Ten years ago the Red Sea was a backwater at the center of the world. Today there is no place in the world with a greater and more complex involvement by regional powers. In the third part of our series, we look at why the Red Sea region continues to hold so much power.

By Alex de Waal
This is part 3 of a series

It will present a complex and urgent policy challenge, particularly for the incoming Biden Administration. For Africa, what is at stake is the future of the Pax Africana: the norms, principles, and institutions developed under African Union stewardship, which have proven so important in the continent’s fragile steps towards peace and security.

‘Red Sea is a vital artery for the world economy’


From the Suez Canal that links it to the Mediterranean, to the straits of the Bab al Mandab that connect it to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea is a vital artery for the world economy. Upwards of 10% of seaborne cargo sails through its waters every year including the majority of Asian trade with Europe.

For any navy aspiring to transoceanic reach, the Red Sea is a crucial chokepoint, and it is no accident that China chose to establish its first overseas naval facility at Djibouti. Fifteen years ago, the upsurge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean led to an international maritime police operation.

Leadership went to that club of states without imperial dreams—the European Union—whose Operation Atalanta was a model of how to manage collective security. Warships from countries as diverse as South Korea, China, and the US all participated as well as Europeans. It reduced pirate attacks almost to zero. It was a model for multilateral cooperation—which was not built upon.

‘The first of the many challenges’

The success of Operation Atalanta distracted attention from the wider questions of conflict and security across the region stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Nile Valley and from the Gulf of Aden to Egypt and the Levant. Herein lies the first of the many challenges in establishing a regional peace and security regime: What are the boundaries of the region? Who is to be involved?

One set of questions—such as fishing, protecting the fragile ecology of coral reefs, and extracting seabed resources—clearly belongs with the littoral states. Saudi Arabia’s Council of Arab and African littoral States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden includes all eight states with a coastline, namely Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Jordan, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen as well as Saudi Arabia itself—but not Israel, which has a seaport at Eilat.

The troublesome issue is whether countries that have no Red Sea coastline but which have major economic, security, or historical interests in the sea should also be members of any formal mechanism. The African Union has begun using the term ‘Red Sea Arena to refer to an expanded group of states that would include Ethiopia and South Sudan, both of which rely on Red Sea ports for their international trade, along with Kenya which has security and commercial interests in the Western Indian Ocean and across the region.

This logic would extend the Red Sea Arena to include the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which have both invested in Red Sea ports.

  • The UAE de facto controls the Yemeni island of Socotra (link to overview) at the eastern gateway to the Gulf of Aden.
  • Oman has historic ties down the Swahili coast as far as Zanzibar.
  • More controversially, Qatar and Iran also have ties.
  • The list of global players with interests in the Red Sea extends to Europe, Asia, the US and Russia.

The European Union’s special envoy for the Horn and the Red Sea, Alex Rondos, spends an inordinate amount of time and effort negotiating the complexities of state sensitivities over who is entitled to claim a legitimate stake in this narrow band of water.

‘An ambiguous boundary’

For Africa, the Red Sea is an ambiguous boundary. The Kenyan historian Ali Mazrui described it as:

The most pernicious sea in Africa’s history … 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.

He argues provocatively that Africa and the Arabian Peninsula should be seen as a single contiguous cultural block with the Red Sea as an Afro-Arabian lake rather than a continental divide. The coastal people of Yemen and northern Somalia share a common heritage and language; the early Abyssinian Empire spanned the two shores; the Prophet Mohammed sent his followers to seek asylum in Ethiopia.

In more recent times, Sudanese professionals provided crucial technical support to the Gulf States when they began establishing their institutions after independence. Somali sheep are preferred for purchase by the pilgrims on the Hajj, and the Yemeni trading diaspora has linked all the countries of the southern Red Sea.

Politically, Egypt intervened in the Yemeni civil war in the 1960s, while Arab countries were active supporters of Eritrean liberation fronts in the 1970s and ‘80s. And during the current Yemen war, the UAE has used the port of Assab in Eritrea as a military base while Sudanese troops have served on the frontline, paid by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

In short, the links across the Red Sea are no less strong than those across the Sahara, which is entirely African territory.

‘Immeasurable consequences’

Where the continental boundary is drawn is a cartographer’s convention—but it has immeasurable consequences. The most important is that membership in Africa’s political and security institutions do not extend to the Arabian Peninsula.

