building a military hub to support Coalition operations in Yemen in Assab, Eritrea, rather than Djibouti. Interestingly, the Russian military was rebuffed when it sought to establish a post in Djibouti. The Guelleh administration was not interested in having Djibouti serve as the playing-field for a proxy war. As a result, Russia has planned a logistics center of its own in Eritrea.
It has been argued that large corporations are exerting growing global influence as their interests compete with those of nation-states. But at the same time, several countries are using their SOEs as tools of their national policy to promote their own state’s advantage and constrain those of their rivals. These SOEs seek their own economic advantage as well.
Dubai Ports World (DP World): Nominally DP World is an independent publicly-traded company, but in reality, its opaque ownership structure obscures the fact that its majority ownership appears to be the Emirati ruling families, with the largest shareholder being the ruler of Dubai and UAE’s Prime Minister. DP World is one of the world’s largest terminal operating companies, managing operations in 82 ports in 40 countries. The UAE has long had diplomatic, and trading interests in the Horn of Africa and has increased its role over the past decade as exemplified by its role in the Eritrean-Ethiopian peace agreement. Since the 1990s, DP World has supported UAE diplomacy by pursuing ventures in the region spanning several states.
Ports operated by DP World along with Emirati military bases form a strategic ring around the Bab-Al-Mandab. In 2017, UAE signed a $442 million agreement to enhance the port of Berbera in Somaliland, to be operated by DP World, and to be used by the Emirati navy. Somaliland is not recognized as an independent country, but the UAE is willing to work with it to undercut the government in Mogadishu – aligned with its rival – Qatar. The UAE has also invested in Puntland, with a port in Bossaso to be managed by P&O Ports (wholly owned by the government of Dubai, and launched by DP World to operate in small and midsized ports), and having established and trained Puntland’s Maritime Police Forces. In late 2019, the Emiratis agreed to expand Bossaso’s airport. Ports in Somalia allow the UAE’s military to influence Yemen and the Gulf of Aden. The local regional power, Ethiopia, pushed for the UAE investment in Berbera to provide Ethiopia with an alternative shipping point to Djibouti, which it relies upon to handle 95% of its imports and exports. Berbera also furthers Ethiopia’s interest in undermining the growing relationship between Eritrea and the UAE vis-à-vis the port of Assab.
DP World has not yet established a presence on the Yemeni island of Socotra, but the Emirati military has periodically deployed there alongside the Saudis. As of July 2019, the UAE supervised the airport and seaport. Some journalists have described Socotra as all but annexed by the UAE. UAE has refurbished the port, made sizeable infrastructure investments, and its cellphone provider Etisalat has the best network on Socotra. Rumors persist that UAE secretly obtained a 99-year lease on the island and that Emiratis are buying coastal property for military or commercial use. A more permanent UAE economic or military role on Socotra cannot be comforting to Oman, which has a strained relationship with the UAE (not improved by the Coalition’s skeptical view towards Muscat’s relationship with the Houthis). A Socotra under Emirati influence and with the harbor operated by DP World could damage Oman economically by eclipsing Oman’s port in Salalah, Oman’s second-largest city (and the birthplace of the recently deceased Sultan Qaboos).
China Merchants Port Holdings and COSCO: DP World is dwarfed by the combined footprint of China’s leading shipping conglomerates: China Merchants Port Holdings, and China COSCO Shipping Corporation Ltd (COSCO Shipping) – itself a recent consolidation of two major business conglomerates. The Chinese mega-companies cover the waterfront for maritime industries, with arms involved in dry-bulk, containers, tankers, shipyards, leasing, insurance, and port management. COSCO Shipping Ports is the world’s second-largest terminal operator in the world with nearly 12% of global market share. China Merchants Port Holdings, which is now the operator of the disputed Doraleh container port in Djibouti, is an even larger SOE than COSCO, moving a greater volume of cargo, and also operates terminals worldwide. China has used these SOEs to obtain ports in strategic locations, even when the locations fail to make economic sense. The operation of strategic ports by Chinese SOEs contains an implicit threat to U.S. interests. The U.S. Navy could be denied access to key ports, affecting not only its operations but potentially ground forces reliant upon maritime logistics resupply. A situation analogous to the days in which blue-water navies grabbed coaling-stations to ensure global reach may have returned, although this time, the U.S. may not be a direct player given the absence of anything like parastatal government corporations in the U.S. model. This suggests, at a minimum, the importance of continued alliances with friendly governments, particularly those that can help grant use to ports through their own SOEs. Perhaps a greater risk may be a natural one that few people considered a factor even several months ago, the Black Elephant of COVID-19.
