Bab al-Mandab is the fourth most important waterway for the oil trade — with 7 per cent of the world’s seaborne-traded petroleum passing through the strait. Around 21,000 marine vessels make their way through Bab al-Mandab annually, making it one of the backbones of the non-oil global trade.
Like many ancient names, there is no consensus regarding the name attributed to this south entrance into the Red Sea: Bab al-Mandab, known as Gate of Tears in English. Myths abound, but most agree that the name, al-Mandab, which means to mourn, lament or weep in Arabic, describes a history of mourning ships which have run aground, as well as those who perished while attempting to cross or were lost to the slave trade.
The eye of this strait, Perim Island, also known as Mayyun in Arabic, provides another story. It divides the strait into two channels, Bab Iskender from the east, and Mayyun from the west towards Djibouti. At its southwestern end is a natural harbor, Dact-el-Mayyun. The history of the island’s name, Mayyun, remains unknown and is not mentioned in ancient Yemeni inscriptions. Some believe, however, that the name Mayyun is derived from the root wanā in Arabic, which means to weaken or fade, as the winds fade through the channel. Whereas the name Perim is said to have foreign roots.
The Sheikh in the story
From the humble tomb of a Sufi sheikh called Sheikh Said comes the name of the volcanic horn in the far southwest coast of Yemen on Bab al-Mandab. In Rihani’s 1924 book, Kings of the Arabs, the island is mentioned as Sheikh Said Island.
In 1868, a French merchant and diplomat from Marseille sought to acquire this land to establish a French colony and set up an export base. He is said to have attempted to buy the territory — estimated to be the size of a six-hour walk in the shape of an arc — from the region’s elders. However, the deal never took place as it was faced with hostility from the Ottomans, who controlled the port of Mocha to the north, and led to clashes with the British, who had established their colony in Aden in 1839.
Today, in modern maps, Sheikh Said is called Ras Menheli, which is the eastern point of Bab al-Mandab. Three kilometers into the waterway, we arrive at the Bab Iskandar Pass, with a depth of 30 m, and then comes the arid volcanic island of Mayyun, with a length of approximately 5 km. The island takes its name from Dact-el-Mayyun, a harbor on the southwestern side of the island. Sometimes it is mistakenly referred to as Daqat-el-Mayyun, but Dact, which means ‘bench’ in Arabic, is more accurate because in geological terms it means a relatively level land, similar to Dact-el-Mualla in the port of Aden.
Following Mayyun to the west is a deeper maritime extension, the international corridor of Bab al-Mandab, with a length of 26 km towards the coastland of Obock. Part of modern-day Djibouti, the Obock region continuously changed hands during the past two centuries. It was formerly known as the Region of Adl, then later Afar Region and Al-Issa or French Somalia, after it was seized by the French in 1862. It wasn’t until 1977 that it became part of the independent Arab African Republic of Djibouti.
Bab al-Mandab serves as a strategic link between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, and a point of rivalry between regional powers that attempt to control trade routes and sea lanes.
The climate and geographic characteristics along the two banks of the sea in Bab al-Mandab are similar. Life is difficult in the region, where extreme heat is common, humidity is rare, and the rainy season is accompanied by strong winds. The land is characterized by the absence of vegetation, scarcity of fresh water, and arid volcanic terrain as once described by French adventurer Henry de Monfreid.
Due to the difficult climate on both banks, ports and coastal communities have historically settled slightly inland. The port of Mocha lies in the northeast, and opposite it is the port of Massawa in the northwest. Both are connected by a plateau, and form a vital artery along the coast. The port of Aden is on the southeast side and the ports of Tajoura and Zayla in the northwest.
The islands in the north of Bab al-Mandab have had an important role throughout history. Among these islands are the island of Qumran, which later became Kamaran island, Dahlak Archipelago, and Hanish Archipelago. Qumran was held by the Ottomans, then by the British, where it was one of the stops on Queen Elizabeth’s honeymoon journey at the beginning of the last century. For a long time, the island was used a quarantine station for pilgrims arriving by sea from East Asia.
Bab al-Mandab strait is located in the southern part of the Red Sea. It is a natural strait of no more than 32 km formed during the process of the Red Sea Rift and the divergence between the plates of East Africa and Arabia. The geographical concept of the Bab al-Mandab extends 150 km to the north of the strait and connects to the Gulf of Aden in the south, spanning four countries: Yemen to the east, Somalia and Djibouti to the south and southwest, and Eritrea to the west.
Before talking about Bab al-Mandab, in terms of characteristics and geostrategic importance as a link between southwest Asia and Africa, we will start with the history of the Red Sea which flows through the narrow strait.
The Eritrean Sea and the riddle of history
The name Red Sea is mentioned in Greek sources in Tigrinya. The color red may be in reference to the south point, according to ancient color-coded compasses, as opposed to black, which is the color of the north point. In earlier time periods, the Red Sea held the name Bahr al-Qalzam after the Suez Qalzum, now called the Gulf of Suez.
