Breaking Barriers – The first-of-its-kind Consultative Forum on Red Sea security gathered military and political analysts, officials, diplomats, and think-tank leaders from the Horn of Africa, Gulf of Aden, and beyond. The summit entertained three broad approaches to the Red Sea security complication, with most factors attributed to external actors, mainly interventions by regional and global powers scrambling for influence, access to resources, and regional dominance.
By Ashenafi Endale
The eastern and western coasts of the Red Sea have become embroiled in regional and global power struggles over access to waterways and dominance. Despite being landlocked for three decades, Ethiopia is now among the most concerned states due to tensions surrounding the Red Sea. It remains unclear whether Addis Ababa will regain port ownership through force or diplomacy, but this ambition exacerbates existing tensions.
Existing institutions have proved incapable and ineffective at resolving escalating tensions. New institutional architecture is needed to develop rules-based frameworks for managing Red Sea water bodies and, if necessary, policing the region. Think tanks and policymakers on both sides recognize this as a shared responsibility, representing progress toward de-escalation, de-securitization, and stability.
“Any security issue on one side of the Red Sea has immediate spillover effects on the other side of the region,” Alemshet Degife (Brigadier General), military advisor to the chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), told participants during the first of its kind Consultative Forum on Red Sea security on September 21, 2023, at the Sheraton Addis. “Over the past five years, there has been growing high competition due to the strategic importance of the region for influence over the Red Sea, trade, transit, and maritime security. For the Middle East, the Red Sea is crucial to secure their maritime fleets, food imports, and water supply. Ethiopia is dependent on the Red Sea for its outlet.”
Dubbed the “Regional Consultative Forum on Red Sea Security Dynamics: The Needs for Dialogue and Cooperation at a Time of Global Geopolitical Entanglements,” the forum gathered military and political analysts and officials, diplomats, and think-tank leaders from the Horn of Africa, Gulf of Aden, and beyond. The first of its kind, the forum was organized by the Ethiopian Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA) and the Ethiopian Defense War College. The frankness and sharply articulated engagements indicated the region has missed such platforms.
Hosting 12 percent of global trade and 40 percent of Asia’s shipments, the Red Sea is the busiest international trade highway. However, the Red Sea’s geopolitical landscape has fundamentally changed, particularly in the past five years, but the layers of entanglement are much more worrying for the region’s foreign policy and security formulators as the Russo-Ukraine war polarizes the world, posing a potential risk of proxy wars in the Red Sea.
The summit entertained three broad approaches to the Red Sea security complication. The majority of participants attributed most factors of the problem in the Red Sea to external actors, mainly interventions by regional and global powers scrambling for influence, access to resources, and regional dominance. “The threats in the Red Sea are being driven by external actors more than domestic ones,” argued Abdeta Dribssa (PhD), CEO of the Center for Dialogue, Research and Cooperation (CDRC) in Ethiopia.
However, Abdoulkader Hussein (PhD) from the Djiboutian Center for Studies and Research (CERD) disagreed. “The primary threat of the Red Sea is not the presence of the U.S. or China but other emerging threats. It is not the only threat but one of the threats. There is a threat because of mistrust and tensions stemming from fears over access, control, and influence in the Red Sea.”
Abdoulkader even appreciated the military presence of the two global powers in his country, only six miles apart. “The Chinese military in Djibouti secures their shipments, maritime interests, and international waterways for China. The Silk Road Initiative also passes through this area. The U.S. military in Djibouti mainly fights terrorism. America complains that Djibouti hosts other countries’ militaries. It is difficult for Djibouti, but we have managed to host them equally. This balanced management of global powers’ military bases can be copied by other nations along the Red Sea,” he recommended.
Abdulkadir is not alone in seeing opportunity amid the scramble of foreign actors in the region.
“The coming of foreign actors on one side offered opportunities like the development of deep-sea oil, foreign direct investment opportunities, and provision of security for trade routes. However, on the other side, it also triggered threats and competition among converging and diverging interests. There is intense confrontation due to the increasing competition among actors to establish a presence in the Red Sea region,” complemented Gebeyehu Ganga (PhD), Director General of the Middle East, Asia, and Pacific at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia.
For Ghanem Rafeh, a researcher from the Emirati Policy Center in the UAE, the biggest and first root cause of the Red Sea problem is the presence of fragile states on both sides of the sea. “There are signs the Yemen crisis may find a lasting solution. But the conflict in Sudan remains uncertain. Yet, the Red Sea is extremely vulnerable to shifting global geopolitics and polarity.”
