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Geostrategic and geopolitical maritime scenarios in the Middle East and North Africa

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An interview with Rear Admiral (rtr) PhD. Romulus HALDAN – Gfocusmagazine

  1. As a military analyst and military maritime strategist, what do you consider to be the most important geostrategic and geopolitical threats facing the ports and straits of the Middle East? What are the possible solutions in your opinion?

A: Ports and straits are part of what we call “sea lanes” and are by far the most sensitive elements of them. While ports are sensitive elements of varying importance, depending on the size of the port and its economic, geopolitical and geostrategic importance at local or regional level, straits are elements of capital importance, which go beyond their specific regionality and become key elements in the international geopolitical and geostrategic equation. In the literature, straits are considered ‘chokepoints’ and, of the nine such chokepoints, one third are located in the Middle East area (the Strait of Babel-Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal). The most eloquent expression of these ‘hotspots’ is what military strategists call ‘mandatory crossing points’. The most important geopolitical and geostrategic threats facing the ports and straits of the Middle East are war and terrorism.
Terrorism, whether internal, external or combined, is limited in area but far-reaching in its effects on targets and the possibility of repeated attacks over time. For example, the sinking of a ship in the Suez Canal does not require space or rather large volume, but can block navigation for long periods of time.
War, especially when it also involves military forces from other areas, in practice, in addition to massive physical destruction, where ports are the most exposed and vulnerable, generates, through the established actions of war at sea (interdiction and blockade), huge economic losses, the collapse of the economy of states that are directly or indirectly subject to interdiction and blockade, and even human and environmental disasters which, admittedly more limited, can also be the consequences of terrorism. While the maritime ban has effects in a particular direction and usually manifests itself before military action is taken, the blockade is much more far-reaching, with devastating effects and long-lasting effects.
Nor should we ignore, although it is not a primary element, acts of robbery at sea (piracy and armed robbery at sea), which can not only affect ports and strait traffic economically, but can also fuel terrorism and generate wars. We have used for the first time in the literature, in several scholarly articles and recently in the forthcoming “Treatise on Maritime Security”, the term “robbery at sea” as a generic term for piracy and armed robbery at sea, as they are the same act but carried out in different maritime jurisdictions (high seas – piracy and national maritime jurisdictions – armed robbery at sea).
The countries of the Middle East, regardless of whether they have access to the Planetary Ocean or only to it, must, in my opinion, regardless of their differences, address the issue of the security of maritime communications routes in the area in a united manner, especially by combating terrorism of all kinds, including on religious grounds and, in particular, by avoiding war. Wealth in peacetime is obviously better than wealth in wartime. War does not bring wealth to anyone, except apparently! Not even to the one who wins it!

  1. Which countries in the Middle East and North Africa have commercial and military fleets capable of securing maritime trade routes?

A: It is not easy to give a clear-cut answer to this question. I could express my own opinion, but certainly, while some may agree with me, others may rightly express other opinions, establish other criteria for analysis and develop other hierarchies. And that is no bad thing!
That is why I will try to express only my own opinion, not a sum or a collection of similar opinions, considered as the majority. What I state, it is good to be passed through one’s filter, because there is not, and it is not good to have a “magister dixit” opinion.
In analysing the subject launched by your question, we must start from the way in which each country in the Middle East and North Africa determines its national interests in the naval field, how it realises them and, of course, how it promotes, supports and, above all, defends them.