Besides the roads of land trade, fleets of boats and ships crossed the Red Sea carrying spices, silk, emerald, myrrh and other goods that travelled from the land of Yemen, Dhofar, and Somalia. Imports from lands as far as India and East Asia also travelled towards Egypt and the Mediterranean, bringing goods such as ebony and timber. The Red Sea route also served as a way station for the slave trade between the African and Asian coasts into Arab lands and beyond.
The magnitude of commercial and cultural exchange between the civilizations across both sides of the Red Sea meant that the stories, myths, and glories were shared and disputed, as is the case with the legend of the Queen of Sheba. Religions, languages, and goods travelled across the sea in both directions.
However, there are no inscriptions or historical sources from Southern Arabia or from the eastern bank of Africa describing the role of the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab in terms of cultural exchange and convergence between the two banks.
This remains a mystery until today, especially as there are archaeological finds and large obelisks in the African bank of Aksum and in the port of Adoulis in Eritrea, written in Musnad, the ancient South Arabian script. In addition, on the other side of the bank, archaeological inscriptions describing the history of Ethiopians in the region were found in Yemen and Najran. At the dawn of Islam, Abyssinia became a haven for believers; however, history was mostly narrated about the land, and maritime history remains scarce.
The Red Sea had far reaching effects and was the subject of great interest in world trade among historical empires. Over the centuries, each empire directed its attention towards the Red Sea as an access route for ships traveling towards the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Gulf, and worked to control it commercially and militarily. This continued throughout the era of ancient Egyptians until the Greeks, then the Ptolemaic dynasty, and then the Romans. However, some historical studies dispute the existence of Pharaonic archaeological finds in Damloun in Bahrain.
The Red Sea was semi-enclosed, and not connected to the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout their rule, surrounding empires were keen on preventing ships from India and China from passing through, in order to maintain the importance of Aden and Suez as the main cargo ports. However, the Pharaonic canal Wadi Tumailat once connected the northern Red Sea with the waters of the Nile over successive periods from 2 BC until the rule of King Necho in 600 BC, and also throughout the Islamic era. But sediment frequently silted the canal and it had to be repeatedly cleared, until Khedive Ismail eventually silted it completely, 30 years after the opening of the Suez Canal.
During the period of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, the Red Sea witnessed a period of strategic importance with the East. It took place during the visit of the Chinese admiral Zheng He (1405–1433), who descended from a Chinese Muslim family and was also known by his Islamic name, Haji Mahmoud Shams. The admiral entered the Red Sea ports, docked his ships in Jeddah, and together with a group of his Muslim associates went on an expedition to visit the holy places in Mecca and Medina. It was during this period that the famous Arab sailor Ibn Majid was born. Ibn Majid laid the foundations of knowledge for sailing through the Arabian seas and the Indian Ocean. His substantial body of knowledge was the richest at the time and was developed at the height of the Arab and Muslim command of sea and of naval strength. But Majid was not enthusiastic about the Red Sea. In fact, he described it as one of the “dirtiest seas”, in reference to its extensive coral reefs.
With the arrival of the Portuguese to the Indian Ocean in 15 AD, the dominance of the Arabs over maritime trade ended, and the importance of Bab al-Mandab along the Red Sea declined due to the discovery of an alternative route through the Cape of Good Hope.
This decline was exacerbated when the Ottomans rushed to station their units on both banks of Bab al-Mandab. The Red Sea was closed to European ships, including the Portuguese, because of fear of losing the holy sites of Islam. As a result, the Red Sea turned into a securely enclosed Ottoman body of water until the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which led to the occupation of Egypt and Bab al-Mandab by Britain and France.
Later, Bab al-Mandab regained its importance with the opening of the Suez Canal, and once again returned as an important commercial marine artery. This importance was heightened with the discovery of oil, which placed the Arab Gulf region at the center of the energy industry in the world.
Stations of conflict and attempts of domination
Historically, the Mamluks monopolized the trade in spices, sugar, and other goods that were of high demand by Europeans and raised their value through taxation. Most of these goods came from or through the south of the Red Sea, which led Europeans to search for alternative paths. At the end of 15 AD the Cape of Good Hope was discovered, and as a result the Arabs and Mamluks lost much of their profits from the Red Sea trade route.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Portuguese attacked and sank Arab ships, and set up their fleets at the entrance to the Red Sea at Bab al-Mandab. In 1513, the Portuguese naval commander Alfonso de Albuquerque called the island Vera Cruz. The name is of Latin origin and literally means True Cross. However, their occupation did not last long due to the harsh climate and lack of fresh water, and soon after the Red Sea returned as a Mamluk protected region. For the remaining decades, the Ottomans would repeatedly close the Red Sea to European ships in order to protect the holy sites.