Many agree that non-state actors are also growing threats, including armed groups, cross-border criminality, human trafficking, extremism, terrorism, piracy, mass migration, illicit trade, money laundering, youth unemployment, and internal conflicts. Political crises, resource competition, militarization, and securitization of the region in general are also major concerns.
The deteriorating relationship between Asmara and Addis Ababa since the Pretoria agreement is another concern. Somalia’s recent move to join the East African Community is also an upcoming complication that could cause misalignment within IGAD. The expected ending of ATMIS by the end of 2024 is also a concern for neighbors who doubt Somalia’s government will hold against al-Shabaab.
The exclusion of Eritrea from the quartet established to resolve the Sudan crisis, and the inclusion of Kenya to the quartet, also raised concerns as Eritrea shares a border with Sudan, while Kenya does not. Recognizing or not recognizing Somaliland’s statehood was also an issue during the forum, with some participants and panelists stating that recognizing Somaliland’s statehood could create a puppet government or allow terrorists to flourish in Somaliland.
The grim scenarios painted by panelists prompted participants to directly question whether Ethiopia would reclaim port ownership through military force or peaceful diplomacy.
Ambassador Girum Abay of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was on the panel, addressed this concern. “I do not intend to scaremonger. Ethiopia plays an important role in this region’s affairs. While we no longer have access to the Red Sea coast, regaining control through force is not our goal. Diplomacy, conviction, and mutual understanding will be our approach,” assured the veteran diplomat.
Consultants noted Ethiopia’s domestic ethnic tensions have made neighbors hesitant to partner on shared ports, given the potential for contested state-building issues to spill across borders. However, Abdeta from CDRC asked a pertinent question: “Why do mentions of Ethiopian ports cause such unease in Somalia, Eritrea, and Djibouti? What has prompted Ethiopia to raise this issue now?”
Despite openly discussing and accurately identifying the root causes of the region’s common problems, each nation still resorts to solo foreign policy strategies when responding. However, the forum enabled regional policymakers and security executives to understand the importance of cooperation among the Horn of Africa, Gulf of Aden, and North Africa sub-regions.
Participants expressed concern over institutional vacuums. As Abdeta noted, “IGAD is extremely dependent on foreign financing – member state contributions barely cover administrative costs. While IGAD has been revitalized, many new regional institutions are still needed. IGAD did well in Sudan and South Sudan but could not effectively solve Sudan’s conflicts.” He also affirmed IGAD could utilize the East African Standby Force if needed, an idea al Burhan rejected, stating the RSF was just a rebellion and no external force was required for peacekeeping.
Most participants, including seasoned diplomats like Ambassador Girum, underscored the need to establish a new regional institution encompassing the Horn, Gulf, and North Africa. Others, such as Brigadier General Bulti Tadesse of the Ethiopian Defense War College, recommended prioritizing regional economic integration over politicizing every regional issue.
However, Luka Kuol (Ph.D.) of South Sudan stressed the imperative to formulate new rules and legislation on the Red Sea water body and port utilization based on AU maritime laws and policies. “West Africa is a good example of nations cooperating to efficiently manage water bodies through regional institutions. The AU has declarations and policies on maritime governance that the Red Sea region could use to also formulate common governing laws.”
Gulf nations seemed happier with rule-based Red Sea utilization. However, they voiced divergent opinions on the type and role of regional institutions and enforcement mechanisms.
Ghanem from the UAE recommended utilizing the existing Red Sea Council instead of establishing new bodies. He also proposed economic cooperation initiatives like Horn-Gulf water-for-energy exchanges per the Israel-Jordan-UAE deal. “Since the Arab Spring, Gulf state policy securitized the region. But now all are tired of zero-sum games. The Gulf now seeks trade, energy, climate, and technology cooperation – our foreign policy priority has shifted from geopolitics to geo-economics. The Red Sea calculus must also shift.”
He exemplified how the UAE de-escalated and formalized relations with former foes like Israel, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. “Generally, the UAE’s foreign policy priority is non-alignment. There are endless cooperation opportunities in the Red Sea region. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and to some extent Kuwait have substantially invested in Ethiopia, Egypt, and Somalia. Abu Dhabi mediated between Eritrea and Ethiopia and invested in Egypt and Sudan’s security – remarkable indications of the Gulf shift towards non-alignment, mediation, and cooperation over competition, securitization, militarization, and confrontation.”
Over the course of robust discussions, the forum surfaced both diverging perspectives and common ground on tackling Red Sea regional security. Attendees recognized the deep complexity of domestic political dynamics interwoven with international great power maneuvers around this strategic waterway. While disagreements remain on finding the right balance between organizations versus ad hoc cooperation, most agreed that the status quo leaves each state vulnerable.
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