The unprecedented decision taken by Saudi Arabia to immediately suspend its oil shipments through the Bab El-Mandab waterway following an attack by the Houthis on two very large crude carriers (VLCC), brings to the fore a host of issues related to the Red Sea, its security, stability and whether the region can fight its way to peace and prosperity or it will be a battleground for world and regional powers and their competition.
Though the 29 km waterway where between 500, 000 to 700, 000 barrels Saudi crude passes daily as part of 4.8 million barrels per day (bpd) pass daily, has been targeted by various world powers throughout history, but of late that competition has intensified attracting new players, stronger presence and new developments taking place between and within local partners.
The Saudi decision in fact highlights the geostrategic nature of the Red Sea now that it is linked to the sensitive commodity, the black gold. Bab El-Mandab is not the only spot that worth following. There is the 2.34 million barrels SUMED pipeline that runs parallel to Suez Canal and links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
On the Saudi side of the Red Sea there is Yanbu port and industrial city where the East-West Pipeline, known as Petroline, that brings Saudi crude across the peninsula within its 5 million bpd capacity. A parallel line is carrying 290,000 bpd of natural gas liquids from Abqaiq to Yanbu to feed the petrochemical industry in Yanbu. Moreover, Saudi Aramco, the giant oil company is planning to launch this year its mammoth Muajjiz oil terminal that was designed to handle 15 million bpd.
On the corresponding western side of the Red Sea lies Sudan oil facilities and terminal at Bashayer that serves both Sudan and land-locked South Sudan, where both countries entered recently into agreement to increase oil production.
The Saudi decision culminates an eventful months in the Horn. Few days earlier a highly publicized event where Simegnew Bekele the engineer overseeing the building of the controversial Ethiopian Renaissance dam was shot dead in the day light on a street of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Before that the world was taken by surprise by the quick rapprochement steps exchanged between long-time arch foes Ethiopia and Eritrea. The thaw that started with an Ethiopian declaration that it finally accepts the decision that the contested Badme border area belongs to Eritrea was quickly accelerating.
That declaration opened the way for exchange of visits between the two countries, resumption of long shunned diplomatic relations, withdrawing of troops from borders, a move that led the United Arab Emirates, which helped behind the scene in facilitating that rapprochement, to invite both leaders Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Asaias Afwerki of Eritrea to Abu Dhabi, where it bestowed on them the highest medal in the country for their role in bringing the 2-decades long dispute to an end. The Emirati moves underlines the importance it adheres to stability in that part of the Horn, which provides a strategic depth to the Gulf states.
However, the assassination of the director of Bekele fuels speculations on targeting the reforming moves by Ahmed, the new young prime minister. Earlier in the month there was a failed attempt of attacking a mass rally attended by prime minister through explosives.
Oil is not the only factor that gives the Red Sea its strategic significance. A regional and international competition in gaining foothold on sea ports is taking place as well. The past few weeks have seen what many termed as an Emirati-Chinese competition on Djibouti, who terminated a deal with Dubai Ports, one of world leaders in ports managements and handed the port to China. Djibouti, it seems plays a pivotal role in China’s Silk Road mammoth strategy that envisions investing up to trillion dollar in creating new markets supported with necessary infrastructure. It also hosts the first Chinese military base overseas.
From the Saudi decision to suspend its oil shipments, to the Ethio-Eritrean rapprochement to Emirati-Chinese competition in having remarkable presence in the Red Sea ports, to domestic violence and whether to the region will open for reform and utilize regional and international competition to its use or big foreign players can exert their influence for more proxy wars and domestic violence.
The game of ladder and snake seems to be unfolding in the Horn of Africa.
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