Heightened tensions between the US and Iran has raised concerns that Tehran could organise Houthi attacks on merchant ships passing through strategic trading routes in the Gulf.
“There will be concern over the potential of Iran being in a position to threaten maritime traffic through the Bab el Mandeb,” said Jon Lee, an analyst at Dorian Risk Consulting.
“Tensions between Iran and the US in the Straits of Hormuz are likely to increase. By extension, those tensions are also a concern for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and western nations who rely on the region for energy supplies. Iran could in the near future use the Houthi as surrogates to threaten the Bab el Mandeb as well, giving Tehran the ability to control or influence maritime traffic through two of the most important chokepoints in the world,” said Mr Lee.
High volumes of petroleum and other products are shipped through the vulnerable, narrow straits, making their protection all the more critical.
“Any disruption would have an economic impact, so the new Maritime Security Transit Corridor makes even more sense as a means of mitigating this risk.”
The Combined Maritime Forces, the international naval coalition, has set up an expanded corridor to protect merchant vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden and Bab el Mandeb.
World oil chokepoints are narrow channels along sea routes, some so narrow that navigation restrictions apply.
Only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, the Bab el Mandeb connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. An estimated 4.8 million barrels of oil flowed through this waterway daily in 2016 toward Europe, the US and Asia, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most important chokepoints with an oil flow of 17 million barrels a day in 2015, accounting for 30 per cent of maritime oil trade. This rose to a high of 18.5 million barrels daily last year.
In Depth: The human cost of piracy
Vigilance and intelligence gathering has always been critical off the UAE coast because of the Houthi rebels in Yemen threatening maritime movement with mines and missiles, plus concerns about a revival of Somali piracy.
“The CMF has to keep merchant vessels safe from events in Yemen. Given the constricted waters this is very difficult, especially on the entrance to the Red Sea,” said Mr Lee, who has also been part of hostage negotiations with Somali pirates in the past.
“The corridor avoids as much as possible Yemeni territorial waters, at least until the Bab el Mandab where the constrictions make this impossible. Complicating the mission are the allegations that Iran is arming the Houthi with sea mines and anti-ship missiles,” he said.
The US Central Command Chief General Joe Votel told the US House Armed Services Committee in March about concerns the rebels had deployed mines, explosive boats, coastal defence missiles that threatened ships and commerce in the area.
Iran has repeatedly denied accusations that it sends weapons to the Houthi rebels.
The International Maritime Bureau too said the newly established corridor will help naval deployment and address risks not covered by the existing Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
“The MSTC is an extension of the IRTC through the Bab el Mandab and into the Southern Red Sea. It follows the same principle of the IRTC which is to enable the naval forces in the region to efficiently deploy their assets in an effort to provide a more secure transit route for merchant vessels,” said Cyrus Mody, IMB’s assistant director.
“It helps to cover some of the risks to shipping in the Southern Red Sea not covered by the IRTC.”
Slow moving cargo and oil tankers are a target of both Houthi rebels in armed speedboats and pirates in fast-moving skiffs.
The IMB’s second quarter piracy report too warned that Somali pirates remained a risk for merchant ships.
In April, an Indian dhow was hijacked, three other vessels came under fire and a bulk carrier was boarded by pirates in the Gulf of Aden, indicating that “Somali pirates still retain the skills and capacity to attack merchant ships far from coastal waters,” the IMB’s July report said.
The first successful hijacking of a merchant ship by Somali pirates since 2012 occurred in March when an oil tanker was seized off the coast of Somalia.
Incidents off Yemen this year included a small boat that exploded in May after a foiled attack on a tanker. Another oil tanker being targeted by three rocket-propelled grenades fired from a boat in June and a suspected Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi frigate off the Yemen coast in January.