Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Submarine Cables in the Arab Region: Importance and Risks

Submarine cables in the Arab region, which connects large parts of Asia, Europe and Africa, provide 30% of global communications traffic.

Submarine Cables Arab Region
Satellite image released by Maxar Technologies shows the Belize-flagged cargo ship Rubymar, damaged in a missile strike claimed by the Houthis. AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

The expansion of regional military conflicts in the Middle East has led to renewed concerns over the security dangers associated with submarine cables that are utilized for internet data transmission and communication.

Given that the sea cables in the Arab region connect large parts of East and South Asia with Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, some view these cables as a covert economic and geostrategic weapon.

Troubling Past Experiences

The events of the past months have raised significant concerns about the potential damage or threats to submarine cables amid regional conflicts.

In early March 2024, amid escalating tensions near the Yemeni shores, reports surfaced that three submarine cables had been damaged in the Red Sea region. The parties responsible were not identified, nor was it clear whether the damage resulted from a deliberate attack or occurred unintentionally due to ongoing naval confrontations between the Houthis and Western battleships.

On that day, HGC Global Communications announced that the incident had caused a 25 per cent reduction in data traffic crossing the Red Sea, necessitating the rerouting of this traffic to other cables.

Among the cables that were damaged was the Europe India Gateway, (EIG) which stretches from Mumbai, India, to the United Kingdom, passing through the Middle East. The “Asia – Africa – Europe 1” network (AAE-1), which connects Hong Kong to France and links many countries in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, was also affected.

Previously, in February 2023, the East African state of Djibouti experienced an internet outage, which the NetBlocks organization attributed to damage to Red Sea cables. Djibouti had to reroute its data traffic to avoid the damaged cables. As with the subsequent incident, the exact nature of the actions that led to the damage to the submarine cables was not disclosed.

Conflicting Accounts About the Red Sea Incidents

The internationally recognized Yemeni government, supported by Saudi Arabia, accused the Houthis of orchestrating these attacks in a deliberate and intentional manner. The government linked the damage to the cables with attacks on ships heading to Israel, suggesting that the Houthis were using the submarine cables as leverage against the international community.

However, the Houthis presented a different narrative, claiming that these accusations were aimed at “inciting international public opinion” against them. The militant group accused the United States and Britain of causing the damage through the activities of their military vessels in the Red Sea, which “exposed the security and safety of international telecommunications and the natural flow of information” to danger.

The Houthis have emphasized their commitment to the safety of the marine cables surrounding Yemen while continuing their naval operations against ships heading to Israel.

There is reason to believe that the Houthis did not intentionally aim to harm these cables, especially since the repercussions affect countries with which the Houthis seek positive relations, such as China. These incidents also impact Arab countries that rely on these cable services, at a time when the Houthis aim to present their operations as nothing more than acts of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Of all the conflicting accounts, the one closest to reality appears to come from the International Cable Protection Commission. The commission believed that the cables were damaged unintentionally in March when the anchor of the ship “Rubymar” fell after it was attacked by the Houthis. Under normal circumstances, ships can access submarine cable maps to avoid damaging them with their anchors, but the ship’s crew was forced to drop anchor and abandon the ship during the attack.

Importance of the Red Sea Cables

While it is unlikely that the Houthis deliberately damaged these cables is, it is evident that the group is acutely aware of the strategic advantage it holds by controlling an area abundant with crucial submarine cables.

Prior to these incidents, several media outlets affiliated with the group published maps detailing the locations of these cables off the Yemeni coast, underscoring the significant leverage they possess, given that the internet connectivity of three continents depends on these cables. The repeated emphasis on these cables in Yemeni media appeared to be a direct message to the “Western Alliance,” as termed by the Houthis.

There is no exaggeration in highlighting the critical importance of the Red Sea cables for international communications. Submarine cables are the primary medium for data transmission between countries, responsible for 95 per cent of global calls and internet traffic.

Currently, 30 per cent of global communications and internet traffic passes through Red Sea cables, with 90 per cent of data traffic between Europe and Asia relying on them. This means approximately 2.3 billion people depend on these cables for communication and internet access.

The significance of the Red Sea for global data and internet traffic is underscored by the presence of 16 major submarine cables with a total capacity of 178 terabytes. These cables serve as the primary communication link between the largest internet consumer bases in Europe, East Africa, East and South Asia and the Arab Gulf countries. Despite the rise of satellite internet in recent years, these submarine cables remain the cornerstone of the global communications network.

On the security front, the main challenge lies in the extensive geographical area these cables cover, making round-the-clock protection difficult. Unlike commercial ships, which can be redirected based on security needs, these cables are fixed in place and perpetually vulnerable to attacks. The submarine cable routes in the Red Sea region, bridging three continents, currently have no viable alternatives.

Other Crucial Cables in the Arab Region

Across the Arab region, two other seas, in addition to the Red Sea, are of exceptional importance for the security of data transmission and communication lines.

The Arabian Sea, extending into the Arabian Gulf, is host to ten main cables and 33 subsidiary cables serving the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, with six subsidiary cables benefiting Iran. These cables are crucial for connecting India and South Asian countries to the Middle East, and from there to Europe and Africa.

In the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea, all major cables from the Red Sea to Europe are located, along with subsidiary cables connecting Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Israel and Cyprus to the global network. On the southern shore of the Mediterranean, Egyptian officials take pride in their country handling over 90 per cent of data traffic between Asia, Europe, and North Africa. The Egyptian government aims to further develop this cable network as part of its plan to enhance technological infrastructure.

Submarine cables in the Arab region are a critical component of the international information and data transmission network, presenting significant opportunities for regional countries.

By investing in and developing these networks, these countries can boost their technology sector revenues and enhance other sectors that rely on seamless communication, such as the knowledge economy. Simultaneously, it is crucial for these countries to diversify their infrastructure and deployment locations to mitigate security and geopolitical risks.

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