The Bab el-Mandeb (Bab al-Mandab) strait (12° 34' 34” North, 43° 21' 11” East) separates Africa (Djibouti and Eritrea), and Asia (Yemen), and connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Gulf of Aden.
The strait is strategically important because it is considered one of the world’s oil transit chokepoints. Bab el-Mandeb was the site for of a naval blockade of Israel by Egypt in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
In Arabic, Bab el-Mandeb means “Gate of Tears” referring to the strait’s precarious navigation. The strait is about 20 miles (32 km) wide. The island of Perim divides the strait, creating two channels: The eastern channel is called Alexander’s Strait (Bab Iskender) and is 2 miles (3.2 km) wide. The western channel, Dact-el-Mayun, is 16 miles wide (25.6 km).
Oil Transit Chokepoint
Much of Europe’s crude oil from the Middle East passes through Bab el-Mandab. Closure of the straits could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal and Sumed Pipeline complex, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa (the Cape of Good Hope). This would add greatly to transit time and cost, and effectively tie up spare tanker capacity.
The Bab el-Mandab could be bypassed (for northbound oil traffic by utilizing an East-West crude oil pipeline, which traverses Saudi Arabia and has a capacity of about 4.8 million barrels per day (bbl/d). However, southbound oil traffic would still be blocked. In addition, closure of the Bab el-Mandab would effectively block non-oil shipping from using the Suez Canal, except for limited trade within the Red Sea region. Security remains a major concern of foreign firms doing business in the region, particularly after the French-flagged tanker Limburg was attacked off the coast of Yemen by terrorists in October 2002.
The Egyptian Navy imposed a blockade on Eilat, an important Israeli port by closing the Bab el-Mandab strait in the Yom Kippur War. The Egyptian Red Sea Destroyer made its way to the Bab el-Mandab strait on October 6, 1973 and remained there for seven months. The Egyptian Navy intercepted and prevented any importing or exporting of goods to and from Israel, including petroleum products.
Yemen is a non-OPEC oil producer whose economy depends heavily on its oil development. However, Yemen remains an insecure area—there have been several attacks on foreign ships, oil tankers, and pipelines. Yemen is also politically unstable. Any political upheaval could disrupt the flow of oil shipments through the strait, which would impact not just this region, but other countries that depend on the oil transported through Bab el-Mandeb. Such a disruption would also put upward pressure on world oil prices.
Bab Al-Mandab gained additional strategic importance as a result of the events of September 11, 2001. The US has developed significant military and intelligence centers in Djibouti and Somalia as part of its efforts to prevent attacks from Al-Qaeda in the Bab Al-Mandab region.