Here we have the following cases:
a) Major naval powers promoting, supporting and defending their interests throughout the Planetary Ocean;
b) Zonal naval powers that promote their national interests zonally and internationally, but may support and defend them only in a specific area;
c) National naval powers that promote their national interests in their areas of maritime jurisdiction, and sometimes also zonally and internationally, but only very limited;
d) States that are not maritime powers – these either have neither military nor merchant fleets, confining themselves to small-scale economic activities (such as traditional fishing), within national maritime jurisdictions (usually only within territorial waters), and providing a minimum of maritime security through elements of border police and elements of national naval authority
However large your merchant fleet may be, if you do not have a military fleet (including border police/coastguard vessels and possibly, depending on the specifics of each country, other military naval structures) that is adequate, structured, sized and equipped according to your own maritime interests, and that ensures your own maritime trade routes, especially from the point of view of security and, by extension, safety (this is the effect of security measures), you cannot in practice talk about the security of your communication routes.
In the work “Treatise on Maritime Security”, which I mentioned above, the issue of maritime security is dealt with in detail over 800 pages. I have pointed this out because the subject is too vast and complex to deal with in a few sentences here.
In the Middle East and North Africa we do not have countries that can be nominated as major naval powers, but we do have one zonal naval power, Turkey, and three emerging zonal naval powers, the first being Egypt, which, in addition to its merchant fleet, is already developing a sizeable naval force. It has two military fleets in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea respectively, each with four naval bases. The process of modernising and equipping its fleets with high-performance vessels, such as the Mistral project ship, is well under way and will position Egypt as a regional naval power. If the situation in Libya stabilises, it will certainly build a naval force that, in alliance with Egypt, can be a definite naval power in the southern and eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, a joint naval action of these two countries with Turkey (unlikely at this point) will significantly change the geopolitical and geostrategic equation in the southern and eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, a joint action of the three countries with the Russian Federation will radically change the geopolitical and geostrategic equation in the Mediterranean Basin, practically taking NATO out of the equation, which will facilitate the domination of the Mediterranean by the Russian Federation and its exit with a Fleet in the Atlantic Ocean for the strategic repositioning it has long been pursuing. A simple but careful reading of the Russian Federation’s naval doctrine will show that my statement is not at all far-fetched.
Saudi Arabia is also moving towards the status of a zonal naval power, with its two fleets and two large naval bases in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea respectively. But it still has insufficient naval forces to control the sea lanes in the two areas. While in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman it can count on the support of some of the emirates in the area (it is fairly limited in terms of naval force and area of action), it has divergent problems with Iran, which threaten the security of the area and fragment the unified approach to a regional security. Iran has a naval force that is tending to evolve zonally, especially in terms of the number of ships and less in terms of their combat strength, but it clearly has a strong supporter in the Russian Federation. The fact that it enjoys peace in the Caspian Sea, thanks to good relations with the Russian Federation in particular, means that the focus of naval force development is in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman area.
A positive stabilisation of relations between states in the area, and in particular a positive stabilisation of Iran-Saudi Arabia relations, would be the determining factor in achieving maritime communications security in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman area, virtually eliminating the two dominant elements that provide insecurity: war and terrorism.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia will be able to shift the focus of its efforts to secure maritime communications in the western region, i.e. the Red Sea, especially as it has good relations with Egypt. The future of the Arab world, which encompasses both North Africa and much of the Middle East, is shaped by the evolution of relations between states in the region and, in particular, the elimination of the possibility of war.
Concerted action by these states, and in particular their naval forces, can also create favourable security conditions in their maritime jurisdictions (and beyond), which will determine the optimum security situation for maritime communications in these areas. And it can be done, although it seems utopian. If hegemonic claims of “elder brother” and “first among equals”, religious disputes that should be the business of clerics, not states, and various unproductive external friendships are abandoned, I am convinced that the Arab world can become an oasis of peace! Politicians should read the holy books more carefully, not adapt them according to their wishes! And this is true everywhere in the world!
The other Arab countries in the North African area and the Middle East have naval forces only for securing the communication routes in their national maritime jurisdictions, especially in their territorial waters and contiguous area and limited or extremely limited in their own exclusive economic zone.
It should be noted that, although merchant fleets are basic components of the naval power of states, as are other components, the decisive component remains the naval force (here including coastguard-type structures and those of civil naval authorities).

  1. How do you foresee the scenarios that may become reality in the event of asymmetric events and a possible military conflict between Iran and Israel? What effects could these manifestations have on the straits and sea lanes of the Middle East?

