Iran’s hostile moves in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman have caused concerns in Egypt, where military strategists called for beefing up security in the Red Sea for better protection of maritime movement into the Suez Canal.
Egyptian officials said they expect the rise in Iranian belligerence in the Strait of Hormuz to increase dependence by international maritime on the Red Sea and the Suez Canal but those routes are far from immune from being disrupted.
“Iran will most likely use the Houthi militia to threaten the maritime movement in the region,” said Tarek Fahmi, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “The Houthis are Iran’s arm in this part of the world.”
Iranian activities in the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz have led world powers to consider an international naval force to protect maritime traffic.
Approximately 5 million barrels of oil cross the Bab el Mandeb Strait to the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean en route to international markets every day, the US Energy Information Administration said
Added to the 5.5 million barrels of oil that either cross the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean or are pumped into the SUMED pipeline to the Mediterranean every day, the importance of maritime routes in the region for the international economy becomes clear
In July 2018, the Houthis attacked two Saudi oil tankers off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, forcing Saudi Arabia to halt oil shipments through the Bab el Mandeb Strait
Regional tensions led Egypt to increase its presence at the southern entrance of the Red Sea. The tensions were probably why Egypt increased spending on modernising its navy. Cairo invested billions of dollars in helicopter carriers and speedboats from France and new submarines from Germany.
In January 2017, Egypt launched its southern naval fleet to increase security at the southern end of the Red Sea and protect Egyptian interests in the area.
“Egypt will not allow any threats to the security of the Red Sea,” said retired army General Hesham al-Halabi. “This area is crucially important for the Egyptian economy and the international economy.”
Cairo is reportedly in contact with allies in the Arabian Gulf on how to secure Arab interests in the region against growing Iranian threats.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said on numerous occasions that Egypt would not stand by and watch if the security of Arab countries was threatened.
On July 22, Egypt, the United States and the United Arab Emirates started major naval drills in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia is participating in the drills as an observer. Codenamed Eagle Salute, the drills were scheduled to last several days, Egyptian military spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifie said.
He said the drills were to include various Egyptian, US and UAE naval units, including frigates, missile boats and mine hunters. There were also special naval troops from the three countries involved.
It is not clear whether stepped-up Egyptian security moves in the Red Sea might place Egypt and Iran face to face. Nevertheless, Cairo feels obliged to curtail any threat to the international maritime in the region.
In 2014, Egypt spent billions of dollars to dig a parallel channel to the Suez Canal to allow two-way traffic in the passageway. Egypt plans to turn the canal zone into an international investment magnet through huge industrial, services and logistical projects.
Apart from the discovery of gigantic natural gas reserves off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, Cairo’s plans to become an international energy hub mean that Egyptian leaders will be keen on regional security, especially in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
“Iran works hard to blackmail the international community by increasing its aggressions in areas vital to the international economy,” said Egyptian counterterrorism expert Hatem Saber. “The sure thing is that Egypt will not allow anybody to mess with the security of the Red Sea.”