The “Decisive Storm” that Changed
the Geopolitical Balance of the Red Sea
A year has passed since the Saudi-led Arab coalition launched a war in Yemen after the legitimate government was overthrown by the Iranian backed Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia under a new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and his son, the prince Mohammed bin Salman, who serves as the kingdom’s defense minister, embraced a more assertive regional strategy. Alarmed by Iran’s rise and worried that U.S is withdrawing from its role as security guarantor for the region, Saudi Arabia reassessed its security strategy by deciding to build up its armed forces and forming new alliances in the region.
In practice, that has meant the foundation of a ten country coalition of Sunni Arab states battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen — with Egypt as the pillar of a coalition.
At the historic Saudi – Egyptian summit in Cairo on April 8, 2016  is a part of a new strategy of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi King to redesign the regional security issues in Yemen and the Red Sea. At that meeting the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin AbdulAziz announced the inauguration of a bridge project linking north western Saudi Arabia to the Sinai Peninsula.
At the same time, the Egyptian cabinet announced in a statement that the joint Egyptian-Saudi commission for the technical drawing of the maritime border has determined that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea fall within Saudi maritime waters. The statement is the culmination of a six-year process of studies and eleven rounds of negotiations between the two sides. The cabinet added that the maritime border agreement with Saudi Arabia allows Egypt to use shared Red Sea waters for excavation of natural resources, which would benefit the Egyptian economy.
In parallel with the military intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia sought to win over countries along the African coast of the Red Sea – specifically, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. As a result, the Saudi presence along the African Red Sea coast has grown since March 2015 and in January 2016 – under pressure from Saudi Arabia – Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan all cut diplomatic ties with Iran.
In May 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE concluded a new military security partnership agreement with Eritrea allowing the Gulf coalition to use its land, airspace, and territorial waters for Yemen operations. The agreement also included a thirty-year lease for the port of Assab, on Eritrea’s coast, as a UAE naval logistics hub. Since September, the UAE has used Assab as a base for amphibious operations against Yemen’s Red Sea islands and, in November, has begun flying strike sorties over Yemen from Asmara International Airport – strikes that followed an agreement with the Eritrean government to refurbish the airport. Four hundred Eritrean troops were also contracted to serve embedded with the UAE armed forces in Yemen.
In mid-October, UAE landing craft transported two Sudanese battalions equipped with BTR-70 armored personnel carriers from Assab to Aden. The Sudanese units assumed responsibility for security in Aden as UAE forces pulled back to their bases. A third battalion arrived on November 7, 2015, to provide security at al-Anad Air Base, bringing the country’s Sudanese presence to a full two-thousand-man brigade.
The most important geopolitical outcome of the Saudi-led Yemen intervention and diplomatic campaign has been the assertion of geostrategic control over almost the entire African and Asian shores of the Red Sea from the straits of Bab al Mandab to the Tiran strait and the Suez Canal.
Operation” Decisive Storm”: International Initiatives
When Operation” Decisive Storm” was launched in March 2015, one of the Saudi-led coalition’s main goals was to isolate and contain the Iranian backed Houthi rebels and to regain control over the strategic port of Aden and the Bab al Mandab straits. As a part of the Saudi Arabian strategy, the coalition enforced aerial and naval blockades to close Yemen’s airspace and ports.
The diplomatic efforts of the Saudi Arabian coalition included support for a U.N resolution on the blockade and massive political pressure on African Red Sea coast countries to join or at least to support the coalition. On April 14, 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2216 lent international support to the blockade, calling for member states to “take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply” of arms to these actors.
The coalition besieging Yemeni airspace and ports has relied on international inspection forces to be effective. During the last year American, French and Australian naval units have captured and turned away ships loaded with weapons from Iran to its Houthi allies but did not prevent ships carrying humanitarian aid from reaching Yemeni land. Talks aimed at ending Yemen’s war have opened in Kuwait on April 22. 2016. The talks are based on UN Security Council resolution 2216 which calls for the Houthi fighters to withdraw from areas they seized since 2014 and hand heavy weapons back to the Yemni government. 
The Straits of Bab El-Mandeb and the Red Sea Maritime Route
The straits of Bab El-Mandeb have long been a historical and civilizational chokepoint where the shortest trade routes between the Mediterranean (i.e., Europe and North Africa) and the Indian Ocean and beyond (i.e., India and East Asia) can be controlled – or stopped. Specifically, almost all of the maritime trade between Europe and Asia, about $700 billion each year, passes through the Bab al-Mandab straits on the southern entrance to the Red Sea, en route to the Suez Canal, making it a critical junction for world trade.
The rapid expansion of Houthi rebel control over large swathes of western Yemen, and their takeover of the Yemeni capital Sana’a in September 2014, with Houthi rebels in control of the Bab al Mandab straits and a number of ports along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, has drawn the attention of those major regional and global players with an interest in Yemen’s stability and continued access to the Gulf of Aden and the Bab El-Mandeb waterway.