A: I am one of the few who do not believe in a military conflict between Israel and Iran because neither Israel nor Iran has any interest in being involved in an armed conflict, which they know would result in the destruction of one or both countries.
Each is trying to position itself in the geopolitical and geostrategic equation of the area, in the sense that “Israel fights Islamic state terrorism to survive as a state and defend the world from this scourge” on the one hand, and “Iran fights and saves the Islamic world from the danger posed by the aggressor state Israel!” on the other. In my opinion, both assertions are false and are, as I stated earlier, nothing but pretexts for geopolitical and geostrategic positioning. Suppose Israel attacks and destroys Iran. What would it end up with? Nothing but a massive retaliation by the Islamic states in the area, which would not wait to become the next target. This means, first and foremost, a full-scale and long-lasting conflict, which Israel, even with foreign help, cannot afford.
If we look at the other perspective, i.e. Iran destroying Israel, do we have the same question? What would it end up with? Of course, with a full-scale conflict involving Israel’s traditional allies and a long-lasting war for which it does not have the resources, even with external support! The Russian Federation, in both cases, will not get directly involved, but will only be looking for opportunities.
The most plausible are asymmetric conflicts, which are very difficult to counter and, above all, to establish their identity. These too are manifesting themselves in all their forms and will continue to do so in the future, with greater or lesser intensity and persistence, depending on the geopolitical and geostrategic games played by players with interests in the area. Peace means prosperity, but it must also be understood that, at the same time, for others, conflicts in the region mean prosperity and new opportunities.
For example, a total blockade of Iran would lead to the transport of oil via land routes, which would be profitable for those who own these routes and, of course, the specific infrastructure.
Another example: a full-scale Israeli conflict with the Arab world would inevitably lead to Israel’s access being blocked to the sea routes and even to the exploitation of gas resources in the Mediterranean and the entire Red Sea, with the port of Eilat in an extremely vulnerable position.
As a result, the only rational solution is peace and the understanding that it is everyone’s right to live. But human nature is conflicted and will not change at all. The important thing is to avoid conflict as much as possible and that the desire for hegemony is just a foolish and vain approach. Nobody is eternal and nothing is eternal!. Sea lanes and their particular very important element, straits, are certainly affected by any form of conflict, symmetric or asymmetric. The two straits I have mentioned cannot in practice be closed, but they can become dangerous from the point of view of navigation, and blocking the Suez Canal would be irresponsible, as it would provoke a response from other states (usually with considerable economic and military power) which, for various reasons (particularly economic and military), see their interests jeopardised and their economic profits diminished.
I reiterate that the most vulnerable elements of the seaways remain the ports and these are targeted as a priority in the event of symmetrical or asymmetrical conflicts.
A viable solution would be for all “chokepoints” to be protected by law, following the example of the 1936 Montreaux Convention and the 1982 Montego Bay Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Here, as several coastal states are involved, the conventions must be signed by all these states and the obligations undertaken and strictly observed. Moreover, on the basis of these conventions, it is possible, by mutual agreement, to remove from the area those who initiate and support conflicts that have nothing to do with the interests of the states in the area.

  1. US President Joe Biden, on a tour of the Middle East, held a series of meetings with Israeli and Arab leaders. During these talks, President Biden confirmed that the United States will not leave a free space in the region for China and Russia. How do you comment on the US leader’s position in terms of manifestations of maritime power in the region

A: Joe Biden’s position is an expression of US interests and US geopolitical and geostrategic choice and nothing else. The Middle East, as long as it breeds conflict, is at the mercy of the US, which plays the role of the masked eagle in the dove of peace, but for a price. The emergence of other competitors to play this role, but with less violence and greed, creates strong competition for this role, and the US tries to get rid of the competition by convincing the target states geopolitically and geostrategically, especially with arguments that are more valid electorally than diplomatically.
The states in the region do not want ‘strategic partners’, but the existing conflictual relations in the region and the simmering conflicts make each of them look for a ‘big brother’ who can guarantee them security at the moment. Of course that costs money!
The Russian Federation and China are not only in competition with the US, they are in competition with each other, and this competition is also in full swing in the Middle East. The fact that they are in a non-aggressive competition is exclusively due to the US, which is their common adversary. And they will go together until they remove the US from its position as world leader and limit its room for manoeuvre (both economically, but also militarily, diplomatically, scientifically, etc.). Then the competition between them will begin! That’s for sure! What is uncertain is how this competition will evolve, which can take an elegant form, such as “we clash, but we don’t hit each other”, or other forms, going as far as the very aggressive “either me or you”.
The states in the area, in order to be the winners of the dispute between the big boys, have only one chance, which involves the following:

  • To have a unified and balanced approach to the geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic situation of the area, regulated by a common agreement;
  • Adopt a common approach to common security issues, including maritime communications security, which excludes the involvement of other forces outside the area;
  • Give equal treatment to the three (US, Russian Federation and China) and seek a balanced presence in economic activities in the area, avoiding military presence as far as possible
    The most unfortunate situation is the current one, where every state in the Middle East has a ‘big brother’, because automatically, competition between the big powers generates conflicts between the states dominated by them and the only winners are the ‘big brothers’, not the conflicting parties.
    As a matter of maritime power, the US basically wants to maintain its status as the only major maritime power, and that means a presence in the entire planetary ocean. And to do this, it is striving on all fronts, including the diplomatic front.
    China and the Russian Federation, at the moment, individually, are great naval powers, but, also individually, they cannot ensure their presence on the entire Planetary Ocean, the solution for the moment is joint action. And, as it turns out, it is being implemented in full.

