This is the first part of The Thin Red Line, an African Arguments series focusing on dynamics around the Red Sea.

By Alex De Waal

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 transformed the Red Sea. Overnight, it turned from being a mere strip of water into a vital artery in international maritime trade. To symbolize this newfound importance, the French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi conceived a huge statue to stand at the canal’s entrance. The design, featuring a woman holding a lantern, was inspired by the monumental figures of Ancient Egypt and was to be called The Statue of Progress or Egypt Bringing Light to Asia.

The sculpture, however, was never built. Egypt had borrowed heavily from British banks to build the canal and, under the nineteenth-century international law, unpaid creditors were permitted to wage war and annex a country in debt. 14 years later, the British did just that and took control of the canal. Bartholdi’s plan for the statue was scrapped, though France got some revenge by donating an identical statue to the United States. It was placed in New York harbor where it became known as the Statue of Liberty.


For the past 150 years, most world powers have seen the Red Sea as little more than an extension of the Suez Canal. In that time, it has seen major wars and turmoil on both its shores yet has only been closed twice. The first time was the 1956 Suez Crisis. The second was the 1967 Six Day War after which the canal remained shut for six years. The Red Sea has also withstood ongoing threats from maritime piracy up to the modern day. In recent years, a multinational task force has had to suppress Somali pirates and tackled a few cases of political piracy by Yemeni groups including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular and the Houthis (officially called Ansar Allah).

Yet amidst all this, the cargo shipped annually through the narrow straits of the Bab al Mandab at the sea’s southern entrance has not been interrupted. However, it is partly because major powers have been so effective in ensuring this continued flow of trade, now worth $600 billion, that they have tended to neglect the region’s wider politics and security.

The Red Sea has been overlooked by academics and policy analysts too. In his 1986 book, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, Ali Mazrui identified Africa’s Arab-Islamic culture as one of three components that make up the continent’s religious-cultural heritage. He argued that the Sahara desert joins North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa as much as it divides them. But if North Africa is part of the continent, he goes on to ask, why not the Arabian Peninsula too?

Mazrui highlights the historical ties that bind the countries across the two shores before writing: “The most pernicious sea in Africa’s history may well be the Red Sea. This thin line of water has been deemed to be more relevant for defining where Africa ends than all the evidence of geology, geography, history and culture.”

Academic neglect of the region can be seen in the dearth of publications on the topic. Google Scholar yields just 37 scholarly articles when “Red Sea” is searched for alongside “peace” and “security”, compared to 530 for “Persian/Arabian Gulf”. The best book on the politics of the Red Sea is Roberto Aliboni’s The Red Sea Region: Local actors and the superpowers. Published in 1985, it is already well over 30 years old.

The most obvious reason for the scarcity of analysis is that the Red Sea lies between two different regions: the Middle East and Africa. It thereby divides policy focus, academic expertise, and the bureaucracies of foreign ministries and the United Nations. The thin line of water acts as a deep gulf which has proven remarkably hard to cross.

Reviving the Red Sea forum?

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Saudi Arabia and Egypt each made proposals for establishing a Red Sea forum composed of states along the shore. These did not succeed partly because of Cold War divisions and questions over the participation of Israel.

More recently, this proposal has been revived: firstly by the European Union special envoy to the Horn of Africa, who emphasizes the importance of the sea lanes to Europe’s economy; secondly by Egypt, which sees the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden as an extension of the Suez Canal. But the same questions arise over who should be part of this forum. Should Israel, a littoral state, be included? What about non-coastal countries with major interests in the Red Sea such as Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)? In response, the African Union (AU) has begun talking of a “Red Sea arena” with a wider span and less formal composition.

The main reason there has never been a common security mechanism for the Red Sea so far is that it has not been needed to protect the trade route. During the Cold War, for example, the US and Soviet Union had a common interest in keeping the sea lanes open. China’s decision to locate its first overseas naval base in Djibouti indicates its strategic interest in the area and suggests it shares the US and Europe’s priorities regarding freedom of navigation.

Now, however, the Red Sea arena is becoming increasingly fractious. Regional powers have become more assertive. In the 1990s, the Gulf’s main political interest in the Horn of Africa related to terrorism. The Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, for example, was based in Khartoum as part of Sudan’s sponsorship of radical Islamist groups. Other Gulf involvement included investment, notably in agriculture, and support for Salafi mosques and schools by private individuals and charities. But in the last decade, Middle Eastern engagement has hugely expanded.

