The Senate will vote Thursday to override President Trump’s veto of a resolution pulling American support from Yemen. Congress has used America's relationship with Saudi Arabia as a reason for the resolution, but the Yemen issue is much broader. The outcome of the Yemen war has national security and economic implications for the United States, Europe and the world because of the strategic importance of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a major oil chokepoint and a strategic link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Any disruption to the security and control of the strait could lead to major global shifts in oil prices.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that in 2016, 4.8 million barrels of crude and petroleum products flowed through the strait each day, with about 2.8 million going north to Europe, and another two million moving in the opposite direction.
If the U.S. pulls support for the Gulf powers in the Yemen conflict, the Iran-backed Houthi Shiite rebels could gain control of one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. According to the EIA, closing the Bab el-Mandeb Strait could keep tankers in the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding transit time and cost. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is only 18 miles at its narrowest point. Tankers passing through must use two two-mile-wide shipping channels, leaving it extremely vulnerable to disruption.
As the relationship between the U.S. and Iran grows increasingly tense, Iran’s control over global waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz, becomes more important. Iran is using, and will use, any and all leverage it has over the United States, so it is vital not to hand over any additional advantages.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned over the weekend of possible consequences for the U.S. administration’s decision to stop issuing waivers to countries for Iranian oil imports. The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s primary oil chokepoint with an estimated record of 18.5 million barrels per day of oil passing through it in 2016. According to the EIA, the Strait of Hormuz accounted for 30 percent of all sea-borne-traded crude oil and other liquids in 2015.
The danger posed by Iranian expansion and overall malign actions in the region is the greater problem. They want to gain access to the Red Sea and control vital economic waterways. Why give Iran the opportunity to provide missiles and other armaments to the Houthis to control yet another primary oil chokepoint in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait?
As Iran moves closer to securing the port of Latakia in Syria (gaining direct access to the Mediterranean Sea and to the Israeli border), the conflict in Yemen becomes of even greater importance to the U.S. and Europe. President Trump’s recent veto of the Yemen War resolution passed by Congress was the right decision. It was a necessary step toward countering Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.
If the U.S. pulls support for the Gulf powers in the Yemen conflict, the Iran-backed Houthi Shiite rebels could gain control of one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
The global value of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait also correlates with the relational value of the small country of Djibouti where the U.S. Africa Command’s Camp Lemonnier, the only U.S. base of operations for Africa, supporting 4,000 U.S. joint and allied forces. Djibouti is located on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait which separates Yemen from Africa; and, is also home to China’s first overseas military base formally opened in 2017.
China has economic and strategic interest in Africa with decades of soft-power investments. Beijing has invested billions through their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) throughout Africa and the world in infrastructure projects. Seventy-seven percent of Djibouti’s debt is held by Chinese lenders, giving China strong economic leverage over the small country.
Last month, U.S. Africa Command's Gen. Thomas Waldhauser stated during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. needs a higher level of political engagement in Africa to counter China’s growing influence. China’s economic and military leverage in Djibouti could hinder access to the port that provides military support to Camp Lemonneir. Reports of Djibouti handing over control of the Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT) to Chinese state-owned enterprises has raised alarm with U.S. lawmakers and defense officials. The DCT is a strategically-located shipping port on the Red Sea, the primary containerized cargo facility in Djibouti.
In December 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton, in his remarks on the Trump administration’s New Africa Strategy, highlighted China and Russia’s rapidly expanding financial and political influence across Africa. "they are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States," Bolton said.
He added that from 2016-17, "China’s foreign direct investment toward Africa totaled $6.4 billion dollars. And, over the past several years, China has devoted considerable state-directed and state-supported financing to projects in the region." He warned of China’s "ultimate goal of advancing Chinese global dominance” and a “quest to obtain more political, economic, and military power."
Congress has a duty to protect the economic and national security of the United States. As the Senate plans to take up President Trump’s veto, hopefully senators will consider the greater strategic importance of the conflict and not only focus on Saudi Arabia — because the outcome of the war could have vast ramifications for the United States and the world.