The List: The Five Top Global Choke Points

Some of the world’s most vulnerable junctures, where even a minor attack could cause political and economic shockwaves.

Iranian forces take part in National Persian Gulf Day in the Strait of Hormuz on April 30, 2019. Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the crucial waterway as a riposte to U.S. pressure.
Iranian forces take part in National Persian Gulf Day in the Strait of Hormuz on April 30, 2019. Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the crucial waterway as a riposte to U.S. pressure. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Wars can be terribly destabilizing for the international system. But, at some of the world’s most sensitive junctures, even a minor attack could cause massive political and economic shockwaves. FP looks at five of the most serious global choke points.

Strait of Hormuz

The worlds most sensitive pressure point connects the Gulf of Oman with the Persian Gulf. Iran and the United Arab Emirates front the strait, which is 21 miles across at its narrowest point.

At stake: As many as 17 million barrels of oil pass through the straits every day, much of it destined for the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. Threats: Iranian troops occupy Abu Musa, a small island near the entrance to the strait, and Revolutionary Guard forces have reportedly positioned Silkworm anti-ship missiles on the island. Iran also has a fleet of small boats (some armed with torpedoes and mines) that could threaten shipping in the strait. Even a temporary blockage of the strait could wreak havoc on global oil markets.

Abqaiq Oil Processing Facility

Saudi Arabia’s massive complex, covering several square miles, removes impurities from crude oil and pumps it to port facilities for export.

At stake: Abqaiq is a gathering point for two thirds of Saudi Arabias oil output, and a significant disruption of its work could temporarily limit the countrys exports. Former CIA operative Robert Baer estimates that the facility’s output of 6.8 million barrels per day could be reduced to 1 million in the event of a moderate to severe attack. Threats: Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri last year told their followers to sabotage the Kingdoms oil infrastructure. In February, suicide car bombers unsuccessfully attacked the facility. Due to its size and elaborate security measures, Abqaiq is nearly impossible for terrorists to put out of commission. But a minor attack could be felt: Last Februarys attackers did not make it past the facility’s entry gate, but oil prices spiked 3.4 percent anyway.

Strait of Malacca

The very narrow strait connects the Indian and Pacific oceans between western Malaysia and the Indonesian Island of Sumatra.

At stake: The growth of Asian economies has made the Strait of Malacca one of the worlds most critical shipping lanes. More than 50,000 cargo ships pass through these waters every year and account for more than 20 percent of the worlds maritime trade. Threats: In recent years, pirates have feasted on shipping around the strait. The number of attacks rose from 25 in 1994 to 150 in 2003. The U.S. Navy has led efforts to crack down on piracy, but the vast spaces and often weakly governed coasts make it a near impossible task. And pirates aren’t the only danger. Experts fear terrorists might deliberately detonate an oil tanker in one of the straits many harbors, bringing shipping to a standstill.

Suez Canal

The famed canal connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean.

At stake: Approximately 1.3 million barrels of oil pass through the canal daily. At its narrowest, the canal is only 300 meters wide. Threats: Egyptian nationalization of the canal provoked the 1956 crisis with Israel, Britain, and France. Todays threats are very different. Egyptian terrorist cells have shown a capacity to strike repeatedly at tourist resorts—most recently Damam—and may set their sites on the governments other economic lifeline.

Druzhba Pipeline

The worlds longest pipeline carries oil about 2,500 miles from southeast Russia to points in Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, and Germany.

At stake: The pipeline has a capacity of about 1.2 million barrels per day. Threats: Transneft, the company that runs the pipeline, has battled periodic illegal tapping of the pipeline. A much more serious danger is sabotage. Guarding thousands of miles of pipeline taxes even the most competent governments. (A drunk man disabled an Alaskan pipeline with a single rifle shot in 2001, leading to a 285,000 gallon spill.) New technologies, including aerial surveillance and remote sensing, are still coming on line.

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