CAIRO EARNS SOME $5BN A YEAR IN TRANSIT FEES FROM SHIPS USING THE SUEZ CANAL, AT THE NORTHERN END OF THE RED SEA
and thus ignored.
Egypt has made significant discoveries in its waters, with oil reserves totalling about 8bn barrels.
“Major new energy issues are about to transform still further the strategic balance of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, the foreseeable consequences for the global energy market over the coming decade,” observed energy analyst Gregory R. Copley as far back as September 2010.
“Soon-to-be-evident new wealth in the Red Sea/ Horn of Africa will transform the intensity of conflict there, which in turn will affect not only the region, but the world’s most important trading route, the Red Sea/Suez sea line of communication.”
One flashpoint lies in Yemen, which forms the eastern shore of the southern Red Sea and dominates the Bab Al Mandab Strait, a strategic waterway that separates the Arabian Peninsula from East Africa and links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
Around 4-5% of the global oil supply passes through the strait, most of it from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. The strait is only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, so a recent string of major advances by increasingly powerful Houthi Shi’ite rebels from northern Yemen has heightened fears in Saudi Arabia and Egypt that they could seize control of the strait.
Cairo earns some $5bn a year from transit fees from ships using the Suez Canal, at the northern end of the Red Sea and Egyptian concerns rose sharply after
Above: Tankers passing through the Suez Canal
34 The Middle East December 2014
the Houthis seized control of the port of Hodeidah, in western Yemen, on 15 October as they pushed into southern Yemen.
There is no indication so far that the Houthis, who are allegedly supported by Shi’ite Iran and who took control of the capital Sanaa in September, intend to take over the Bab Al Mandeb as well, or indeed, interfere with Red Sea shipping and offshore energy exploration.
But given Iran’s religious and political conflict with Saudi Arabia, the Houthis’ expanding territorial gains are causing a lot of unease in Riyadh as Aramco drives to exploit its offshore energy resources in the Red Sea. n