This report analyses the impact of the engagement of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Turkey in the Horn of Africa.[1] It also looks at the responses and interests of states in the Horn of Africa region: Sudan, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia and Eritrea. Most of these states are located within the wider Red Sea region, including the Horn of Africa and the Nile Basin, as well as the Arabian Peninsula, which is an increasingly important regional unit for political and economic analysis. The influence of Turkey in this region has also increased substantially over the last decade.

Cultural, economic, and political connections across the Red Sea go back centuries. The intensity of regional dynamics has been increasing, however, particularly since the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen in 2015. For Turkey and the Gulf states, policy towards the Horn of Africa is situated in relation to their broader strategic priorities. Over the past decade, these priorities have been dominated by the fallout from the 2008 global economic crisis and the subsequent political crises that have arisen in many parts of the Middle East since the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011. Political shifts in the Horn of Africa have also influenced regional dynamics, the most pronounced of which are the political transitions taking place in Ethiopia and Sudan, and the restoration of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea since 2018.

From the Gulf states or Turkish perspective, an important factor in regional relations has been evolving US policy towards the Middle East since the Arab Uprisings, and in particular the dynamics of US–Iran relations. For the Arab states in the Gulf, the US posture is an important structural influence, as their security depends fundamentally on US support. In part, this helps define the options available for these middle powers to pursue their national interests, recognizing some of the constraints on their ability to project their security and economic agendas. This is less the case for Turkey, a NATO member-state and much more established military actor which sees itself as a re-emerging power on a par with other European actors (if not the US or China), although the country also faces constraints on its ability to project power. The wider Red Sea region has emerged as an important site of both competition and cooperation between Turkey, the Gulf states and the states in the Horn of Africa. Competition for influence, in particular the Saudi–Iranian rivalry, has also driven the Saudis to push for the development of a new multilateral framework for engagement centered on the region (the Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, or the Red Sea Council). Economic considerations such as port expansion and trade are also substantive issues, especially for the UAE. This includes most but not all key states in the region.


For the states in the Horn of Africa, increasing engagement from Turkey and the Gulf states has created opportunities but also challenges. This is especially the case for smaller states such as Eritrea, or more fragile ones such as Somalia, and more recently Sudan, which can find themselves caught between competing external agendas that can put their own internal stability at risk. Nevertheless, Turkey and the Gulf states have been a growing source of investment in the Horn of Africa, including in some strategic infrastructure such as ports. The substantial impact of some external influence has fed into perceptions in the Horn of Africa that the region is a higher priority for Turkey and the Gulf states than policymakers in those states describe. As US policy shifts in 2021, this could have an important impact on the scale of Gulf and Turkish engagement in the Horn of Africa, which may catch some actors in the Horn by surprise.

Background: a region in flux

Since 2015, cross-regional dynamics in the wider Red Sea region—especially between the Gulf states and the Horn of Africa—have been intensifying. In 2015, succession in Saudi Arabia allowed Mohammed bin Salman (initially as defense minister and deputy crown prince) to pursue a markedly more assertive regional security strategy. In large part, this was driven by Saudi desires to contain Iran, which looked to benefit from a rapprochement of sorts with the West under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over its nuclear program. Horn of Africa states were directly affected by a number of shifts, including:

  • regional security engagement, particularly around the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which was the first Saudi-led military intervention in its modern history;
  • spillover from the 2017 Gulf states crisis and Gulf interventions in regional diplomacy (for example, between Ethiopia and Eritrea, or between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over Nile waters); and
  • political transitions, especially in Ethiopia since 2018, and Sudan since 2019.

The region also has been affected by global factors and increased competition between the Gulf states, Turkey, and Iran for influence in the wider Middle East. In particular, this has seen the profile of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rise sharply in the Horn of Africa.

Other key fault-lines crisscross the wider Red Sea region. These include tensions over the future of the Nile basin, in light of the Ethiopian development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Between mid-2017 and early 2021 the Gulf states crisis saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain seek to isolate Qatar, drawing in Turkey (the profile of which has been rising in the Horn of Africa for more than a decade) and states in the Horn of Africa. A Turkish–Qatari alliance has subsequently emerged. In particular, this alliance competes with the UAE and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia in the region and the eastern Mediterranean (including in Libya), where a number of political transitions and related conflicts are underway a decade after the Arab Uprisings. More recently, a US-driven process has seen the UAE and Sudan (along with Morocco) move to normalize relations with Israel.

Regional blocs, especially the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in the Horn, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) across the Red Sea—as well as the newly founded Red Sea Council (established in January 2020)—have struggled with internal divisions. The development of a coherent vision for the wider Red Sea region also has been slow. Nevertheless, when functioning even at a minimum level, such blocs are an important locus for dialogue, particularly on the sidelines of regularly scheduled meetings at technical, ministerial and heads of state levels. A key challenge remains, however. None of these blocs include all the key actors on both shores of the Red Sea; importantly, neither Ethiopia nor the UAE – both influential players in the Horn of Africa and wider Red Sea region – are members of the new Red Sea Council.