In my opinion, China and the Russian Federation, after eliminating the US from the competition and dethroning it from the position of the only major maritime power on the entire Planetary Ocean, in order to avoid conflict, will divide their spheres of influence on the Planetary Ocean, establishing limits, zones, conditions and rules. Three of these rules will be mandatory and essential to avoid conflicts that may arise:

  • Each can sail freely in the other’s area, including with military vessels, enjoying full protection;
  • Neither side will build or use naval bases or place military equipment in the other’s area and will not engage in military cooperation with states in that area;
  • Regular joint exercises in both zones of influence as a sign of full confidence
    We have the example of the Arctic area, where the Russian Federation is practically dominant and where Chinese naval forces sail unhindered and conduct exercises together with Russian naval forces, and in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean area, where China is dominant, Russian naval vessels sail unhindered and conduct exercises together with Chinese naval vessels.
    It remains to be seen whether I am right or wrong. The future will provide the answer!
  1. In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, far-reaching geostrategic and geopolitical changes have occurred. What are the effects of this conflict on the security and stability of the sea lanes and straits, especially as they are considered major routes for transporting oil, gas and grain to importing countries?

A: The Black Sea has entered a security deficit zone as a result of this year’s events. Basically, it is still safe to sail throughout the Black Sea, except for Ukrainian maritime jurisdictions, and this is because the Russian Federation does not intend to enter into conflict with other countries bordering the Black Sea, as such a conflict would complicate the situation for the Russian Federation very much. However, the current situation suits the Russian Federation, which has complete freedom of manoeuvre and which, by the way Turkey applies the provisions of the 1936 Montreux Convention on the Regime of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, does not fear intervention by forces outside the Black Sea. In my opinion, Turkey has adopted a wise position and thus avoids a situation that would lead to the blockade of these straits, either by the Russian Federation or by other forces that would get involved in the conflict.
On the other hand, the chaotically executed mining by the Ukrainians has already created a danger to the safety of navigation in its maritime jurisdictions, especially in the Mykolaiv – Odessa area and, by extension, to the mouth of the Danube. Mines from the dams, which have already become a reality, are carried by currents mainly towards the coasts of Romania and Bulgaria, extending the area of danger and maritime insecurity.
The sea mines used by both Ukrainians are of ex-Soviet production, and there are certainly such mines in the Crimean deposits captured by the Russians. So it is possible that the Russians themselves are launching mines, in a premeditated manner, especially via the seven submarines at the Novorosiisk naval base, and then blaming the Ukrainians.
Another aspect, which is quite important but which no one has noticed, is the ease with which the Russian Federation has accepted the export of grain from Ukraine, especially through the port of Odessa. Apparently, it seems that the Russian Federation gave in for humanitarian reasons and thanks to the diplomatic insistence of Turkey and the UN.
In my opinion, bearing in mind that the laws of war do not allow for sentimentality, the following situations are possible:
(a) That the Russian Federation accepts this, obtaining in return certain concessions;
b) That the Russian Federation, apparently full of goodwill, but creates incidents on the sea lanes of communication on which the grain transport ships will travel, by launching mines, thus rendering the communication lanes inoperative and, implicitly, the transport activity, of course accusing Ukraine of having launched mines that have come off the dams and landed on the communication lanes in question;
(c) that the Russian Federation, on this occasion, determine the access routes to and from Ukrainian ports and then penetrate these routes and strike the ports and other military or civilian targets in the vicinity or even launch a disengagement operation, in conjunction with an airborne disengagement and ground attacks.

That is why the transport of grain shipped in the port of Constanta and then transported by sea routes from the jurisdictions of Romania and Bulgaria to the Bosphorus is the safest, but unfortunately the longest, slowest and with the lowest volume.
Returning to the straits, unfortunately, the Russian Federation, which also has naval forces in the Mediterranean, can block the straits not only from the Black Sea, but also from the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara. Fortunately, it has no interest in doing so, and Turkey manages this rather sensitive situation quite well.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that recently (31.07.2022), President Vladimir Putin signed the decree promulgating the new maritime doctrine of the Russian Federation, which basically means a much more decisive approach to the interests of the Russian Federation on the Planetary Ocean, as well as the fact that the Russian Federation intends to have “footholds” (in fact, naval bases) all over the world, especially in areas such as Africa and South America. This means a new reconfiguration of the geopolitical and geostrategic equation on the Planetary Ocean and, by implication, for the Middle East as well, and countries in the area must be prepared to reposition themselves as favourably as possible in the new equation.

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