Egypt wary as Red Sea suffers fallout from Yemen war

Sunday 19/03/2017
The Mistral-class helicopter carrier Gamal Abdel Nasser crossing the new section of the Suez Canal. (Reuters)

Cairo - A suicide boat attack by Houthi rebels on a Saudi warship near Yemen’s Hudaydah port in Janu­ary should be a wake-up call to the growing threat to naviga­tion in a vital strait which connects the Suez Canal and Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, experts said.

“There is a marked rise in threats to navigation in the southern part of the Red Sea, which necessitates collective international action,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of the Egyp­tian think-tank the Political and Strategic Studies Centre. “These threats can disrupt the international maritime movement in the area as a whole, which will be catastrophic to Egypt, the world and oil-producing countries in the Gulf.”

Yemen’s Houthi militia attacked the Saudi warship with suicide boats on January 30th. The attack was among a series of similar as­saults by the Iran-backed group, all attesting to growing dangers to the international maritime movement in the Bab el Mandeb strait between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Last October, the Houthis also attacked US vessels off the Yemeni Red Sea coast from shore batteries, triggering retaliation from the Unit­ed States, which destroyed the bat­teries a days later.

In the same month, the Houthis targeted a military vessel oper­ated by the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthis since early 2015.

In response to the US destruction of the shore batteries, which were reported to have been manned by Islamic Republican Guards Corps personnel, Iran was reported to have deployed long-range drones and planted sea mines around the Bab el Mandeb strait.

Growing perils to navigation in the strait, said Hamdy Abdel Aziz, the official spokesman for the Egyp­tian Petroleum Ministry, will raise oil prices, have negative effects on the Egyptian economy and scare investments from the Suez Canal region.

“Instability in a given region rais­es the cost of transport and insur­ance, which automatically affects the prices of commodities passing through this region,” Abdel Aziz said. “This is true to oil as well as to everything else.”

Close to 5 million barrels of oil transit Bab el Mandeb each day from production wells and refineries in the Gulf to markets in Europe, Asia and the United States, GlobalSecuri­, a military and security news site, stated.

Almost 30% of this oil transits the Suez Canal en route to international markets, bringing Egypt billions of dollars every year and helping keep the country afloat as it suffers a deep economic crunch.

For Egypt, instability in the Red Sea means the shattering of all eco­nomic plans. Egypt spent close to $8 billion in 2015 to dig a parallel channel to the Suez Canal and sev­eral tunnels under the canal to bet­ter connect the Sinai peninsula with the Egyptian heartland.

The government of President Ab­del Fattah al-Sisi plans to turn the banks of the canal into the Middle East’s largest logistics, industrial and services hub. To protect these investments, Egypt has spent bil­lions of dollars to modernise its navy, a process that included the purchase of speedboats and two helicopter carriers.

A few weeks ago, Egypt es­tablished its newest naval force, which has been tasked with keep­ing threats away from the course of container carriers and oil tankers transiting the Suez Canal from the southern entrance to the Red Sea.

Security expert Sameh Abu Hashima said he expected Egypt to react to growing threats to the southern entrance to the sea with an increased military presence.

“Egypt has a military presence in the area already but this pres­ence needs to be intensified in the days to come,” Abu Hashima said. “Added to the threat posed by the presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen, an Iran-backed Houthi militia is very dangerous.”

The attack on the Saudi warship rang alarms in Washington where US President Donald Trump or­dered the deployment of the USS Cole, a US Navy destroyer, to the Bab el Mandeb area amid specula­tion of direct US involvement in Yemen. Such a move would make things worse, analysts said.

“At the very least, this involve­ment will increase unrest in the region, which will have further dev­astating effects on oil supplies and navigation in the Suez Canal,” Zunt said.

“This is why it is important for the international community to walk a fine line between defang­ing the Houthis and forcing Iran to reconsider its support to them and open the gates of hell in the south­ern entrance to the Red Sea.”