Moreover, even within alliances or blocs, states that cooperate on one agenda may be at odds on other issues. Saudi–Emirati cooperation has been a key feature since the Arab Uprisings, especially since the ascendance of Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi politics from 2015, starting with the Yemen intervention. At the same time, Saudi and Emirati priorities do diverge. While both states engaged in the Ethiopia–Eritrea rapprochement and in the Sudanese political transition with similar aims, their approaches to the isolation of Qatar and competition with Turkey (or Iran) are not fully aligned. An Emirati policy to counter Turkish influence in the wider Middle East is an emerging feature, about which alignment with Saudi Arabia is not complete. Neither Saudi nor Emirati policy has been able to balance stepping up relations with Ethiopia against their longstanding interests in Egypt (in the context of tensions over the GERD).

The shocks of 2020

During 2020, serious shocks affected many of the countries in the Red Sea region. Most obviously, the global coronavirus pandemic and its knock-on disruption to the global economy, in addition to the local health and economic effects, affected the entire region. Approaches to testing and reporting on the spread of the disease vary widely across countries. This means there is considerable uncertainty as to the prevalence of the disease in the Red Sea region and its impact on public health systems. Although the initial stages of the outbreak appear to have been relatively weak, compared with outbreaks in Europe and North America, the second wave may be more intense.[2] Limited capacity of health systems and different approaches to testing make comparisons and predictions difficult. The economic effects are more visible, however. Similar to previous global financial shocks, this has had important implications for the Horn of Africa and the wider Red Sea region. Both the significant reduction in demand for hydrocarbons and the overproduction as a result of competition between Saudi Arabia and Russia during the first months of 2020 have seen benchmark prices drop from more than USD 60/barrel to below USD 20/barrel in May 2020, before recovering to between USD 40–50/barrel since late June 2020.[3] Gulf states hydrocarbon exporters have built up fiscal reserves to weather these fluctuations, although other aspects of the pandemic response are denting revenues—such as the suspension of the annual Hajj and the global downturn in air travel.[4]

For oil importers in the Horn of Africa, the global slowdown produces a mixed impact, lowering fuel costs but potentially denting inward investment, which is an increasingly important dimension of Gulf–Horn relations. As happened in 2008–2009, however, macroeconomic strains may be addressed in part through global support programs designed as a global response to the economic crisis arising as a result of the pandemic. For example, Ethiopia appears ready to take advantage of a framework announced by the G20 in November 2020 to alleviate debt distress in poor countries in order to facilitate a potential restructuring of the public and semi-public debt the country has accrued.[5] Sudan may also benefit from an increase in donor support: Western and Gulf countries pledged USD 1.8 billion in June 2020 to support the transitional government and Washington has finally removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which should unblock external investment and open up access to multilateral finance.[6]

Overall, an important consequence of the current economic volatility may be that Turkey and the Gulf states find their budgets under strain—either in terms of investment or humanitarian support—at a time when the countries in the Horn of Africa are particularly vulnerable and their need for support from their Gulf and Turkish allies is rising. While the resources brought to bear (especially by Gulf actors) are substantial from the vantage point of the states in the Horn of Africa, the region is not as high a priority for those states as their Horn counterparts seem to believe.

Economic fragility is compounded by political tensions in Ethiopia, which have complicated its external relations, including with the Gulf states. The ongoing political transition in the country since 2018 was already fraught,[7]but internal tensions intensified sharply during 2020. Violence spiked in November and December 2020 as conflict broke out between the national government and the regional administration in Tigray, with more than 55,000 refugees displaced across the border to Sudan.[8] The ruling political party in Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the ruling coalition in Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, found itself increasingly at odds with the new administration in Addis Ababa. The TPLF was also politically isolated following the dissolution of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the formation of a single party, the Prosperity Party, comprised of former EPRDF coalition members and allied parties. Most of the TPLF leadership has fled or been killed, and a provisional administration was established for Tigray region on 7 November 2020. The Tigray conflict came amid tensions between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and opposition parties in his home region of Oromia. The murder of a popular Oromo signer and activist, Haacaalu Hundeessaa, in June 2020 triggered communal violence, with reports of gangs of Oromo youth looting and killing in Addis Ababa and many other cities and towns across Oromia, as well as a heavy security crackdown. Victims include members of ethnic minorities in Oromia, especially Amhara, and Oromo demonstrators killed by the police.[9] More than 200 people have been reported killed by the government and more than 1,000 people arrested, including two prominent opposition politicians from Oromia, Jawar Mohammed, and Bekele Gerba.

