Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Students in my INTL 5625 Middle East class asked, what interest does Saudi Arabia, the richest country in the Middle East,  have in Yemen, the poorest? Why do they fear a Shia leadership? I always check out the geopolitics of the disputed area. Here is a map:
Image result for strait of bab el mandeb

See where the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb is. It's a narrow chokepoint separating Eritrea and Djibouti on the west and Yemen on the east. It's where ME oil flows out to its markets.

The US is backing Saudi Arabia in its war to eliminate the Houthis from Yemeni leadership. Why is Yemen important to the US?

"General Norman Schwarzkopf. In testimony to the U.S. Senate he said, “The Red Sea, with the Suez Canal in the north and the Bab el-Mandeb in the south, is one of the most vital sea lines of communication and a critical shipping link between our Pacific and European allies … Since a significant part of USCENTCOM’s forces would deploy by sea, ensuring these waterways remain open to free world shipping must be a key objective.”
In other words, the shipping of and access to,  oil. And, there is the fear of Shia Iran taking control of this chokepoint.  Al Quaeda is also operating in the country. From:
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and it is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The strait is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Most exports from the Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab el-Mandeb.
An estimated 3.8 million bbl/d of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2013 toward Europe, the United States, and Asia, an increase from 2.9 million bbl/d in 2009. Oil shipped through the strait decreased by almost one-third in 2009 because of the global economic downturn and the decline in northbound oil shipments to Europe. Northbound oil shipments increased through Bab el-Mandeb Strait in 2013, and more than half of the traffic, about 2.1 million bbl/d, moved northbound to the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Bab el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or SUMED Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost. In addition, European and North African southbound oil flows could no longer take the most direct route to Asian markets via the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb.
However, even if you agree that Western control over the access to oil is important and necessary, it is also true that  it is in doubt that the war  Saudi Arabia is waging against  Yemen is illegal under international law.  First of all,  it hasn't been approved by the UN Security Council, and constitutes an invasion.

Second, the humanitarian aspect. Thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed and their infrastructure destroyed. Famine threatens. The European Parliament has stated in a motion went  that “air strikes by the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen have killed civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law, which requires all possible steps to be taken to prevent or minimise civilian casualties.”(I wrote about humanitarian law, or the law of the war, previously).

Other condemnation has come from Medecins sans Frontieres and Amnesty International. See this
But Saudi Arabia argues that its war is legal. It says the government of Yemen was deposed and legitimate, and that it requested SA's military support to regain power. This is a scenario similar Iraq requesting US help in fighting ISIS. One government can request another government's military support under humanitarian law; it's considered legal under international law.
But Yemen’s case is far less clear-cut. In fact, the deposed President Hadi had lost control of the military , and the country was in the middle of a civil war for years.
Hadi’s legitimacy was weak. He'd won a 2012 election in which he was the only candidate following the Arab Spring protests of 2012. He extended his own mandate when it was up in 2014.


  1. This game of interests and wars in the Middle East is extremely delicate and particularly tangled confuse due to European and US influence and interests in the area.

    In Yemen, the West supports the Saudi intervention against the Shia Houthi allies of Iran.

    In Iraq and Syria, the West supports allies of Iran against ISIS which is Sunni and have Saudi Arabia veiled support, not formally by the Saudi state but their ideology and so.

    And North Africa is becoming a tinderbox.

    The surprise is that Russia so far has not taken direct advantage of it, but wll support Iran regard the conflict wih Yemen if this "mini world war" continues to evolve.

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