Bab Al-Mandab Crises: Interview With Ghanem Nuseibeh
In an interview with Ghanem Nuseibeh, Founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, the expert on Gulf issues provided insight into the current crises over the Bab al-Mandab straits. After Saudi Arabian oil tankers were targeted Wednesday by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the Kingdom responded by halting oil shipments via the Red Sea.
MECRA: Where do you see this crises heading?
GN: The crises has a potential to escalate and then it will be difficult for any side to step back because it would look like a defeat. Because of the Donald Trump and Qasem Soleimani exchange of words, if not contained it could lead to military confrontation.
I know there are some UK and European diplomats now [working on the crises] and the Europeans want to de-escalate it because of security implications of war and because of trade that goes through there. So it is economic, political and security; the US is the one that has least to worry about an immediate impact.
In terms of who this impacts it is the Gulf and Europe. The Gulf states have had enough of the Iranians and won’t de-escalate, so we have to wait for Europe. The Gulf won’t de-escalate because they have US support. So if the Iranians de-escalate how will they do it? Will they make sure the Houthis won’t hit more ships? And will Europeans go to Saudis and tell them that?
In terms of how that happens, will there be public announcements, one is behind the scenes and one the outside world, so will the statement be retracted, will they say the Iranians, Saudis agree to de-escalate.
So these rising tensions could quietly go away?
That’s more likely than military confrontation, with Europeans working hard to make sure that happens. It is a test to see how effective the Europeans can be.
Why did the Saudis stop shipping?
There are cost implications, many of the ships are not just Saudi Arabia’s, the implications are insurance costs, the numbers would have shot up dramatically. There is a direct and immediate financial impact. Now that again depends on how serious the Iranians are, they could quietly apologize and then the Europeans might be convinced and tell the Saudis, but if that doesn’t happen that’s a different story. The Saudis think the attack was deliberate.
The IRGC’s Qasem Soleimai makes it seem both go together, his threats and the Houthi attack.
Absolutely, he’s the strong man and mouthpiece of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamanei and should be taken more seriously than [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani.
Saudi Arabia is on the front line
What about the UAE?
Saudi Arabia is on the front line. There is a commercial and political element. The longer it takes, the more the political side has to step up. It is early days. Let’s see how long this is going to take. My feeling it is more of a concern then it could be a non-commercial problem. The UAE may be saying let’s wait and see and Saudis think it is more serious and both are doing risk assessment.
The question is what are the acceptable risks. The Kuwaitis or Saudis may think that if the Houthis are prepared to hit those in Red Sea then why not elsewhere? Soleimani indicated they [the Iranians] are there [in Yemen] directly.
Obviously the Iranians were not ready to strike at the Straits of Hormuz. That’s a bigger risk. It hasn’t reached that level of escalation. This is a mid-way between; but again would the Iranians reach that point where they would block off Hormuz? That would mean a direct war. There are many question marks. We are at that point that publicly European diplomacy is presenting the incident as if it is not the Iranians really. If it was in the Straits of Homruz there is no ambiguity and the Europeans could not be able to mediate.
The Houthis are a proxy for Iran in this sense?
Yes. There is that buffer and that gives the Europeans and even Russians to say there is a question mark about what happened in the Red Sea. There is no 100% justification for war with Iran.
Is the battle for Hodeidah connected to the incident?
100%, absolutely, and it is such a strategic battle. It is a message the Houthis are saying they don’t wan to lose Hodeidah and that and the port is a strategic asset for the Iranians. You can look at it as a warning shot. It’s a serious threat. If the Iranians start with warning shots then you must be ready for proper attacks.
And it is not the first time?
Absolutely but yes they take it seriously.