The situation in Yemen and the region before March 2015
In March 2015, before the Saudi Arabian led coalition intervention in Yemen the Houthis and Saleh’s forces had captured almost all of Yemen. The rebels announced the formation of a government and their rejection of Security Council resolutions. All arsenals seized from the Yemeni army including Scud missile systems capable of threatening Saudi cities fell into the hands of the rebels. With these developments, Yemen became part of Iran’s orbit, encircling the Gulf States from the south after they were besieged by Iraq and Syria from the north.
The Houthi threat to the Red Sea maritime route
During the current civil war in Yemen the Houthis are launching a coastal defense campaign that appears to employ advanced anti-ship missiles. The units responsible for operating these systems hail from the elite Strategic Operations Command of the Saleh-aligned Yemeni armed forces. The Houthis have deployed the Chinese C-802, supplied by the Iran. (During the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah hit an Israeli Saar 5-class corvette with a C-802, reportedly with the help of Iranian officers. The strike was also executed at night, possibly to avoid detection.) The Houthis have claimed ten successful attacks on coalition vessels near the crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait or off the coast of Mokha, but all were denied by the coalition.
Iranian Interest in the Red Sea
Iran recognizes the area of the Red Sea and especially the Bab Al Mandab straits as a strategic interest for several reasons: First, Iran wants to gain control over the two most important straits (Hormuz straits and Bab al Mandab straits) of the main maritime routes of oil and gas supply of the West. Second, past Iranian military presence in Sudan and Eritrea and the current Iranian proxy Houthi insurgents in Yemen are of strategic significance in the confrontation between Iran and the leading Sunni powers, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Third, the Red Sea route is a main channel of communication and arms supply from Iran to the Hamas in Gaza strip (via the Red Sea, Sudan and Sinai). Fourth, Iranian naval forces have played play a critical role in Iran’s national security strategy due to Iran’s dependence on the Persian Gulf for commerce and security. However, according to its new strategy, Iranian naval forces operate in the Gulf of Oman, the Caspian Sea, the Red Sea and possibly soon in the Mediterranean.
Fifth, the Gulf of Aden is also a strategic sea route, standing astride the approach to the Red Sea, and since 2004 piracy has been rife in the region. Therefore, a special force, consisting of ships from 21 countries, was established under the command of the U.S. Fifth Fleet to tighten security in the area, and the force receives orders directly from NATO. At the United Nations Security Council’s request, Iran joined the group; however, the Iranian warships act independently and receive orders from the Iranian Navy not from NATO.
The Iranian Navy has been conducting anti-piracy patrols in high seas, including the Gulf of Aden, since November 2008, when Somali raiders hijacked the Iranian-chartered cargo ship, MV Delight, off the coast of Yemen. On September 1, 2010, the Iranian Navy dispatched its 10th flotilla of warships to the Gulf of Aden to defend the country’s cargo ships and oil tankers against the continued threat of attack by Somali pirates. Iran’s dispatch of this fleet of warships to the Gulf of Aden boosted its operational range in international waters. The Iranian Navy is now considered a strategic regional force with long-range, operational capabilities.
In response to the Saudi Arabian intervention in Yemen, Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari recently threatened Saudi Arabia by indicating that “his forces ‘have prepared plans and projects to respond’ to Saudi Arabia and are ‘waiting for commands’ to implement them. At a time when the region anticipates an end to the war in Yemen, “Jafari said that his country ‘will not leave the Yemeni people alone’ and ‘that the sword of the Ansar Allah group (the Houthis) will be sharper.’” “The commander of the Revolutionary Guards also defended the idea of ‘exporting’ the Iranian revolution abroad and stressed the importance of ‘engineering’ the revolution and expanding its domain in the international field.”
The Bridge over the Tiran Strait: The Benefits and Costs for Egypt and Saudi Arabia
The Strait of Tiran, located at the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, is named after Tiran Island located at its east and having a total area of about 80 square kilometers. This island is about 5 or 6 km from the Sinai Peninsula. To the east of Tiran lies relatively small Sanafir Island. The Tiran and Sanafir islands have a total area of about 113 sq. kilometers. The Strait of Tiran basically consists of three sea passages. Large ships can navigate through two of the channels, while the third one cannot be used for commercial purposes.
The Strait of Tiran, between the Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia, is a waterway of highly geo-strategic importance for Egypt’s strategic defense security in the Sinai Peninsula and the eastern regional coast in the Red Sea. In addition, because of its position at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, it could be used to interdict Israeli shipping to Asia and East Africa should a war erupt.
“For the first time since 1948, when the state of Israel was founded, Arab states in North Africa would have a direct road link with fellow Arab states in the Middle East without having to cross Israeli territory.” The advantages of this bridge would be numerous and significant: Saudi Arabia believes the bridge will ease travel to Hajj and significantly increase the number of pilgrims. Planners believe that tolls paid by millions of Muslim pilgrims on their way to holy sites in Saudi Arabia could make up for the roughly $3-4 billion the bridge is expected to cost. It would reduce dependence on sometimes perilous ferry crossings over the Red Sea and, finally, would increase economic commerce not only between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, by reducing the cost of transport, but also potentially between Asia and Africa, with a great benefit realized by the Arab common market.
