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Challenges to Maritime Security
in the Gulf

By Melissa Rossi,
Researcher at the Brazilian Naval War College and EGIC Steering Committee Member

MARITIME security encapsulates the safeguarding of seafaring vessels in the maritime domain against various threats including: high seas piracy, illegal activities within a country’s territorial waters, weapons, drugs and human smuggling, illegal fishing and pollution. Additionally, there are an assortment of geopolitically fuelled issues such as drone warfare, electronic interference and hijackings. It is important to refocus attention on piracy and drone attacks in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Gulf of Aden since the area is again making headlines.

The Gulf of Aden and Bab el-Mandeb serve as a crucial link between the Indian Ocean, the Red and Mediterranean Seas and it is estimated that some 9% of the world’s total seaborne trade of crude oil is transported through these waters, accounting for 6 million barrels daily. This dependency on the maritime trade in hydrocarbons immensely impacts European Union (EU) countries, as the bloc imports about  20% of crude oil exports from the region, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

When looking at its complex geography, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait measures about 70 nautical miles (NM) in length and at its narrowest points only 11.5 (NM), from the Yemeni Perim Island (known as Mayun in Arabic) to the Djibouti coast. The international shipping lanes that run through Bab el-Mandeb’s Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) traverses the territorial waters of both Yemen and Djibouti. Despite the ratification of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by both countries — which guarantees the unimpeded passage of foreign vessels through Straits — instability in Yemen has increased security concerns in the Gulf of Aden and southern Red Sea, as Houthi drone attacks and vessel hijackings have become more frequent.

Transporting crude oil through the bottleneck Bab el-Mandeb, increases the vulnerability of tankers since the littoral is plagued by instability due, primarily, to the Houthi rebel presence in the western part of the country, including the occupation of the capital Sanaa and the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah. The strategic positioning of the Houthis in Yemen facilitates their unimpeded access to the southern Red Sea, which in recent weeks (November 2023) has proven dire for maritime security as attacks against vessels linked to Israel, including the hijacking of a vessel, occurred as a Houthi reaction to the Israeli-Hamas conflict.

Only a decade ago, Somali piracy posed the most significant threat to the shipping industry in the Gulf, mainly orchestrated by well-organised networks in northern Somalia, especially in the self-declared autonomous state of Puntland. Though no successful pirate attacks have been reported since 2017 the underlying issues persist–widespread poverty and lack of opportunities in Somalia continue to fuel such illicit activities.

Historically, piracy attacks were more frequent during the monsoon Fall transition/Northwestern monsoon (October-March), period where the seas tend to be calmer in the Gulf of Aden and Northern Indian Ocean. The international community response supported by UN Security Council resolutions calling for an internationally organised naval response against it, led to the downfall of piracy.

Though their Area of Operations (AOO) is much vaster, anti-piracy missions have focused their activities along the Gulf of Aden’s International Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), a major shipping lane that is 492 (NM) long. The EU naval mission EUNAVFOR Somalia, also known as ‘Operation Atalanta,’ was created in 2008 and continuously renewed since to patrol the area. Besides, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a multinational coalition of 38 states led by the United States and headquartered in Bahrain has created Combined Taskforce 151 (CTF-151) in 2009, an anti-piracy task-force which works with several nations, including Brazil, who will command CTF-151 once again starting in January 2024.

As mentioned above, although the threat of piracy has subsided, a new source of instability has emerged in the region. With the ongoing conflict in Yemen, despite the apparent signalling of a rapprochement between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia (the last meeting took place in Riyadh in September 2023) heightened tensions due to the Hamas-Israeli conflict and the launching of ballistic missile and drone attacks by the Houthis towards Israel’s Red Sea area, and also against military positions in Saudi Arabia (including an attack that left four Bahraini servicemen dead—even before the Hamas-Israel conflict erupted), have again shaken the maritime community navigating through those waters and possibly disrupted negotiations.
Nonetheless, the continuous presence of missions in the region and in particular the presence of the US´s 5th Fleet in Bahrain have helped to neutralise some of these threats, as seen by the interception of several Houthi missiles and drones by the USS Carney destroyer in the Red Sea in October (2023).

The complexities of the region pose serious challenges to the free flow of international trade, though the large scale of efforts and consistent dedication of international naval missions supported by countries from across the globe, have worked tirelessly to uphold maritime security by suppressing piracy and firmly countering the present Houthi threat in the area. Future stability will continue to undoubtedly rely on the concerted effort  of such missions as the overall causes of these disruptions are unlikely to subside anytime soon.


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