The Red Sea is steadily growing in importance as a nexus of geopolitical competition, which at the same time poses security challenges for the countries of the region. The lack of a clear consensus on the rules of competition between international and regional powers has only intensified the frantic race by both state and non-state actors for natural resources and spheres of influence. At the same time, the balance of power in the region continues to fluctuate constantly, forcing the parties involved to continually reconsider their perspectives and strategies in light of various factors.
First, there is the problem of security and military presence to ensure freedom of navigation, control trade and protect the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the strategic southern entrance to the Red Sea. This presence is particularly strong in Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, which are ports of vital sea lanes and logistical bases for international commercial activity. The Red Sea is the most important sea corridor for commercial traffic between Europe and Asia, as well as for transporting oil from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.
Second, there is increased competition and tension between the world powers, especially the United States, China, and Russia. In addition to competing for the safety of ships, ports and cargo, they compete to influence the decisions of certain governments in ways that in turn affect the flow of trade and access to local markets. China and the United States, in particular, are competing to build communications systems for military and security forces, as well as to develop databases and surveillance networks in Africa. While Beijing lobbies for ownership of African port facilities, Washington is trying to restore security cooperation with Khartoum by crossing Sudan off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
AFRICOM (US Joint Forces Africa Zone Command) is leading Washington’s efforts to renew its security partnership with Sudan as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In other words, the Pentagon, using these two countries as a springboard, is trying to infiltrate other African countries and bring them under its control. Russia, which is also working to improve relations with Khartoum and other countries in the region, is using its presence in Port Sudan to try to establish mutually beneficial trade and economic partnerships and provide assistance to African countries that have been severely damaged economically and humanly by Western countries. Growing inflows of capital and investment, especially in infrastructure development on the African Red Sea coast and food production in West Africa, have also strengthened security ties in the various states between the sea and the Horn of Africa.
The reciprocal negative impact of Middle Eastern conflicts and tensions is clearly felt in the Red Sea region. Turkish, Iranian, Qatari, Emirati and Ethiopian programs, competing with various international powers and private security firms, not to mention the aspirations of the Red Sea countries themselves, have imposed their own rhythm on the rebalancing of power. The resulting friction and disagreement led to increased competition for ports as well as for military, commercial, and cultural influence. In many ways, the war in Yemen, launched by Saudi Arabia with the explicit support of the West, also reflects a change in views on the region, on levels of cooperation and coordination, on patterns of intervention and conflict that have important implications for the warring parties, South Yemen itself, navigation off its shores, and the future of the country as a whole.
In terms of the direction of change, some strategic analysts believe that developments are setting the stage for more intense international struggle, rivalry and conflict as patterns of interaction in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean take on strategic importance regionally and internationally. Numerous foreign military bases and concentrations on the western shores of the Red Sea have added new physical realities that make the region more vulnerable to instability and slow the pace of trade and economic development of several states located there.
Current threats and challenges suggest that potential disputes and conflicts will be complex and multilayered, while the current intertwining of regional and international interactions facilitates the detrimental role that a number of influential regional and international stakeholders play in shaping the map of threats and challenges. This map also tells us that attempts to apply temporary palliatives to regional hotspots have not contributed to a positive resolution of the protracted conflicts there. A large role in this negative development is played by the West, led by the United States, which is trying to place its military bases in the first place.
Some Red Sea countries, especially in the Horn of Africa, are plagued by internal and mutual tensions rooted in or fueled by ethnic conflicts. For example, the Somali state exhibits numerous features of extreme fragility exploited by various foreign parties. The federal government remains unable to restore stability and counter the persistent threat of the terrorist movement al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (commonly referred to as HSM or al-Shabab, banned in Russia), which continues to control parts of the capital Mogadishu, parts of southern Somalia and some border areas near Kenya and Ethiopia. Tensions between the federal and state governments, stemming from disputes over the current electoral process, the division of wealth and oil revenues, and the conduct of foreign relations by some state governments, also undermine the stability and effectiveness of the state.
In addition, border disputes include the Sudan-Ethiopia conflict and its aftermath, the temporarily deferred border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea (which reached an agreement to work together on other priorities in the Horn of Africa), and the Sudan-South Sudan dispute over Abyei. There is also a dispute between Kenya and Somalia over their maritime border.
The Ethiopian Civil War between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the government of the Tigray region, against the background of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s attempt to change the balance of power between the federal and regional governments as part of his larger project to establish Ethiopia as a major economic power on the continent, is a prime example of internal conflict with long-term regional implications. The fierce dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its filling with the waters of the Nile, in which neither side wants to concede, also fits into this scheme.
Meanwhile, the activities of jihadist terrorist groups in Libya, Somalia, the Sahel region and the Sahara show how seriously these groups threaten the stability of the respective states and hinder their prospects for construction and development. As a result of the factors outlined above, the role of certain non-Red Sea actors has taken precedence over that of the Red Sea states, leading to more turmoil and conflict rather than opportunities for cooperation among the conflicting parties.
The idea of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Council, which originated with Egypt’s initiative in 2017, gained momentum in a series of meetings of eight foreign ministers in Riyadh since 2018, culminating in the formal establishment of the Arab and African Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Coastal States Council in January 2020. As stated in its charter, the Council seeks to establish a regional system of collective action to promote development and security in the Red Sea region and to help address various common challenges, such as interstate trade, infrastructure development, increased capital flows, environmental protection and peaceful conflict resolution. However strategically important the Council may be, it still faces enormous challenges in terms of its ability to translate its goals into concrete policies, coordinate the positions of its members, and reinforce complex collective interests.
There are, however, a number of basic elements that the Council can draw on to strengthen its role. Effective collective port crisis management could help crystallize policies that go beyond immediate profits to develop a sustainable economic ecosystem in the Red Sea. The coastal states have a number of ports-Suez, Jeddah, Port-Sudan, Mokka, Hodeida, Aqaba and Djibouti-that, if effectively integrated, could strengthen the system by refocusing various regional and international settlements and considerations that have led to reduced liquidity.
Another pillar is maximizing the collective economic benefit of Board members. One factor reinforcing the feasibility of such a move is the growing desire of global communications companies to build lines running under the Red Sea and linking Africa and the Middle East directly to Europe. New fiber optic cable systems offer the advantage of greater versatility of use than existing marine systems. More importantly in this context, projects such as 2Africa, serving Africa and the Middle East, and Blue-Raman, linking Europe and India, will require close coordination and cooperation between the coastal states of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, especially Djibouti (the main hub for cable communications), Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Port networks, communications projects, and other such development interests require extensive strategic discussions among Council members aimed at maximizing consensus among them in the face of competing agendas of outside players regarding the region and its countries. As the new Red Sea and Gulf of Aden forum gains momentum, it will have more influence over conflict management, interests, and the balance of power in the region and gain the ability to withstand the pernicious effects of external competition. At the same time, it will grow more important in reducing conflict and resolving disputes in the region as collective development efforts and opportunities for cooperative security arrangements are strengthened.