Al Jazeera World

The Choke Points of Power

After centuries of naval domination the West faces geopolitical changes centred on shipping lanes vital to world trade.

Filmmakers: Alexandre Trudeau and Jonathan Pedneault

On one side, there is the US in decline. On the other, there is an emerging China.

In the middle, there are the maritime routes crucial for the export of oil, such as the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf.

Ocean-borne trade is the foundation of the global economy, and the Middle East is a hub for world shipping. The sea lanes in this region narrow into what are called choke points, which are keys to regional control.

“After the war [World War II], the US was in a position essentially to work out ways to organise and control the world …. It’s control. You want to control because it does yield a substantial measure of world control,” says Noam Chomsky, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

About 20 per cent of the world’s oil supply passes through the Strait of Hormuz. The rivalry between Iran, Israel and the US make it a flashpoint.

To the southwest, the Gulf of Aden ends at the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a hunting ground for Somali pirates, and pirate hunters.

Both are part of an ongoing drama which hints at an unravelling of Western domination in the area.

To the north, the Suez Canal is the gateway to the Mediterranean. For decades the West controlled Egypt and the canal.

But all this is changing.

“After 500 years of Western domination, we are slowly going back to an age of indigenous control …. The US navy has gone from 586 warships during the Reagan era to 286 warships now,” says Robert D Kaplan, of the Center for a New American Security.

There are new players and new agendas in the Middle East that need the region and its oil. Their ships have multiplied and their influence grown. And the interests of the Chinese now brush against those of the Americans.

From Libya to Iran, from the waters of the Mediterranean to the pirate coast of Somalia, a new great game for control is unfolding.

Al Jazeera spent three years documenting the West’s declining control of the strategic waterways of the Middle East. They discovered a region in flux – with new players both locally and globally – who want in. The focus, as always, is oil.


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