Over the last twenty years, the African Union has developed the norms, principles and institutions of a distinctively multilateral African peace and security order, based on collective responsibility for peacemaking, the duty of neighboring states to engage to end the war and stop atrocities, the promotion of constitutional democracy, and the prohibition of military takeovers.

The countries across the Levant and the Arabian Gulf have, by contrast, remained wedded to a transactional realpolitik, as witnessed by their plunge into proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. International mediators in those two conflicts regretfully observe, in private, that Africa’s mechanisms for peace and security management are far more advanced and had similar principles and institutions been on hand, those wars would have been contained more readily.

Unfortunately, Arab countries’ engagement with the Horn has followed the tactical and often monetized track—sometimes scorned as Riyalpolitik—rather than more painstaking principled multilateralism.

Although the US Administration’s plan for a Middle Eastern Security Alliance that brings together Israel with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE has yet to be constituted formally, those same countries constitute the pillars of the American-led coalition in the region.

The coalition is primarily against Iran, and potentially China and Russia. For the African states of the Horn, the US message is that aspiring members of the club should first call on Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Tel Aviv before knocking on Washington’s door.

Who to turn to for help?

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made peace with Eritrea two years ago, it was notable that he chose to travel to Abu Dhabi and Jeddah, jointly with Eritrea’s President Isseyas Afewerki, to receive congratulations rather than attend the AU Summit, although the agreement he signed was one that the African continental organization had itself mediated in Algiers back in 2000. The transactional nature of that deal is reflected in the fact that since then, Eritrea has neither democratized nor kept its borders open for free movement of citizens.

In recent days, Ethiopia has plunged into civil war, threatening a new era of darkness in that country.

International efforts to mediate and resolve this conflict will require a complex alignment of actors—global, regional, and national.

  • Faced with the popular uprising and peaceful revolution in Sudan last year, the initial impulse of the Arab troika of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE was to back the military. On this occasion, however, they compromised with African Union proposals for a compromise, in part because of pressure from Washington and London.
  • In Somalia too, the Gulf States have learned that money cannot buy them clients. The Somali political elites are adept at playing the political marketplace and balancing the interests of the Saudis and Emiratis against the Qataris and Turks.
  • Small Djibouti is perhaps the most adept at this game, and it has succeeded in leveraging its strategic position to avoid being overly dependent on any single foreign patron. It hosts American, French and Chinese military bases and was able to stand up to the UAE when it felt that Dubai Ports World was not fulfilling its side of a deal for developing a container port.

In short, the last decades of hard work building the architecture of Pax Africana counts for little when faced with the transactional political practices of the Middle Eastern powers and their backers in the Trump White House. A change of administration in Washington is not likely to reverse this trend, at least not quickly.

For the Saudis and Emiratis, the immediate priorities are managing the repercussions of their calamitous military adventure in Yemen, alongside maintaining the Red Sea as a strategic fallback for oil exports in the case of a crisis in the Persian Gulf and keeping the Islamists away from power anywhere in the region.

Looking to the longer term, they see Africa as integral to their economic future. For the UAE, most important is control over Indian Ocean ports. For all the Gulf countries, the fertile lands of East Africa are a potential food security investment.

Juggling interests according to US policies

All countries find they have to juggle their interests in the light of US policies. The Trump Administration was animated by rivalry with China, whose Belt and Road Initiative encompasses the Red Sea, and using unilateral pressure and incentives to swing African countries into pro-US positions.

The biggest prize has been Ethiopia, where the previous “developmental state” model has been rejected in favor of rapid deregulation of both the political and economic spheres.

The other White House interest in the Horn of Africa has been as ancillary to a desperate search for something that passes as a Middle Eastern “peace” plan, which consists of getting Arab states to recognize Israel. Sudan has acceded to US pressure and is now set to become the fifth Arab state to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for it being removed from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

It’s a shameless example of driving a hard bargain with a country in desperate straits that needs an economic lifeline if its experiment in democracy is to remain alive.

Africa’s own continental organizations have not been slow to develop a policy for the Red Sea Arena. The AU has recognized the need for an external affairs strategy that goes beyond asking richer countries for funds.

The election of a new Commissioner for Peace and Security will be an opportunity to move out of the current doldrums into a proactive engagement that consolidates the principles and institutions of Africa’s emergent but fragile peace and security regime.

*Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and a professor at the Fletcher School, Tufts University

Part 1: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey…Who will control the Red Sea?

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

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