The Red Sea is a magnet for international and regional powers. And who governs the sea, governs one of the most valuable trade routes feeding and fuelling the east and the west. In this seventh part of our series, we look at why the region must put in place an inclusive framework of collaboration.

By Oraib Al Rantawi
This is part 7/9 of a series.


Several initiatives have attempted to manage the sea and its various actors, yet most efforts have dried up or remained in place with limited effect. Despite the lack of long-term success for such frameworks, the need for one is not going away anytime soon – quite the contrary.

The Red Sea is a troubled basin. It is a geographical chokepoint defined by a series of internal and external challenges that take the shape of open-ended conflicts, authoritarian leaders, and significant power asymmetries. Recent months have seen these dynamics gain gravity due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis that is expected to push the global economy into a new phase of recession.

Power-holders and decision-makers are not unaware of these currents. The need to change the status quo of managing the sea is clear, yet it comes without urgency. The sea is open to almost anyone, be they sailing on a tanker or a warship. And the current power-balances ensure that all actors know their place.

‘Not a novel idea’

The framework of collaboration is not a novel idea – the most recent Saudi-led initiative was launched less than a year ago. So the question is not so much why it should be established, but how to go about doing it.

Does the region want to remain defined by problematic dynamics or does it want to establish itself through strategically seized opportunities, which – if well played – could support the ailing economies along the coastlines.

These opportunities are based on natural, environmental, touristic, economic, and cultural resources as well as strengthening safe navigation.

Establishing a cooperative framework is about preparedness.

In a basin where players represent the weakest of the weak and the richest of the rich, a devastating humanitarian conflict sets the scene, and global superpowers are gaining a foothold, preventative frameworks need to be put in place before destabilizing variables tilt off balance.

The time is now to draft a roadmap, not later

As the first year of the new decade comes to a close, the world is faced with an almost unprecedented health and financial crisis playing out on the backdrop of major shifts in global power balances. According to the IMF, China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest economy – an expected yet troubling milestone. The hegemony of the States is coming to a close and a new multipolar system is about to emerge. As the big players move, waves hit neighboring shores.

These global dynamics are being played out in a region already divided between rivaling axes. The GCC or Qatar Crisis pitted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar and respective allies establishing a rift between Red Sea nations too. Weaker players mostly on the western coast have been forced to take sides but have also sought to use the rift for their own gains. This has resulted in the deepening of divisions and the militarization of the region as a whole.

Furthermore, as the region is being redefined, Gulf players are forced to come to terms with global developments in the oil trade. The IMF has estimated that the Gulf’s financial wealth could be depleted as soon as 2034. This is a blow that will hit producers, traders, transporters, and beneficiaries alike across and beyond the shores of the sea.

Keeping instability at bay

If instability is to be kept a bay and a durable framework set, seven key principles are to be kept clear:

  1. Exit guardianship – enter ownership

A common feature that most initiatives established to manage the Red Sea share is they have been established by external powers or coalitions. This has been seen in the European Union and African Union launched frameworks that give a platform to some, but not to all relevant actors.

For the Red Sea countries, this top-down approach has evoked, whether intended or not, colonial memories characterized by the notions of ‘custodianship’ and ‘guardianship’ in which greater powers overlook weaker ones.

If a multilateral structure is to be established, it is critical that ownership of that structure remains in the hands of the Red Sea countries themselves – across coasts. These actors also need to have the final say on who is let in and on what conditions, be they littoral or not.

  1. Avoiding power games 

When observing common points in existing initiatives, a dissonance between how the initiatives have been presented and why they have been established has often been felt. Many, if not most, initiatives have been defined by the security concerns of founding members, rendering the initiatives unacceptable to others. Only those seeing the direct benefits from the structures have chimed in, while others have maintained a reserved distance.

The region knows enough ally networks. What is missing is a framework that brings allies and adversaries together.

Examples abound, including the recent Council of Arab and African Littoral States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden led by Saudi Arabia. As the name implies, the council includes Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia, which makes sense on paper, but not in reality. Significant regional players, such as Ethiopia, Turkey, and Iran remain out of the negotiating table.

The reasons behind those varying patterns of power-plays of regional networks goes into the details of the Red Sea dynamics.

It’s no surprise, for example, that Egypt opposed bringing Ethiopia into the new Red Sea Council, due to its ongoing disputes over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The dam will tilt power dynamics on the Nile-axis for good and has already pushed downstream nations to position themselves against Ethiopia.

Another example is how Saudi Arabia refuses to let its guard down where Iran and Turkey are concerned, as both feuding actors have already embedded themselves in the region.

