The Knot of The Arabian Peninsula: The Intricate Waterways of Yemen and Qatar

Beatrice Ala

The 100-day threshold has been passed: since October 7, when the latest phase of the conflict in Gaza began, the situation has evolved on multiple levels. As the echoes of the conflict have widened, regional and international actors become increasingly involved. Once again, the waters of the Middle East are turbulent, reflecting an unstable geopolitical situation.

Members of the Yemeni Coast Guard affiliated with the Houthi group patrol the sea as demonstrators march through the Red Sea port city of Hodeida in solidarity with the people of Gaza on January 4, 2024, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition to the parties directly involved in the conflict, since early November another regional actor has initiated retaliatory actions, explicitly tying them to the situation in Israel. 

The Houthis, the Iran-aligned Shia militia fighting in the Yemeni civil war, entered the chessboard by targeting Israel-bound ships passing through the near Bab el-Mandeb strait to pressure Israel and explicitly support the Palestinian cause. This narrow strait -only 26 kilometers wide- separates Yemen from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and is the only maritime access to the Suez Canal and Israeli ports through the Red Sea.

Over the course of the civil war that has been ravaging Yemen since 2014, the Houthis have managed to take control of Yemen’s west coast, which overlooks the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, ensuring the control of one of the most important trade arteries in global commerce and thus exerting strong power of deterrence over one of the most crucial chokepoints in the global trade network. Total oil shipments through Bab el-Mandeb accounted for about 12% of total seaborne-traded oil in the first half of 2023, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments via this route accounted for about 8% of worldwide trade. Moreover, 12% of international trade is handled by the Suez Canal and passes through Bab el-Mandeb. The actions of the Houthis, targeting ships with Israeli flags or those heading to Israeli ports along this route, regardless of their nationality, have forced ships to find alternative passages in order to avoid the dangerous chokepoint. Vessels have been forced to circumnavigate the whole African continent, increasing the journey distance by nearly 40% by adding on average an extra 3,000 – 3,500 nautical miles. Additionally, this long rerouting causes a substantial increase in fuel, insurance and transportation costs on average, resulting in delays in the delivery of goods (of 12-15 days more). 

Additionally, the unfolding of a new theater of crisis related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict triggered the active intervention of an Anglo-American coalition: in response to Houthi rebel attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, the United States and Britain militaries have launched airstrikes against Houthi radar sites in Yemen. In addition to being the first US military action in response to drone and missile attacks on commercial ships since the resurgence of the Israeli-Palestinian war on October 7, the strikes were the first on Yemeni territories since 2016

SANA’A, YEMEN – JANUARY 16: The military spokesperson of Yemen’s Houthi group, brigader Yahya Sareea, said in a statement that they attacked the Zografia ship that was heading to Israel in the Red Sea with naval missiles. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

The soaring tension in the western waterway of the Arabian Peninsula has also affected energy trade originating on the East Coast: Qatar, the world’s second largest LNG exporter, announced that it pauses gas shipments via the Red Sea due to security concerns. At least four LNG vessels operated by QatarEnergy heading to the Suez Canal have been halted since Friday 12.

Qatar transported more than 75 million tons of LNG in 2023, of which 14 million tons were sold to European buyers and 56.4 million tons were sold to Asia. Notably, EU was the largest LNG importer in the world in the second quarter of 2023, accounting for 22% of global LNG imports: following increased European demand for LNG (+13% on 2022), Qatar has established itself as one of the largest suppliers of LNG to Europe with a 13% market share in the second quarter of 2023.

Just as other merchant and energy vessels that have been impacted by the Houthi blockage of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, QatarEnergy vessels had to reroute the shipping to Europe round the Cape of Good Hope, circumnavigating the African continent: this diversion could add around 9 days to the 18-day voyage from Qatar. 

In addition to Qatar, other major shippers -including MSC and Maersk- and global energy providers such as BP and Shell said they were forced to temporarily avoid the Red Sea route and re-route via the Cape of Good Hope. These decisions, rightfully prompted by safety concerns, strongly highlight the hold that those water passages have on the global economy and trade. 

Already in October 2023, at the beginning of the conflict, the World Bank had warned that an escalation of the conflict could have substantial large-scale impact on energy supply chains. The fallout for European energy security appears to be unlikely, due to a relatively stable overall picture, supported by high levels of energy reserves and diversification of both supply sources and energy suppliers. According to the International Energy Agency, oil and gas production themselves have not been impacted: the market looks reasonably well supplied for 2024. Saudi Arabia can even manage to circumvent the chokepoint by transporting some crude oil from the Persian Gulf via pipeline directly to the Red Sea for export mostly to Europe. Lastly, energy prices are now more stable than they were a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

This being said, the core issue is the unsteadiness of energy supply flows in the long term. Europe has witnessed a change in geometries in the supply of those energy services, with Qatar and USA taking up market shares that were previously taken by Russia. In particular, Qatar has established fruitful ties with European buyers, striking decades-long deals for the supply of LNG with Shell, TotalEnergies and ENI. In this scenario, one of the most important LNG suppliers may be hampered in its energy shippings by structural and ineradicable criticalities, especially when considering the war variable that prevents long-term forecasting.  

In fact, while the trade blockage does not seem to severely impact gas supply through the western route in the short term, it nevertheless poses a matter of trade security on a global scale. Qatar and other energy suppliers could still pass the Hormuz strait to head to their Eastern destination; but in order to get to the Mediterranean, the Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint and the Suez Canal passing are almost unavoidable waterways. 

DJIBOUTI, DJIBOUTI – JANUARY 17: Attacks on commercial ships by Yemen’s Houthi rebel group have imperilled a vital global shipping route through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait that lies between Yemen and Djibouti and connects the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea. The disruption has forced more shipping companies to divert around the Horn of Africa, upending supply chains and increasing costs. (Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images)

The intervention of the Houthis in the conflict and the militarized response by the Anglo-American coalition has twofold consequences, both on the political and economic level. 

The military involvement of other international actors have expanded the theater of conflict beyond the Gaza strip. The direct engagement against the Shia militias in Yemen could prove to be counterproductive for the USA, indirectly providing international acknowledgement for the Houthis and underscoring their growing influence as a force to reckon with. As an agile and mobile actor, the Houthis do not appear to have suffered structural damage from the U.S. strikes, which are instead having the opposite effect to that hoped for. The Houthis’ intervention could actually play to their advantage, allowing them to exert new multilevel pressure on regional actors while legitimizing themselves as a key player in the Yemeni and regional scenario. 

On the other hand, the opening of another front of the conflict has raised significantly the level of tension with cross-cutting and far-reaching consequences for trade either leaving or transiting the Peninsula; the forced diversion of ships and vessels away from the Red Sea highlights the critical impact that the Strait has on trade routes and global energy supplies. 

Once again, the spotlight is turned to the crucial waterways around the Arabian Peninsula. The renewed and perpetual significance of chokepoints in the Middle East underscores their enduring role in global geopolitics and energy security. These strategic narrow passages, and in this case the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal, continue to be critical bottlenecks for the transportation of vital resources, including oil and gas. As nations strive to safeguard their economic interests and ensure the smooth flow of resources, the control and stability of these key maritime routes remain central to international security considerations. The evolving dynamics in the Middle East serve as a stark reminder that chokepoints are not merely geographic features but geopolitical linchpins with far-reaching implications for global stability and economic well-being.

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The Knot of The Arabian P…

by Beatrice Ala time to read: 6 min