Concerns have been expressed about the possible effects on the marine environment and coral reefs in the Red Sea. Such damage could have an effect on tourism, something that is vital for the Egyptian economy.
The Israeli Perspective on the Egyptian-Saudi Arabian Bridge over the Strait of Tiran
Tiran Island marks the narrowest point in the Straits of Tiran, which is Israel’s only access point from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Red Sea and a crucial maritime route to the Far East. Israel has declared repeatedly that any closure of the Tiran strait will be “a direct cause of war”.
Therefore, free navigation through this strait was of special significance both in the Sinai war (Suez Crisis) and the Six-Day War. Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping and all ships bound for Eilat first in 1956 and then again in 1967. As a result of this closure, Israeli commercial ships, especially those carrying oil, had to circumnavigate Africa to reach an Israeli port. In order to reestablish the shortest sea route to its territory, Israel first occupied these two islands and other coastal areas in 1956 and then gave their control to the United Nations. In 1967, Israel started the Six-Day war by again seizing these two islands.
Among other terms, the Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel identified, according to article 13, that Tiran strait and Aqaba Gulf as international waterways which are open for all ships from around the world; and the two sides also recognized each other’s right in shipping on and flying over the Tiran strait and Aqaba Gulf to reach their respective territories. In addition, according to the Accord, Tiran was designated as part of area “C”, where Egypt wasn’t allowed to deploy any military forces. Since then, Tiran and Sanafir Islands were occupied by a multinational force (MFO) under the Egyptian civil administration but citizens of both countries, given coordination with multinational UN force, are allowed to visit the area. Such, at any rate, has been the status of these two islands until the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Israel gave written approval to the Egyptian transfer of the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia and also agreed to the construction of a bridge between the islands and the Egyptian and Saudi main lands. According to Ya’alon, the discussions between all three parties were facilitated by the US.
“We reached an agreement between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – to transfer the responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the (Egypt-Israel) peace agreement.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in an interview that his country would honor the Israel-Egypt peace treaty’s terms as regards the islands. Saudi Arabia won’t negotiate with Israel about the islands, he said, since “the commitments that Egypt approved [in the peace treaty] we are also committed to, including the stationing of an international force on the islands. We looked into the matter and we know our legal position. We are committed to what Egypt committed to before the international community.”
Israel has a strategic interest to improve relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in order to promote common strategic interests: the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iranian \Shia hegemony in the region.
From a geo-economic and geo-strategic perspective, the bridge over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir located at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba would also pose a potential “strategic threat to Israel” as it puts the freedom of navigation to and from the Israeli port of Eilat “at risk” in a situation of a future Arab – Israeli war.
For Israel, the Bab al Mandeb straits have the same strategic importance as the Tiran straits but their distant location makes the task much harder of preventing a blockade directed against Israeli shipping.
Conclusion: The Bab al Mandeb and the War in Yemen
The war in Yemen and the competition over control of the Bab al Mandab straits and the Red Sea maritime route as part of the regional conflict between Iran and its allies and Saudi Arabia and Egypt led moderate Sunni coalition.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Saud are working together to redesign the regional security issues in Yemen and the Red Sea. President El-Sisi has said: “We are adding a brick to the edifice of Egyptian-Saudi relations and forming a new chapter together that will go down in history and that will be remembered by future generations.” A fully realized Saudi-Egyptian alliance is indeed of historical importance.
Saudi Arabia has typically used aid to curry favor among regional allies. Saudi donations have helped prop up Egypt’s struggling economy since President El Sisi came to power in 2013. His government has, in recent months, weathered domestic criticism over rising food and energy prices amid embarrassing public scandals and as an Islamic State insurgency in the north Sinai has all but stopped tourism, which is an important source of hard currency. The kingdom was focused on development projects as a way to reach out to Egypt’s leaders as well as its people. Riyadh wants to push Egypt’s regional policy to align more closely with its own, particularly on Iran. The new agreement to build the bridge across the Tiran strait is another pillar of the strategic alliance between the two countries.
Saudi Arabia is pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy, striving to contain the influence of Iran, its Shiite rival for regional power, while reassessing economic aid to allies in the face of dramatically reduced oil prices. The most important geopolitical outcome of the Saudi-led Yemen intervention has been the assertion of geostrategic control over the Bab al Mandab straits and the Red Sea maritime route. As a result, Iran’s strategic interests and influence in the Red Sea region suffered a significant blow.
As a result of operation “decisive storm” and the agreement with Egypt returning the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, King Salman, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is now also the Custodian of the Two Straits (Bab al Mandab and Tiran).
The Egyptian-Saudi agreement regarding the marine borders and construction of a bridge connecting Egypt with Saudi Arabia has to take into consideration the enduring Israeli interest in a secure outlet to the Red Sea for its shipping and the other relevant provisions of the Camp David accord. Israel, for its part, has to learn the new geostrategic landscape of the Red Sea region and to reassess its security strategy to prevent potential risks and to identify new opportunities.
[The opinions presented in this posting are those exclusively of Shaul Shay and not of the Mackinder Forum. Copyright, Shaul Shay.]
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