If a framework supporting stability on the Red Sea is to succeed, it can by no means turn into a security or a defense alliance. In other words, the structure and relevant parties have to sincerely engage with opposing players and lay down arms as they do so. The region knows enough ally networks. What is missing is a framework that brings allies and adversaries together.

  1. Exclusivity never served the common good

Building on the notion of power plays and ownership, the closed membership of the existing clubs, forums, and councils does not serve the idea of holistic security and cooperation. Sometimes exclusivity is seen to strengthen solidarity. Yet in the end, exclusivity is nothing more than what the word stands for: excluding others.

The underlying risk is when a relevant stakeholder is excluded from a structure, the player can rightfully jump to the conclusion that the chief purpose of the forum is to target its interests. This has been seen in the recently formed Mediterranean EastMed Gas Forum consisting of Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine – excluding Turkey. The same is present in the fresh Red Sea Council. Nobody, without taking a gamble on planting a fuse for future conflicts, can accept the isolation of more than 100 million Ethiopians from an alliance dictating its region.

If a framework is to be a platform for dialogue and negotiations – not the maintenance of fault lines – a confrontational approach needs to be avoided at all costs. In this case, through inclusivity.

  1. There is no one-size-fits-all on the Red Sea

The political dynamics of the Red Sea nations depend on their economic and military ties to the basin. Due to the plentiful vantage points, having several tiers of membership within a collaborative framework, in accordance with changing circumstances and issues on the table, could harness a flexible yet enabling structure.

Different levels of engagement could solve the need to keep some at bay and others close, thereby allowing the creation of a reactive and solution-oriented platform.

This would also make way for the inclusion of certain actors such as the European and African Union, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and India as well as other oil and gas exporting countries in varying degrees that work for the core group of littoral states.

In the end, if countries with the capacity to contribute knowledge in the fields of economy, trade, environment, and technology are not part of the discussion, the framework will struggle to reach a level that would help the Red Sea think beyond its immediate resources.

  1. Collaboration over competition

As indicated earlier, a regional framework for the Red Sea is not new. The array of organizations that have issued such structures range from the African Union to IGAD to the Arab League – all structures regional countries are party to and that overlap in terms of geographical scope.

The existence of these structures is an asset. They act as guarantors ensuring that the efforts invested in a new framework maintain their focus and that the agenda of the Red Sea is heard beyond immediate littoral countries.

Yet, in order to enable convergence, the new structure must also recognize the existing entities and give them representation. This in turn will ensure that priorities lie in collaboration instead of competition.

  1. Mission first, protocol second

Plenty of observers have rightfully expressed doubts over whether a new initiative would add value to the region or merely empower the already powerful. The general concern behind the hesitation is the question of regional cooperation versus national sovereignty. Such hesitation did not come from thin air: regional structures have always been used by powerful countries as an excuse to justify their hegemony and interventions in the weaker countries surrounding the Red Sea.

In addition to the negative connotation of anything institutional, another concern is the fear of yet another framework that, in practice, will be too stiff to contain or resolve emerging issues. In a region defined by instability, an entity imposing a new set of bureaucracy and procedures is simply not desired.

  1. Trust above all

Lastly, setting expectations and aspirations for yet a new initiative is overshadowed by the fear of failure. With this in mind, regional cooperation should start with what is possible and affordable, even if this means lowering ambitions.

A humble approach is critical in an area composed of fragile states, and gradual growth will help appease the distrust among asymmetric parties.

If trust is not there, the framework will eventually repeat what has been done until now, and members will be left wondering why the same path did not lead to a new destination.

Bottom line

When looking at these dynamics at ground level and seeing them from the perspective of individual states, it is vital to note that several, if not most, of the countries, are grappling with domestic instability and are ridden by violent non-state actors, terrorism, piracy, and social divides.

Ethiopia, for example, has become a great cause of concern as its unity is quickly unraveling. Fears of a civil war risk turning into a reality as was the case, and still is, in Yemen.

Ignoring the clouds of instability will not keep them away.

It is also is clear that the role of the Red Sea in the global arena is by no means decreasing. As it stands, all relevant countries experience safe sailing on the troubled waters of the basin. But a guarantor for stability needs to be put in place now because later might be too late.

Oraib Al Rantawi is the founder and general director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

For part 1: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan…Conflict or cooperation in the Red Sea?

For part 2: Ports, military bases and treaties: Who’s who in the Red Sea

For part 3: The Red Sea: ‘A vital artery for the world economy’

For part 4: The Horn of Africa and the Gulf: Shifting power plays in the Red Sea 

For part 5: Yemen: What happens here sends waves all across the Red Sea

For part 6: Somaliland: The True Gatekeeper For The Red Sea While Somalia Wants To Be Instead

For part 8: Sudan – Red Sea basin: Four ways to make or break stability

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.