V. Entry points

There are a number of potential entry points—each with attendant risks and opportunities—for international engagement in the promotion of stability and cooperation within and across the Horn of African and the Red Sea regions. The emergence of the Red Sea Council as a regional platform for cooperation across the wider Red Sea region has so far been a slow process, although donors and other international actors with a stake in the region have been promoting such a platform for several years. The slow pace reflects the range of influential states that consider the region to be their historic or future sphere of influence—including Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The pace also reflects the longer-term concerns of smaller countries such as Eritrea, whose governments have tried to avoid becoming clients of any of the larger states. However, the emergence of the council over the past year provides an opening, even if it is one that carries both risks from and opportunities for international engagement.

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Even with its initially narrow remit on maritime security and a membership restricted to coastal states, the Red Sea Council includes a number of states that are central to wider regional tensions. Engagement with and support for the council from the wider international community offers one clear, albeit partial, entry point for the promotion of regional stability and cooperation.

This is particularly the case because the existing multilateral institutions that include the states around the Red Sea Basin—that is, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC, also known as the Co-operation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf) and IGAD—are, for different reasons, facing challenges in providing a platform for effective multilateral cooperation. The GCC has since 2017 been divided by the Saudi–Emirati-led attempt to isolate Qatar. IGAD by contrast remains an effective platform for regional dialogue (including essential informal/unscheduled discussions on the sidelines of its regular meetings), but the non-participation of Eritrea, a member state, and the more recent tension between Kenya and Somalia over their maritime boundary undermine the bloc’s potential for broad regional cooperation. IGAD’s challenges are compounded by its limited resources, although Sudan’s recent signal that it would clear its arrears and resume paying membership dues is a welcome development.

While intra-Gulf diplomacy continues to struggle, IGAD, in spite of its challenges, launched a Task Force on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in 2019 with an eye to the broader Horn of Africa’s engagement with the Saudi-driven Red Sea Council initiative. This is an indication of the Horn’s appetite and initiative for multilateral engagement and could emerge as an important mechanism for influencing the development of the emerging Red Sea Council.

African multilateral initiatives in the wider Red Sea region have some track record of positive influence, particularly in the case of the recent Sudanese transition. The African Union High-level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), which has been in place for more than a decade, has played a facilitating role for externally supported initiatives to promote peace in Sudan and South Sudan, including during the political transition following the coup in 2019. As such the AUHIP represents another entry point to the Red Sea.

As such, both the IGAD task force and the AUHIP could offer an important path to bring subregional and continental multilateral approaches into alignment, if they do not emerge as sources of competition. This is an important risk factor, since the commercial or political objectives, and even humanitarian goals, of external actors are frequently not aligned with the states of the region. In addition, the dynamics of competition within the wider Red Sea region for political and economic influence create a landscape sensitive to destabilization from outside. Both initiatives seem to have an important role to play in enhancing African participation in the emerging Red Sea regional cooperation.

Both the IGAD task force and the AUHIP could offer an important path to bring subregional and continental multilateral approaches into alignment, if they do not emerge as sources of competition

In the short term, such interactions, and in particular external support for engagement, between the IGAD task force or AUHIP and the Red Sea Council will be shaped by the narrow focus on the Red Sea Council. For example, illegal fishing is a concern of many African coastal states and appears likely to be on the initial agenda of the Red Sea Council. As a result, illegal fishing is emerging as a priority for the IGAD task force. While there is scope for external support to such an initiative, that scope may be limited, particularly given the role of international commercial interests in exploiting poorly controlled waters in the region. Another risk to the coherent development of the Red Sea Council could arise if international actors in seeking to support the Red Sea Council, as a way to reinforce engagement on existing concerns centered on the region such as piracy or migration, instead end up derailing regional cooperation on issues for which there is sufficient regional interest for engagement. A slow process may imply limited access points in the short to medium term.

Given Ethiopia’s strong relations with most of the initial members of the Red Sea Council, and the economic and security linkages between Ethiopia and the other states of the Horn of Africa, it might appear natural to push for the Red Sea Council’s mandate to be expanded so that Ethiopia could be included. However, this would carry risks, both in terms of resistance from Ethiopia’s competitors for regional influence (especially Egypt) and in terms of potentially unsettling less influential states such as Eritrea or Djibouti, which may be looking to embed their interests in the emerging organization’s structures before considering expansion of its membership or mandate. A similar caveat could be applied to the UAE’s prospective participation in the Red Sea Council.

In light of this, the IGAD task force is clearly a vehicle of multilateral engagement which captures Ethiopia’s and Kenya’s interests to feed them into the Red Sea context, while carrying less risk of destabilizing the emerging platform. This reinforces the case for supporting IGAD within the scope of the agenda its members set for it. A slow and deliberate process of enhancing multilateral capacity on both sides of the Red Sea could facilitate the new Red Sea Council’s emergence as a positive platform for regional cooperation.

Strengthening multilateralism on the African side of the Red Sea could have positive spillover effects on other regional issues, such as the dispute over the GERD or competing regional agendas in Somalia. Abiy’s request for the AU to engage in the Nile discussions could be seen in this light. The Horn of Africa has experienced significant developments in the political and social spheres in the recent past. However, the region remains vulnerable to economic, political and climatic shocks. The evolution of relations between Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan since Abiy took power in Ethiopia has established some indication of the potential for regional cooperation, a major shift after a long history of mutual distrust and destabilization. It is important not to underestimate the significance of the unwinding of a politics of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, although it is too early to say whether such politics are permanently on the wane.


Jason MosleyJason Mosley (United Kingdom) is an Associate Senior Researcher contributing to SIPRI’s research on peace, conflict and security. He is also a Research Associate at the African Studies Centre, Oxford University and managing editor of the Journal of Eastern African Studies. Building on more than 7 years of experience in research consulting, and more than 20 years of field experience in the Horn of Africa, Jason has since 2012 undertaken a range of policy and academic research consultancies, focused on political economy issues across the Horn of Africa. He was an Associate Fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House from 2012-18. Prior to this, Jason was the Senior Analyst for Africa at Oxford Analytica from 2005-12.

Jason’s current research is focused on the wider Red Sea region, in terms of peace and security issues, cultural and economic linkages, and shifts in regional multilateralism. He has a continuing interest in local reactions to state visions for the development of marginalized regions, especially in frontier areas. Jason is also active in efforts to mentor researchers in Northeast Africa, and in finding ways to amplify research agendas initiated and driven by his colleagues from the region.


  • Political economy of development; regional security


  • Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya; Red Sea

CONTACT Jason Mosley


  • +44 791 908 31 11


  • English, Amharic


  • MA African Studies, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom


  • United Kingdom
  • United States

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