The “South Arabia” linchpin in global maritime competition
The recent extension of the Strategic Framework Agreement between Oman and the United States is a real game-changer for global balances, especially from a maritime perspective. In the defense agreement of March 2019, the US will be granted access to ports and airports in the Sultanate with a specific focus on the Duqm port, which is able to host US aircraft carriers. This clearly improves the US strategic position in the sub-region, which is at the crossroads of the Gulf, Africa and Southern Asia. Under the previous agreement, signed in 1980 and last renewed in 2010, the US could access, with advance notice and for specific reasons, the military airfields of Muscat, Thumrait, Masirah Island and Musnanah.
“South Arabia”, comprising the coasts of Oman and Yemen, has decisively re-entered the international maritime competition. For this reason, Oman, one of the safest Arab countries, and the conflict-torn Yemen are at the center of the geopolitical interests of regional and global powers.
South Arabia has a unique geographical location: relying on facilities and bases along this rimland allows not only commercial and military projection in the Western Indian Ocean and beyond, but also the possibility to better protect oil trade and freedom of navigation through critical straits like the Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb. These are theaters of rising threats from, respectively, Iran’s “asymmetric warfare” and Yemen’s Houthi missiles, unmanned remote-controlled boat attacks and water mines in the Southern Red Sea.
Looking at the regional balance, the American-Omani deal on port facilities can be framed in Washington’s political and economic escalation against Iran, after the US unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Tehran in 2018 and the US designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019. For the United States, access to the Duqm and Salalah ports increases naval projection (as well as the ability to protect waterways) in case of a military showdown with Iran and/or the need to offer military support to regional allies (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Israel) vis-à-vis Tehran. Importantly, however, is the fact that Oman and Iran signed a security pact in 2010 on patrolling cooperation in Hormuz. Muscat remains a friendly neighbor of Tehran: in April 2019, Oman and Iran agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding for military cooperation, also performing envisaging combined naval exercises.
Moreover, this deal helps the United States to contain China’s infrastructural expansion along the Eastern African coasts, sending a signal to Moscow as well as Russia aims to establish a military outpost in the sub-region. As a result, the US-Oman agreement is very strategic for Washington, since it combines security, economic and commercial interests.
The port and industrial city of Duqm, still under construction, has rapidly become “the place to be” in the Western Indian Ocean, thanks also to the creation of the Special Economic Zone Authority of Duqm (SEZAD). This supports Muscat’s willingness to confirm its neutral position in regional politics, with an eye to regime security given the looming, complex succession process to Sultan Qaboos. For instance, the United Kingdom has been opening a permanent military base in Duqm, a logistics and training facility with hundreds of British troops to be deployed, as part of its “East of Suez” come-back. Before the Americans, London signed a deal with the Sultanate in 2017 to allow the British navy to use the port. India did the same in 2018, in the framework of its anti-Chinese connectivity strategy.
From a business and non-oil perspective, the China-Oman industrial park in Duqm will host manufacturing industries, although the amount of Chinese investments there is reportedly quite low and slower than expected. Iran and Oman are also envisaging possible joint ventures in the Duqm industrial area (for instance, a car production plant). The SEZAD also plans to contain an oil refinery (an Omani-Kuwaiti joint project), food processing units and a tourism zone.
South Arabia’s Yemeni coasts are also of great interest for regional and international powers. The Southern rimland of Yemen is not affected by the civil war, which has just entered its fifth year. In fact, the multilayered conflict has opened windows of geopolitical opportunity in war-saved areas in terms of commercial infrastructures (ports, airports, oil and gas terminals) and potential linchpins for military projection, especially for the UAE. In Yemen, Abu Dhabi’s Special Forces have led ground operations in the South against the Houthis (Aden, Summer 2015) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (since 2016, as in Mukalla), backing and training local militias. By doing so, the Emiratis have managed to build strong linkages with local intermediaries on the ground, with particular regard to southern secessionists and Salafi forces.
Thanks to the Emirati-supported militias, the UAE have turned into the most influential player along Yemen’s Southern coasts, de facto controlling many commercial ports (mainly Aden, Mukalla and Ash Shihr in Hadhramawt) and the coastal area neighboring the oil export terminal of Bir ‘Ali (Hadhramawt) and the LNG terminal of Balhaf (Shabwa). The UAE also built an airstrip on the island of Perim, in the Bab el-Mandeb strait, starting investments and military build-up in Socotra, the UNESCO-protected Yemeni island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Saudi Arabia has also sent military forces to Mahra, Yemen’s most eastern region at the border with Oman and is trying to counterbalance the Emirati expansionism also in Socotra: the Saudis are investing in the enlargement of the Ghayda and Nishtun ports (plus the Ghayda airport), while the project for a pipeline conveying the Saudi oil directly on a Mahra-located terminal caused discontent among locals.
In March 2019, the British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, travelled to Aden: it was the first time for a UK foreign secretary since 1996. In the meantime, a delegation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), headed by the former Aden Governor Aydarous al-Zubaidi, was in London to meet representatives of the Southern diaspora. The STC is the Aden-based and Emirati-informally backed institutional council claiming for southern independence (although formally supporting the internationally-recognized government of Yemen). Russia announced plans to re-open the consulate in Aden: in southern Yemeni regions, Moscow could capitalize on a strong partnership with the United Arab Emirates. On the contrary, the United States denied the possibility of opening a consulate in the port city, reaffirming their commitment to a unified Yemen. Asian powers are also interested in fluid coastal balances: oil export from Yemen resumed in 2016 and, more consistently, since 2018 onwards (Masila oilfields), has reached China, Japan and Singapore, a long-time importer of Yemeni crude oil.
The rush of regional and international powers on South Arabia generates implications at the interplay of global and domestic politics. First of all, gaining a strengthened geostrategic relevance, this sub-region is likely to experience further militarization (for instance, with new deals on military facilities and the opening of other permanent bases), as has already occurred on the coasts of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. This adds a “hard power” variable in an area of great economic and trade importance. Secondly, this geopolitical competition among global powers can produce new fault lines and polarization within communities (in fractured countries such as Yemen), empowering indirectly specific local players instead of others, as in the case of the port cities of Aden and Mukalla, where Emirati-backed separatist militias already have the upper hand in urban settings.
In ancient times, South Arabia dominated cross-regional trade due to the Frankincense route. Nowadays, this same sub-region has turned into the linchpin for regional and international powers’ geostrategic projection, through maritime infrastructures and military facilities. For this reason, and despite US President Donald Trump and his advisers overlooking the moderate, “third way” Sultanate at the beginning of the administration, the strategic partnership between the United States and Oman is growing and Duqm’s project is likely to have a long geopolitical road ahead.