Up until now, most discussion of COVID-19 has been on its impact on the states driving the global economy, with the West’s focus on infection rates in the United States, Italy, and to a lesser extent China, and perhaps Iran. Some have begun to address two major effects that have yet to be calculated. First, the impact on the developing world (both in economic and humanitarian terms), which is expected to be enormous, and second, the likelihood that the cost of the pandemic and perhaps the reallocation of resources and priorities will necessitate a reorientation in Western military spending.
The impact of COVID-19 on the Global South is likely to be massive and wide-ranging. Emerging markets already carry significant debt, much of it to China, and as the global economy contracts, these countries will be hard-pressed to meet their obligations. They will also suffer from ballooning healthcare costs, and the humanitarian impact of the disease will predominately affect those who cannot afford to miss work and least likely to receive medical care. In the region around the Bab-Al-Mandab, Yemen and Somalia were already unstable. Yemen is often rated as suffering from the world’s worst humanitarian situation. Sixteen of its 28 million people are food insecure, and it is enduring the world’s largest cholera epidemic. Despite decades of effort, at best, Mogadishu represents a stalemate between the imposition of effective government and the jihadists of al-Shabaab and other violent extremist and criminal elements; and the extent of Somalia’s writ is primarily confined to areas of the city. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mogadishu likely already met the definition of a “feral city” as defined by Richard Norton (the dangers of coastal feral city were elaborated upon by David Kilcullen), and it is hard to imagine that it will improve. Likewise, Yemen’s ongoing conflict(s) between the coalition and Houthis, north and south, AQAP versus the forces of stability and counterterrorism efforts, suggest that Yemen was poorly postured to exist as a functional state before the global health crisis, and will likely be in worse shape in the near term.
Given the anticipated further breakdown of these vulnerable countries, the pathologies related to failed states are likely to further metastasize and affect security around the Bab-Al-Mandab. Migrants may take to the seas in large refugee flows. Both the Houthis and AQAP have attacked maritime shipping in the past, and they and other actors may do so or threaten such action to extort tribute. Piracy had been a problem in the Gulf, and as economic fortunes further decline, more may undertake this hazardous, but potentially lucrative endeavor.
Historically, G-7 navies have helped ensure freedom of navigation in the region, with the U.S. and close allies, in particular, addressing the terror threat posed by AQAP and other extremist organizations in Yemen and East Africa. The rise of nationalism and debate over globalization had already frayed Western support for military deployments in this region. COVID-19 will likely exacerbate these trends, leading to greater retrenchment by first-world powers as their citizens reconsider military commitments and their economies’ ability to afford overseas power protection. As a result, the threats posed by the social breakdown in failed states may pose an ever-larger threat to maritime transportation, causing increased shipping and insurance rates, and negatively impacting the global economy.
The Bab-Al-Mandab serves as a cautionary microcosm for many of the factors that are already present in the straits and littorals, and which are likely to continue to increase in their salience for policymakers, militaries, and businesses. At minimum decision-makers will need to consider the regimes and non-state actors with proximity to the chokepoint and evaluate their ability to influence navigation of the littoral; the activities of Great Power actors on the scene or in the shadows such as China through its Belt and Road, or Iranian support to its proxies; and the role of commercial power-brokers, particularly SOEs.
Understanding these trends, as well as considering the means to address their impact, will be essential to safely navigate these key geographic connectors in the global commons.
Christopher D. Booth is a career national security professional and formerly served on active duty as a commissioned U.S. Army Armor & Cavalry officer. He is a Distinguished Graduate of Command & Staff College – Marine Corps University; received a JD from Vanderbilt University Law School, and double-majored in History and Government at the College of William & Mary.
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