The Red Sea is governed by an alphabet soup of international agreements and peppered with dozens of strategic ports and military bases. To help you navigate, here is a non-exhaustive list of the principal players and treaties, and locations.
By Andreu Sola-Martin
This is part 2 of a series.
A satellite image of the coast of the Red Sea depicts a desert coastline. But the image is not the entire truth. The long coastline of one of the busiest trade routes in the world is dotted with ports enabling the transportation of everything from oil to goats to consumer goods.
These trade hubs are accompanied by military bases that use the strategic geography of the Red Sea to defend and to strike.
Who manages the ports and the bases is a reflection of a myriad of power structures, political opportunism, and financial deals – the outcome of the complex regional dynamics of the Red Sea.
Regional cooperation initiatives
For decades, regional powers and international alliances have sought to govern and coordinate what goes on in the Red Sea.
The below tables provide an account of the main regional multilateral initiatives developed to enhance Afro-Arab cooperation on the Red Sea.
In 1974, the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) launched the Regional Program for the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to address the protection of the marine environment. The program paved the way for the signing of the Regional Convention for the Conservation of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden Environment in 1982. The convention has since become known as the Jeddah convention and featured signatories from all Red Sea coastal states.
Another example of regional cooperation among coastal states is their adherence to the Djibouti Code of Conduct established in 2009. The Code of Conduct concerns the repression of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.
In 2020, the Council of Arab and African Littoral States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden was established in Riyadh. This was preceded by several meetings convened by Egypt and Saudi Arabia since December 2017. To date, limited information has been publicly disclosed on the organization’s mandate, structure, and working procedures.
The African Union and IGAD have also intensified their multilateral efforts in the Horn of Africa in recent years. The AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) for Sudan, South Sudan, and the Horn of Africa were mandated in December 2018 to liaise with regional organizations from both sides of the Red Sea.
However, the first ministerial-level meeting convening AUHIP members to the Peace and Security Council (PSC) on the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region did not transpire as planned in February 2020. The meeting has been postponed indefinitely.
During 2019, IGAD agreed on the formation of a taskforce on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The task force is charting out a regional plan of action through national consultations. Eritrea’s membership suspension remains a core challenge vis-à-vis IGAD’s efforts at regional integration.
Important points along the Red Sea coast
The map presented below is by no means exhaustive, but act as preliminary examinations of the operational ports (red points) in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The map aims to provide a baseline for analysis and visualize the various interests of Red Sea players on both sides of the sea.
Egypt is the country with most civilian ports and hosts close to 20 ports on the Red coast. The country hosts eight commercial ports, including El Sokhna Port operated by DP World, a multinational United Arab Emirates-based logistics company. In addition, Egypt has five petroleum, mining, and tourist ports as well as at least three industrial fishing ports.
On the other shore, Saudi Arabia has six main commercial ports on the Red Sea. Half of the ports are run by Emirati companies; DP World operates the South Container Terminal at Jeddah Islamic Port, the Red Sea Marine Services operates two terminals in King Fahad Industrial Port Yanbu, and Global Marine Services and Red Sea Marine Services each operate one at Yanbu Commercial Port.
The main port in Sudan is Port Sudan managed by the Sudanese Sea Ports Corporation. The company also operates Oseif Sea Port and the Prince Osman Digna Sea Port on Suakin island, where Turkey has signed a 99-year lease to redevelop the location as a tourism hub. Suakin used to be an Ottoman-era port, but it has not been used for commercial purposes for decades.
The Massawa port is Eritrea’s main point of arrival for imported goods. According to a news piece published in February by Bloomberg, Eritrea had reached a deal with DP World to upgrade the port, yet Eritrean government sources refuted the claim. According to the government, discussions with potential partners are on their way, but still to be sealed.
The Port de Djibouti is located at the intersection of international shipping lanes. State-owned China Merchants Port Holdings has acquired 23,5 percent of Port De Djibouti. The port includes the Doraleh Container Terminal which was granted to DP World in 2006 through a 30-year concession agreement but was then nationalized in 2018. The London Court of Arbitration has ordered Djibouti to restore the concession or pay damages. Furthermore, the China Harbor Engineering Corporation has built a mineral terminal at Port of Ghoubet where the China Communication Construction Company has exclusive rights to exploit the local salt resources.
Since 2016, the DP World has a 30-year concession for the management of Somaliland’s Berbera Port. Ethiopia owns 19% of the port project. In 2017, P&O – a subsidiary of DP World – won a 30-year concession to develop Bosaso port in Puntland but, controversially, development work has been put on hold and large container ships cannot dock at the terminal.
Due to the ongoing conflict, providing an accurate picture of open commercial ports in Yemen is problematic. According to international maritime insurers such as Gard or Skuld, Yemen has seven operational ports, including two oil-exporting terminals. During the last three years, around 50 percent of cargo imports for the whole country landed at the Port of Aden which has received technical advice from the American aid agency USAID through the Pragma corporation and support from the United Nations development program UNDP.
The war has had a drastic impact on the activity of commercial ports in Yemen. For instance, activities in the strategic commercial port of Shehn bordering the Sultanate of Oman in Al-Mahra Governorate have been disrupted ever since the Saudi coalition occupied the area.
The map below indicates the approximate location of the main military bases (black points) along the coast of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. A number of military facilities in the region are kept out of the public eye with limited information available about their operations.
Berenice is Egypt’s biggest military base in the Red Sea.
Israel and Jordan have contiguous naval bases in Eliat and Aqaba.
Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal Naval Base hosts the country’s Western Fleet.
- The Emirati’s naval base in Assab, Eritrea has played a pivotal role in Saudi-Emirati military operations in Yemen. The United Arab Emirates has expressed interest in increasing its presence across the Red Sea coast through military bases and the management of ports. In early 2020, the Emirate’s plan to build a military base in Berbera, Somaliland was canceled.
- Port Sudan’s naval base hosts Russian warships as part of a cooperation agreement signed in 2017. An agreement is underway to establish a Russian naval logistics base in Sudan.
- Djibouti hosts military bases from the United States, China, France (including German and Spanish contingents), Japan, and Italy. Despite the general harmony within the country, Djibouti’s coast is getting crowded and tensions playing out beyond the sea. In 2018, the US accused Chinese nationals of pointing lasers at US military aircraft near Djibouti.
- The map does not include information on bases in Yemen because reliable and up to date information on air and war bases along Yemen’s Red Sea is very limited as the war rages on. Factions have recurrently fought over control over Al Anad Air Base in the Lahij Governorate, the biggest in Yemen. After the UAE’s drawdown in 2019, Yemeni military commanders told Reuters news agency that Saudi Arabia’s military took command of bases at the ports of al-Makha and al-Khokha and sent troops to the port city of Aden and Perim Island on the Bab Al Mandeb strait. There are contradictory claims regarding the UAE’s military presence in the Yemeni island of Socotra.
Despite media claims that Turkey is planning to establish a military base in the Sudanese island of Suakin, Turkish officials have repeatedly denied this.
*Dr. Andreu Sola-Martin is an adviser at the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI)
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