According to Arab legend the Bab-el-Mandeb or Gate of Tears waterway received its name from a massive earthquake that brought it into being, separating Africa from Asia at this point and drowning many thousands in the process.
Devastating as that must have been at the time, the quake was also setting up a problem that would exercise the minds of terrorism and security analysts thousands of years into the future.
Bab-el-Mandeb was an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity was the possibility of a new trade route between Asia and Europe that, even in modern times, cuts weeks off the sea journey. The threat was that whoever controls this 27-kilometre-wide strait could effectively hold the world to ransom.
We have enjoyed the opportunity offered by Bab-el-Mandeb ever since the cutting of the Suez Canal in the 19th Century completed the link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Now we have to deal with the threat.
And yet the West remains strangely oblivious to what is happening in Somalia and Yemen, one a failed state, the other teetering on the brink of becoming one, that are crucial to the safe passage of ships through Bab-el-Mandeb between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
That route, if interrupted, would have the potential to cripple the world’s economy. As an example, tankers carry some 3.3 million barrels of oil through the waterway every day, a significant proportion of all the oil that is moving on the world’s seaways at any one time.
Australian annual trade worth $25 billion annually would be affected by any shut-down or delayed passage. Veteran commentators will remember the chaos and economic dislocation caused by the closure of the Suez Canal after the Six Day War of 1967. Australia’s trade dependence on this route remains crucial today especially for the supply of European goods.
Pirates operating out of Somalia are but a warning of things to come. Indications are that al-Qa’ida may be moving more of its main base operations from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and, if it encounters too many problems there, on to Somalia. Press reports, based on comments by senior Somali officials, state that upwards of a dozen al-Qa’ida operatives have moved, with sizeable funds, to Somalia. These reports have the ring of truth, but need substantive intelligence-based confirmation.
Philip Eliason, a Canberra-based former diplomat and Middle East consultant who recently spent 13 months in Yemen, says that country is now the fulcrum in an arc of crisis running from Pakistan to northern Kenya. He believes there is an unsettling tolerance for al-Qa’ida’s ideology among the country’s mostly impoverished population.
Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a senior conservative cleric who is highly popular in the country, has been urging Yemenis to adhere to Osama Bin Laden’s goals. “He is too locally respected and powerful to be silenced despite being on a United States wanted list,” Eliason says.
“In addition, Yemenis who have fought in Afghanistan are held in high esteem.”
He doubts whether traditional government-to-government contacts work easily in Yemen. “The Government apparatus there is a shell. Yemen’s leading tribes, clans and families run the country’s affairs, in some cases like personal banks,” he said.
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