The Strait of Gibraltar and its Strategic Importance

The Eurafrican Mediterranean Sea has been the lifeblood of countless societies and cultures since civilisation immemorial situated within and around its basin, examples of which being the old city-states of Greece, the trade empire of Carthage, their victorious foes the Romans, and the ancient civilisations of Egypt. Its climate allows for garrigue ecoregions to flourish and the cultivation of Old World staples such as grain, olives, and grapes. Its lack of tides and prominence of habitable islands ensured that the Mediterranean acted as a highway for early cultural, social, and economic exchanges by cultures and empires on all its coasts and far beyond, and its impact on these early civilisations is not to be understated.

Its impact nary diminished as time went on and the great empires of Spain, Portugal, and the Ottomans and their Barbary State satraps rose and fell. The importance of the Rock fo Gibraltar specifically was recognised very early on and was settled by the Moors in the 12th century until reclaimed hundreds of years later during the Reconquista. Under Castilian rule it was Isabella I who granted Gibraltar its coat of arms that is still used today.

A strait in geographical terms is a narrow passage of water connecting two larger bodies of water, and the Strait of Gibraltar is an excellent example of such a geographical phenomena connecting the vast Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean- the world’s largest drainage basin- via a channel only 14km wide and watched over by the Rock, a large piece of monolithic limestone towering over the sea from the underside of the Iberian peninsula. Gibraltar, currently a small British Overseas Territory of a little over 32 000 people, retains its coat of arms gifted by the Isabella I of Castile consisting of a red three-towered castle under which hangs a golden key, symbolising its reputation as a fortress-settlement and as the key to the Mediterranean. Montis insignia calpe, Latin for the badge of the rock of Gibraltar, is featured below the escutcheon.

As Great Britain became a growing naval power it set its eyes on controlling such a powerful maritime chokepoint. To counter Louis XIV of France’s expansionist policies an alliance of states was formed under the League of Augsburg in 1686 including Austria, Bavaria, Portugal, Saxony, Savoy, the Dutch Republic, and originally Spain, among others. Upon England and Scotland’s joining 3 years later it became known as the Grand Alliance. During the War of Spanish Succession the embattled Spain switched sides to that of France’s and an Anglo-Dutch force, wanting a port on the Iberian peninsula after failing to capture Cádiz, launched a mission to capture it in 1704. After a lengthy naval bombardment by 63 English and Dutch ships and a deployment of marines the town was captured, and though the Grand Alliance eventually fell apart Britain was ceded Gibraltar “in perpetuity” under the Treaty of Utrecht.

Numerous sieges by the Spanish were attempted to regain the region but a strong military, particularly Royal Navy presence, aided by the natural mountainous terrain and its subterranean passages, helped ward each attack off. Since then the Rock has played a part in the Battle of Trafalgar and the Crimean War further to the East. Its importance only increased as the Suez Canal opened seeing trade from as far afield as China and Dutch East Indies pass through the strait.

During the Second World War the territory of Gibraltar and its control over the strait was invaluable. It was a critical staging post in Operation Pedestal, the supplying of Malta in aid of its defence under a total Axis siege, resulting in its continued survival despite German and Italian plans to bomb and starve it into submission. During this time the civilian population was evacuated and the Rock was strengthened into a fortress once more. German plans to attack the peninsula were scuttled by Spanish reluctance to allow German troops within its borders.

Currently the United Kingdom utilises Gibraltar to project a 3 nautical mile claim to the strait which is smaller than the maximal potential claim, possibly done to avoid riling up Spanish authorities which despite having legally ceded it several hundred years ago and having no presence since continue to claim it as Spanish territory. Referendums have maintained that over 98% of citizens want to remain British and claims of colonialism are laughable seeing as Spain has major cities (Ceuta and Melilla) plus smaller outposts on the tip of the Moroccan coast, something Rabat staunchly objects to also referring to their colonialist legacies.

While the British claim does not cover the whole strait, even if it did the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea maintains that such waterways should always be for international usage and cannot be claimed by a particular nation. If hypothetically this rule was to be ignored the sizable military presence on the Rock would allow, at least initially, British hegemony over the strait which currently sees around 50% of all seaborne trade in the world. The Royal Gibraltar Regiment garrisons Gibraltar and is the largest British Army presence in the territory, and its RAF base, RAF Gibraltar, is large enough to support fast jets and large transport aircraft. Still, as per its history, Gibraltar’s crowning military presence is its naval facilities at its shore base HMS Rooke which often sees Type-23 anti-submarine frigates and Type-45 air defence destroyers berthed at its port, and has a permanent presence of two smaller patrol vessels which come into frequent altercations with ships of the Spanish authorities and fishermen. Perhaps even more important is its Z-berths, berths built specifically for nuclear submarines which can act as a repair, refuelling, or recreational stop for British and American submarines. The military presence in Gibraltar is also a prominent focal point for British SIGINT (signals intelligence) for the region.

While, despite repeated Spanish intrusions, it is incredibly unlikely that there will ever be another siege of the territory, and equally unlikely that the strait itself will needed to be patrolled in search for lurking U-Boats, the territory of Gibraltar and thus the subsequent control over the Strait of Gibraltar continues to be a vastly important asset to any that control it. It gives the UK territory in mainland Europe and sight of the tumultous North Africa, perhaps something increasingly important as the Refugee Crisis based out of the long Libyan coastline continues to rage. Instability in Tunisia and Algeria, plus the conflict between Morocco and the largely unrecognised Sehwari Arab Democratic Republic to its south continue to see North Africa recognised as a volatile area. British territories in (Greek) Cyprus, Akrotiri and Dhekelia, also benefit from having a British territory and military garrison with extensive aircraft and port facilities mid-way between it and the British mainland. With 21 countries and cities such as Alexandria, Athens, Barcelona, Rome, and Tel Aviv bordering the Mediterranean, the strait will continue to be a site of great geographic, political, and economic importance for centuries to come.

-KD

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