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Yemen is a growing reminder of just how important the strategic U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia really is. It is one thing to talk about the war against ISIS, and quite another to realize that U.S. strategic interests require a broad level of stability in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula and one that is dependent on Saudi Arabia as a key strategic partner.

Saudi Arabia has already taken an important lead in Yemen that will need U.S. support. Saudi Arabia and allies are now conducting air strikes in Yemen to try to halt the advance of a Houthi militia, with strong ties to Iran, which is attempting to end President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's efforts to relocate Yemen's elected government to Aden.

Saudi Arabia has formed a coalition of more than 10 countries try to protect the Hadi government. It has also taken the lead in getting the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar to sign a joint statement supporting Saudi Arabia's announcement of military action. Moreover, Reuters reports that Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan have said they have forces involved in the operation; that Sudan has pledged ground troops and warplanes; and that Pakistan is considering a Saudi request to send ground forces. Some reports say that Morocco will send combat aircraft as well.

The United States has already said it would give logistical and intelligence support, but the situation in Yemen may well come to require more than that, and some kind of U.S. combat support as well as U.S. diplomatic pressure on Iran. Once again, the United States is finding out that calling for strategic partnership is not a way of avoiding its role as a world power. One cannot establish partnerships without being a partner.

Saudi Arabia as a Strategic Partner

To put Yemen in a broader strategic context, the crisis in Yemen is only part of the U.S.-Saudi strategic equation. U.S.- Saudi partnership and cooperation is critical in building some form of deterrence and strategic stability to contain Iran in the Gulf. Any nuclear agreement will not affect the need for close cooperation between the United States, Saudi Arabia and other key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in dealing with the broader and active threat Iran poses in terms of conventional forces, asymmetric warfare, missiles, and strategic influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait play a key role in stabilizing Egypt and Jordan, and U.S., Saudi, and UAE cooperation in arms transfers - along with bases and the force of the other Gulf states - are creating military capabilities and interoperability that both reduce the need for future U.S. power projection and greatly enhances the capability of any forces the United States deploys.

At the same time, Yemen is of major strategic importance to the United States, as is the broader stability of Saudi Arabia all of the Arab Gulf states. For all of the talk of U.S. energy "independence," the reality remains very different. The increase in petroleum and alternative fuels outside the Gulf has not changed its vital strategic importance to the global and U.S. economy.

It has reduced the Gulf's share of total global petroleum output, but the Middle East still produced 32.2% of the world total in 2013, amounting to 28.358 billion barrels per day (bbl/d). The GCC members (excluding Bahrain) produced 23.9% of the world's total oil in 2013, amounting to 21.234 billion bbl/d, while Iran's production amounted to another 4% of the global total, or 3.558 billion bbl/d.

The Broader Strategic Importance of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula

From a strategic viewpoint, the flow of oil and gas tanker traffic out of the Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz remains the world's most important energy chokepoint. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) also reported in November 2014 that an average of 167 million barrels worth of oil a day passed through the Strait of Hormuz, and that:

  • -The Strait of Hormuz is the world's most important oil chokepoint because of its daily oil flow of 17 million barrels per day in 2013. Flows through the Strait of Hormuz in 2013 were about 30% of all seaborne-traded oil.
  • -EIA estimates that more than 85% of the crude oil that moved through this chokepoint went to Asian markets, based on data from Lloyd's List Intelligence tanker tracking service.6 Japan, India, South Korea, and China are the largest destinations for oil moving through the Strait of Hormuz.
  • -Qatar exported about 3.7 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) per year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) through the Strait of Hormuz in 2013, according to BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2014.7 This volume accounts for more than 30% of global LNG trade. Kuwait imports LNG volumes that travel northward through the Strait of Hormuz.
  • -At its narrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz is 21 miles wide, but the width of the shipping lane in either direction is only two miles wide, separated by a two-mile buffer zone. The Strait of Hormuz is deep and wide enough to handle the world's largest crude oil tankers, with about two-thirds of oil shipments carried by tankers in excess of 150,000 deadweight tons.

The Strait of Hormuz and Continued U.S. Dependence on the Stable flow of Oil Exports

There are only a limited number of functioning pipelines that provide alternative export routes. They have limited capacity and most are currently operating to their present capacity or under serious military threat. The EIA reported in November 2014 that:

  • -Most potential options to bypass Hormuz are currently not operational. OnlySaudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) presently have pipelines able to ship crude oil outside of the Persian Gulf and have additional pipeline capacity to circumvent the Strait of Hormuz. At the end of 2013, the total available unused pipeline capacity from the two countries combined was approximately 4.3 million bbl/d.
  • -Saudi Arabia has the 746-mile Petroline, also known as the East-West Pipeline, which runs across Saudi Arabia from its Abqaiq complex to the Red Sea. The Petroline system consists of two pipelines with a total nameplate (installed) capacity of about 4.8 million bbl/d. The 56-inch pipeline has a nameplate capacity of 3 million bbl/d, and its current throughput is about 2 million bbl/d. The 48-inch pipeline had been operating in recent years as a natural gas pipeline, but Saudi Arabia converted it back to an oil pipeline. The switch increased Saudi Arabia's spare oil pipeline capacity to bypass the Strait of Hormuz from 1 million bbl/d to 2.8 million bbl/d, but this is only achievable if the system operates at its full nameplate capacity.