Qatar, Turkey and Egypt awake

The first mover was Qatar, which sought to position itself as a mediator of choice – hosting peace talks for Darfur, and between Eritrea and Djibouti – and as a key sponsor of civil Islamism. It also used the media outlet Al Jazeera to generate an impact far beyond the country’s small size. Qatar’s influence began to wane in 2013, however, when Emir Hamad al Thani abdicated in favor of his son Tamim.

Next to move was Turkey. Before the Syrian war began in 2011, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan had a vision of reviving Turkish leadership throughout the lands of the former Ottoman Empire using the soft power of trade, aid and education. Turkey became the first country to open an embassy in fragile Somalia after its Transitional Federal Government returned and has remained a major supporter of the new government. It is also an active investor in Sudan with plans to open a base at Suakin on the country’s Red Sea coast.

Egypt has also woken up to the Horn of Africa recently after many years of lethargy. In 1995, former president Hosni Mubarak stopped attending African summits after a failed assassination attempt against him in Addis Ababa. Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia used the opportunity of his absence to quietly mobilize the continent around its view that the Nile Waters agreements needed to be revisited. It then took advantage of the turmoil during the 2011 Arab Spring to accelerate the building of its Grand Renaissance Dam. The hydroelectric project will only be useful when waters run through it, but Egypt is fearful that the dam gives Ethiopia the capacity to stem the Nile’s flow.

Egypt only truly awoke to the consequences of its neglect of sub-Saharan Africa in 2013 when it was suspended from the AU, which deemed the military takeover that brought President Abdel Fatah al Sisi to power unconstitutional and hence in contravention of Article 4(p) of the Constitutive Act. Egypt then began a frantic diplomatic effort to return to the AU and was readmitted in 2014.

As well as being on poor terms with Ethiopia, Egypt also has a troubled relationship with Sudan. Khartoum has swung behind Ethiopia on the Nile Waters partly because its own plans to expand irrigation rely on the Renaissance dam. Turkey’s plan to build a base in Sudan also greatly irritates Cairo.

Egypt is therefore seeking to contain Sudan and Ethiopia, and counterbalance Turkey and Qatar. It has cultivated ties with Eritrea, stationing troops there, and is helping finance the government of South Sudan as a counterweight.

Saudi Arabia and UAE: a new driving force

Saudi Arabia has also begun developing its own security doctrine as US involvement in the region has diminished. Its principal fear is Iran and the possibility that it might interrupt the shipment of oil through the Straits of Hormuz to Saudi Arabia’s east. This led the Saudis to develop strategic options in the Red Sea and prepare measures to protect its southern and western flanks.

These plans include a Red Sea fleet and efforts to uproot Iran’s presence in Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia. In 2014, Saudi Arabia pressed those countries to shut down Iranian cultural missions and expel diplomats; they complied. Things then escalated in 2015 when Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (“MBS”) began military operations against the Houthi rebels in Yemen on the grounds that they were supported by Iran.

Eritrea and Sudan promptly started competing for Saudi favor. Eritrea expelled the long-standing Houthi mission in Asmara and offered up troops and bases. For Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki, this was a welcome escape from the country’s isolation, imposed by Ethiopia. Sudan also offered troops, ultimately supplying 7,000 paramilitaries. For Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir, Saudi patronage meant not only money but advocacy support in persuading the Americans to lift sanctions.

The UAE joined the Saudi-led coalition shortly afterwards. It soon became the senior partner in the air war on Yemen’s coastal strip and opened an air base in Eritrea’s coastal town of Assab. Meanwhile, the UAE company Dubai Ports World aggressively sought control of the ports in Berbera and Bosaso, located in the self-declared republic of Somaliland and the Somali federal state of Puntland respectively. It has also maintained a close political relationship with Egypt.

The UAE’s foreign policy is the most assertive and patronage-based of all the Middle Eastern powers. It is Salafi at home and secular abroad. The key figure is Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed (‘MBZ’) of Abu Dhabi, who is supreme commander of the armed forces and shares many of the same concerns as his Saudi counterpart.

