It is one of the world’s oil “choke points,” which sees around 5% of the world’s oil supply and 10% of world trade float past every day.
The Bab el-Mandab strait that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean is one of the most important waterways in the world. It is also surrounded by weak and failing states, including Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and most importantly, Yemen.
Yemen has been threatened by the growth of extremist terrorist groups for decades. In 2000 al-Qaeda members plotted the USS Cole bombing in the Port of Aden. Later al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was able to penetrate large sections of the country.
Yemen strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in 2012. Two years later Houthi rebels, made up of a Shi’ite religious minority and their allies, took over part of Aden. The US embassy was closed and foreigners fled the port city. The spread of the rebellion and fears it would take over most of strategic parts of Yemen bordering the Red Sea prompted Riyadh to lead an intervention.
Alongside the UAE and other allies such as Bahrain and Egypt, Saudi Arabia has been fighting the Houthis for three years. Riyadh is allied with the president of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who returned to Aden in June after spending much of the war in Saudi Arabia.
Increasingly the conflict in Yemen has taken on greater regional and strategic significance. Eighty-three ballistic missiles were fired at Saudi Arabia from Yemen in 2017 and dozens have been fired this year, some of them flying over 800 km. In addition the Houthis have increasingly spoken in regional terms, bashing Israel and the US in their speeches and seeking ideological link-ups with Hezbollah. They have used drones and fired on ships in the Red Sea. In January 2017 a missile fired by the Houthis struck a Saudi warship near islands south of Hodeidah. Iranian influence is seen as a key to their success and defeating them would be a blow to Tehran. The amount of oil transiting the Red Sea has declined to 4 million in 2015 from 17 million barrels a day in 2009. The Red Sea is also a key point of transit for imports to Israel.
The battle for Hodeidah on the Red Sea, which began last month, is now a key to pushing the Houthis back into the mountains and away from the Red Sea. The UAE has been helping coordinate the battle to retake Hodeidah and it is a major test of the Riyadh-led coalition. Hodeidah is located 900 km. south of Mecca and is Yemen’s largest port on the Red Sea. It was taken over by the Houthis in October of 2014.
In early July Iran threatened to harm oil exports around the world if it was threatened. The possibility of Iran’s threats to the Red Sea are now a serious issue. But it is a complex battle because freedom of navigation on the Red Sea is only part of the matrix. There is also a major humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The UN has called for the port of Hodeidah to be kept open even as the battle unfolds because of the need to keep supplies heading inland for civilians. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths is also seeking to lead talks between the warring factions in Yemen.
The UAE’s strategic view of the battle for Hodeidah is bigger than just the port. The UAE has also been working in Somalia and Eritrea. On July 3 Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nayan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, welcomed President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea during a visit to the UAE.
Some of this has brought controversy for Abu Dhabi as it seeks to expand its influence in the region, becoming more involved in security infrastructure and training. The Houthis by contrast are portrayed as a weak force being opposed by the most powerful Gulf countries and the West. But if they are so weak, critics wonder, how did they obtain ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles, radio-controlled IEDs and drones. Conflict Armament Research showed that the drone technology the Houthis used was derived from Iran. In late June eight Hezbollah fighters were allegedly killed fighting with the Houthis in Yemen. In addition, the UAE’s The National reported on July 8 that the Iranian-backed Katab Sayyed Al-Shuhada militia in Iraq had declared its support for the Houthis.
The Katab Sayyed Al-Shuhada militia is part of the Iraqi Security Forces after Shi’ite militias like it were incorporated officially into Iraq’s security forces last year. Developments like this show that Tehran and its allies see Yemen as a regional or global conflict. As the Syrian conflict winds down, Yemen, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE see as a key security issue, may be the next central conflict of the region.
The battle for Hodeidah has gone on for several weeks but was paused in the first week of July to allow for a potential diplomatic solution. Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula of the International Crises Group, noted that the anti-Houthi coalition was keeping up the military pressure even as the talks go on.
Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy visited several important front lines in Yemen and wrote in March that the conflict is not well understood in the West. “Mistakes were made, but they were corrected much faster than was the case in many US-led interventions over the years.” He points out that although the Houthis try to focus attention on civilian casualties that it is they who has sowed the land with mines and disguise themselves as civilians. “As long as the Houthi rebels control the Yemeni capital and the country’s largest port they have no incentive to negotiate.”
The battle of Hodeidah has showcased the UAE’s ability to train local forces. Members of the Yemenite Tihama brigade returned to Yemen on July 7 after receiving training in Eritrea with UAE forces, according to The National. These are one three Yemeni brigades fighting alongside the UAE to defeat the Houthis. In a sense the UAE is employing the tactics the US has used in conflicts around the globe, partnering with local forces to advise and assist them while deploying air power to aid the battle. This has helped hone the UAE’s military as well, increasing their air force’s capabilities and giving them experience at deploying an expeditionary force 2,000 km. from home.
Unsurprisingly the battle for Hodeidah has come in for criticism by voices that tend to be sympathetic to Iran and Syria’s Bashar Assad in the region. A “ruthless attack” led by Saudi Arabia, says PressTV in Tehran. “A deliberate act of cruelty by the Trump administration,” says an article at The Independent in the UK, highlighting US support for Riyadh. Turkish and Qatari media have also been critical of the battle, highlighting civilian suffering.