Egypt Watches as Tensions Grow in Arab Gulf, Red Sea

(Cairo) Egypt’s worries are mounting, following attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman earlier this month, as well as growing tensions in Yemen, near the restive Arab state’s Red Sea coast and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait..

This is furthered by the possibility that unrest in Yemen will have its toll on the maritime movement in the Red Sea, and consequently in the Suez Canal. These regions bring Egypt a sizeable portion of its foreign currency revenues. Egyptian authorities are reportedly considering the need for measures along the Red Sea to prevent the Iran-aligned Houthi militia, which has been controlling most of Yemen since 2014, from threatening navigation in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

“Houthi control over Yemen and especially its Red Sea ports poses dangers to the international maritime movement,” said Egyptian military affairs specialist Nasr Salem. “This deals a serious blow to Egyptian strategic and economic interests.”

Yemen has been in turmoil since the 2011 uprising against longstanding president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The overthrowing of Saleh’s regime turned this poor Arab state with a very strategic location along the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden, into an arena for regional influences, especially from Iran, which strives to spread its Shiite influence there.

In 2014, the Shiite Houthi militia overran most of Yemen and the capital Sana’a, forcing the country’s president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and the members of his government to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Having controlled Yemen’s ports, especially in the western and southern parts of the country, the Houthis, who receive a continual supply of arms from Tehran, started threatening the international maritime movement. In July 2018, the Houthis attacked a Saudi oil tanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast. The attack compelled Saudi Arabia to suspend oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait temporarily. The Houthis staged several similar attacks before and after this, including on an American warship and vessels from the United Arab Emirates.

Soon after the July 2018 attack, the Chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, Mohab Mamish, said his authority had received directives for preparing a study about the effects that such attacks could have on the Suez Canal.

“The canal is safe,” Mamish said. Nevertheless, he said measures would be taken to prevent such attacks from occurring in the future. “The Houthis develop their capabilities, and we will develop our capabilities too, to protect our vital targets.”

Egypt has been increasing military presence in the Red Sea and near the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, given that Yemen was engulfed in violence, to protect navigation in the southern entrance of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

Attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, in the Gulf of Oman and in the Arab Gulf are expected to increase in the coming days, with the showdown between Iran and the United States and Arab Gulf states getting more intense.

This grim perspective compounds Egyptian fears from the negative impacts the turmoil in Yemen can have on navigation in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The canal gives Egypt between $5 and $6 billion annually – almost 10% of the Arab state’s annual foreign currency revenues.

In recent years, the canal came at the center of development plans in Egypt, with the government planning massive industrial zones, logistical areas and service compounds along the canal.

“This is why threats to navigation in the canal are viewed very seriously in Egypt,” Salem said. “Cairo cannot tolerate any messing up with Red Sea security.”