These two allies became more assertive in 2017 as they tried to isolate Qatar on the grounds that it was maintaining links with Iran, sponsoring the Muslim Brothers, and supporting opposing factions in Syria. The shock waves of the rivalry rippled across the Horn.

Somalia’s federal government remained neutral. The Saudis appreciated that the weak government in Mogadishu, which gets backing from Turkey and Qatar, was not in a position to choose among its patrons. The UAE, which has close links to the regional governments of Puntland and Somaliland, was less forgiving. Like Somalia, Sudan also equivocated, not wanting to jeopardize either its long-standing political ties to Qatar or its financial dependence on Saudi Arabia.

Recently, the UAE has also found itself invested in Ethiopia as well as Eritrea. Crown Prince MBZ visited Addis Ababa shortly before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared his willingness to talk with Asmara, suggesting that Arab countries can also use their influence to push for peace. Abiy’s recent visit to Asmara and end of the state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is an unequivocal cause for celebration. But it also a signifier of a new driving force in the politics of the Horn.

MBZ also pressed Ethiopia to step down from the chair of the East African regional body IGAD, setting the stage for Sudan’s President al-Bashir and Uganda’s President Museveni to corral the warring leaders of South Sudan in Khartoum last month, where they signed a classic marketplace-style deal to divide the proceeds of expanded oil production in return for sharing power. The Khartoum Agreement may yet bring peace to South Sudan, but it is only as strong as the configuration of power from which it was born.

Taking advantage of Middle Eastern interest

Today, the Horn of Africa increasingly resembles the ‘great game’ of 19th century colonial power projection as regional and world powers scramble for naval bases. But the African countries are not passive clients. They have turned their links with the Middle East to their advantage.

Sudan has expertly balanced its relationships, never fully cutting ties with any partner even while succumbing to the pressure or entreaties of another. Eritrea has used its links with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt to escape from its isolation imposed by Ethiopia. Djibouti has skilfully leveraged its strategic location to avoid over-dependence on any one of its powerful patrons and successfully rebuffed the hegemonic ambitions of the UAE.

Ethiopia meanwhile has sought to balance good commercial and security relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, all of which have investments in the country and the ports it uses. SomaliaSomaliland, and Puntland have also benefited from Arab investment, generally taking advantage of competition between their Middle Eastern sponsors; the Gulf dispute has, however, upset the power balance between the federal government in Mogadishu and the regional governments, particularly Puntland.

A different dangerous kind of politics

In terms of security architecture, there is a chasm between African multilateralism and the types of relationships cultivated by the Middle Eastern countries. Since its establishment in 2002, the African Union has developed a peace and security architecture with shared aims and principles. But no such norms and practices exist in the Middle East.

What the Gulf States have in common instead is that they provide direct financial aid or budgetary support to the leaders of African states in the expectation that it will be reciprocated with personal loyalty. Their politics is transactional and bilateral. Military victory is regarded as a legitimate political objective (as seen in Yemen). Adversaries are excluded from political forums. And militarization is preferred to democratization. There is no Arab peacekeeping.

For the Middle Eastern states, the Horn is a second or even third-order priority, well below their concerns with Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In fact, their interest in Africa is an offshoot of these higher concerns. They do not treat African states as equals, not least because African leaders tend to ask for money when they visit.

The African Union has come to recognize that it needs an external policy for the “shared space” of the Red Sea. But it approaches the Middle East from a position of relative weakness. The most dramatic illustration of such an imbalance was Libya in 2011 when the Arab states and NATO brushed aside an African Union initiative for a negotiated solution to the war.

The spurned African strategy for Libya is worth pondering again as individual Middle Eastern states play hard old games of politics and security in the Horn, undermining and displacing Africa’s hard-won peace and security architecture, and imperiling the fragile progress towards stability made in the region.

A momentary “Pax Arabica” may emerge based on Gulf money used to meet African leaders’ urgent cash needs. But any peace agreements that result will be only as good as the transitory alignments of political interests from which they arose. Today, the UAE’s immediate need for a friendly African hinterland as it presses forward with its war in Yemen creates such a configuration. But that is not a foundation for a durable peace and security order.

Alex de Waal

Alex de Waal is the Director of the World Peace Foundation. He is the author of ‘The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power’.

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