Recent advances by Yemen’s Houthi movement are part of an attempt to take control of the strategic Bab El-Mandeb strait off the Yemeni coast, military sources in the country said on Saturday.The Bab El-Madeb strait is on the "chokepoints" identified by the U.S. Energy Information Administration here:
This comes as three members of the group and three military personnel were killed on Friday evening as the armed Houthis attempted an attack on the Al-Khoukha military camp just south of the coastal city of Al-Hudaydah, close to the strategic waterway.
The Bab El-Mandeb, which connects the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and Suez Canal, is one of the most important maritime corridors in the world, through which most of Yemen’s oil exports pass on their way to global markets.
Retired Yemeni brigadier-general Mohsen Khasrouf told Asharq Al-Awsat the group “has its eyes firmly on the Bab El-Mandeb strait” and that Friday night’s attack represented “the first step on the road to taking control” of the waterway for the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“The Bab El-Mandeb strait is not just related to Yemen’s security but to the security of the whole region,” Khasrouf said, adding that Iran was acting through the Houthis and attempting to gain control of the strait, which in addition to Iranian control of the strait of Hormuz, would give the Islamic Republic a strategic maritime advantage on the Arabian Peninsula’s surrounding waterways.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and it is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The strait is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Most exports from the Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab el-Mandeb.Exactly what weapons a Yemeni force would use to "control" this strait is a matter of some conjecture. Possibly, long range artillery or anti-ship cruise missiles or sea mines could be used.
An estimated 3.8 million bbl/d of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2013 toward Europe, the United States, and Asia, an increase from 2.9 million bbl/d in 2009. Oil shipped through the strait decreased by almost one-third in 2009 because of the global economic downturn and the decline in northbound oil shipments to Europe. Northbound oil shipments increased through Bab el-Mandeb Strait in 2013, and more than half of the traffic, about 2.1 million bbl/d, moved northbound to the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Bab el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or SUMED Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost. In addition, European and North African southbound oil flows could no longer take the most direct route to Asian markets via the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb.
One source for such weapons could be Iran, which, of course, just might have some interest in having another means of threatening the flow of oil out of the Arabian Gulf to the West. The Iranian Navy has long self-identified as maintaining a counter-piracy "flotilla" in and around the Red Sea, usually consisting of a semi-frigate and a replenishment vessel (often referred to by the Iranians as a "helicopter carrier"). See here.
On the other hand, the strait also serves as an route for the export of Iranian crude, so if Iran is behind the Houthi effort, it would most likely be planning a contingency operation for an effort to complete blockade oil flowing to the West through the Suez Canal, while leaving access from its port to the East open. This might buy a few days before the tanker fleets readjust their routing around south Africa.
Yemeni naval forces are mostly relatively lightly armed coastal patrol craft.