In 1799 the British East India Company placed its forces on Mayyun Island to prevent the French from reaching the Indian Ocean, and raised its fortification because their cannons were unable to target ships crossing the West Bank from Bab al-Mandab.
By 1839, the British had seized Aden and the Red Sea, and then settled in the heart of the southern part of the island of Kamaran. During the occupation of Mayyun Island, they set up a platoon and built a lighthouse, which was completed in 1861. During this time, the island was utilized as a station to supply ships with coal and gasoline. More than 20 years later, the French seized the coast of Obock, until it gained independence and became Djibouti in 1977. During that time, the French had attempted to buy Sheikh Said on the Yemeni side of Bab al-Mandab. As mentioned earlier, this deal never went through.
Thirty years later, the Italians seized the Ethiopian port of Assab. It was in 1869, which saw the opening of the Suez Canal. Bab al-Mandab thus became the center of power struggles between European powers, reinstating its importance as a strategic waterway.
However, all this did not prevent Mayyun from being a haven for piracy, which spread throughout the Red Sea until the beginning of the 20th century. During his reign, Imam Yahya, King of Yemen, pledged to combat the activity of the pirates in exchange for interests guaranteed by the Italians who had control over the African bank on the south side of the Red Sea.
In the second half of the 20th century, Britain and Italy lost their colonies in the south of the Red Sea, and returned Bab al-Mandab to the sovereignty of its people, while France remained in Djibouti until the mid-1970s.
More recently, in the modern era, three events demonstrated the strategic importance of the Red Sea. First, the Arab-Israeli wars and the resulting attack on French armory by Djiboutian independence forces in the mid-1950s. Second, the Egyptian closure of Bab al-Mandab during its war with Israel as an international security strategy, which was later reinforced by America’s policy in combating terrorism. This leads us to the third, as America took Djibouti as a position for its military presence, a strategy that was attempted earlier by France.
Currently, Djibouti hosts more than six international military bases, including Chinese and Japanese bases — two countries with an international military presence for the first time.
Despite the neighboring events, Djibouti has maintained a relative stability and managed to become an important security platform for international naval activities. In the process, Djibouti linked the success of its stability to the international military presence on its soil. However, it also took advantage of its location as a port on the Horn of Africa, and developed an infrastructure that surpassed others in the region.
In fact, Djibouti benefited from the Eritrean regime’s closure of its regional waters and the turmoil in Somalia since the 1990s, despite the fact that Somalia has open ports on the Indian Ocean.
Throughout the years, Bab al-Mandab has also faced these challenges. Piracy in the Red Sea has made Bab al-Mandab and the Gulf of Aden saturated with international military presence to combat this phenomenon. Over time this has led to an increase in the internationalization and militarization of the region to a high degree.
Moreover, the ongoing civil war in Yemen, since 2014, has increased the level of security threats across the Red Sea, and Bab al-Mandab specifically. On one hand, Iran seeks to link Bab al-Mandab with the Strait of Hormuz through its Houthi aides and uses it as a pressure tool in regional power struggles. On the other hand, the participation of neighboring countries in the Gulf in the war in Yemen has raised the militarization of the area and widened the military involvement and interest of new actors.
Mayyun Island was one of the important military sites that the Houthis seized at the beginning of their power grab; but they were expelled by the Arab coalition in October 2015. Since then the United Arab Emirates has maintained a military base on the island.
The future of Bab al-Mandab
Bab al-Mandab, and the Red Sea as a whole, are again undergoing a test. New trade routes are being developed by the Chinese with the idea of providing two routes that run across sea and land. The presence of a New Silk Road would compete with the short sea lane from East Asia to Europe, which means the importance of Bab al-Mandab in trade routes could diminish.
In addition, the Red Sea lacks a unified security policy. First, the strategic withdrawal of the Americans from the Arab Gulf could leave a security vacuum in the Red Sea, in the absence of well-developed regional initiatives that could take over. In recent years several initiatives have emerged, but all have lacked cooperation and proper development. Second, other regional and international powers are rushing to establish security strategies in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and most are not necessarily in the interests of bordering countries.
It is difficult regionally to promote a regional security initiative for the Red Sea for several reasons. First, the State of Israel, which extends its control over a limited area in the northern Red Sea. As a coastal state that represents a deep historical conflict, it is difficult to establish a common or cooperative security strategy in the Red Sea. Second, the South Red Sea region is a region experiencing tension and infighting, especially within the territories of Yemen. Therefore, these countries cannot contribute to securing the Red Sea and participate in a regional security strategy, but rather, the opposite is true. The war in Yemen and the Houthi presence poses a threat to the security of the Red Sea. In addition, other countries bordering the Red Sea are suffering from economic collapse, which may amount to further instability.
Today, as Sheikh Said continues to lay in eternal rest in his tomb, the waves crash against the nearby rocks without end, and the surroundings of Bab al-Mandab are set ablaze and mired in conflict.
Mustafa Naji is a researcher and former Yemeni diplomat based in France.
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A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)