With media and telecommunications access in northern Ethiopia extremely limited, competing narratives about the course of the conflict and current conditions have emerged. The TPLF and other opponents of the government offensive in Tigray claim that the UAE supported the Ethiopian government with drone attacks on TPLF forces and equipment.[10] The presence of Emirati military assets at the Eritrean port of Assab, related to operations in Yemen, lends plausibility to accusations of its involvement, even if the Ethiopian government denies external military involvement and there are significant doubts as to whether such an intervention would be in Abu Dhabi’s interests. Nevertheless, the perception of Emirati military involvement may carry its own implications. On 3 February 2021, the Ethiopian government claims to have disrupted a plot to bomb the Emirati embassy in Addis Ababa.[11]

Tensions in the Nile basin also increased during 2020. Tripartite negotiations over the GERD intensified in early 2020 after the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States and World Bank became involved. Although ostensibly observers, the United States (apparently in response to Egyptian concerns) attempted to broker a deal, pressuring all states to sign in March 2020. Ethiopia resisted and instead worked to shift the focus back to an African Union (AU)-led process, despite pressure from the US administration. In addition, as the death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger on Oct. 4 has lead some in the United States worked to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terror, the transitional government in Khartoum came under pressure from Washington to normalize relations with Israel as a precondition for removal, which it eventually agreed to do. During a late October 2020 call between the US president, the Israeli prime minister, and the Sudanese prime minister to celebrate the normalization, the US president criticized Ethiopia for not signing the March 2020 agreement on the Nile and suggested that Egypt would bomb the GERD.[12] Moreover, in the wake of the Tigray crisis, a frozen border conflict along the Sudanese–Ethiopian frontier re-activated in late 2020 and early 2021. The tripartite dialogue under AU auspices has not made significant progress and relations between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt are at a low.

Conflict in Ethiopia adds to an already challenging environment for external engagement from the Saudi and Emirati governments. Both countries have strong relations with the Egyptian government and have emerged as influential in the Sudanese transition, particularly with the security services. Despite closer relations with Addis Ababa since 2018, it does not appear that Riyadh or Abu Dhabi are in a position to facilitate dialogue between Ethiopia and Sudan over the cross-border conflict or between the three countries over the development and filling of the GERD.

Nevertheless, the US election result in late 2020 appears to have produced one potential improvement in regional dynamics: In anticipation of the change of US administration, Saudi Arabia has moved to repair relations with Qatar. Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain followed suit in early 2021. The ending of the embargo on Qatar is an important shift in a set of divisions that have underpinned regional dynamics since 2017.

Evolving connections in the Red Sea regional context

The countries of the Horn of Africa comprise the African flank of a zone of increasing regional connection but also of competing visions and interests. As these dynamics have intensified, the states in the Horn of Africa have increasingly been drawn into the orbit of the Gulf states and of Turkey.

Links from the Horn of Africa across the Red Sea, and beyond to the Middle East, are long-standing, stretching into antiquity.[13] Modern connectivity has waxed and waned. Connectivity intensified with the building of the Suez Canal and subsequent British colonial activity in the area. By the late nineteenth century, the wider region was brought under the hegemony of a single imperial regime. Connectivity waned in the second half of the twentieth century as postcolonial states pursued new alignments.[14] Miran’s 2009 monograph on Massawa, Eritrea illustrates the overlapping networks of social, economic and religious connectivity crossing the wider Red Sea region.[15] From the nineteenth century, expanding Egyptian influence (including influential Sufi brotherhoods) in competition with the Ottoman empire and emerging European colonialism, reinforced the pattern of such networks.[16] Recent research has increasingly engaged with the connections across the region, although often through the lens of maritime security, regional stability or migration.[17]

The global economic crisis of 2008, and the election of US President Barack Obama, who took office in January 2009, set the stage for important shifts in some of the geostrategic conditions within which governments in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa have pursued alliances and developed their regional agendas. Importantly, the Obama administration (and subsequently the Trump administration) sought to disentangle the United States from some of the entrenched positions in the Middle East that had been built up in previous decades, but particularly since the Bush administration invasion of Iraq in 2003.[18] From a regional perspective, this had two important impacts. First, when the economic downturn provided the spark for popular protests across the Middle East from late 2010, the Obama administration proved willing to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood, which leveraged the protest movement in Egypt that brought down President Hosni Mubarak and led to the election of President Mohamed Morsi in 2012. Crises in Tunisia, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria were viewed with alarm in most of the authoritarian Gulf monarchies, leading to tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and Qatar on the other, over how to respond.[19] The Saudis and Emiratis supported the 2013 coup against the Morsi government and subsequently sought to curb Qatari (and Turkish) influence in the region, wherever post-Arab Uprising instability is still playing out, including in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.[20]

Second, US policy under the Obama administration shifted to pursue rapprochement with Iran as part of a strategy to constrain the Iranian nuclear program. For Saudi Arabia in particular, this presented a significant challenge. A long-standing pillar of the Saudi security strategy—cooperation with the United States on security and mutual containment of Iran—was cast into doubt. Although the Trump administration shifted away from engagement with Iran, indications suggest that the Biden administration may revive the approach. Saudi leadership regards Iran as a regional rival and a strategic threat.[21] The perceived threat of a resurgent Iran, as well as the pursuit of national interest amid the volatile post-2011 landscape, presented key challenges for Gulf leadership. The 2013 intervention in Egypt marked a significant step in the evolution of a more assertive security strategy in the region—not only the Middle East and North Africa but also across the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa.

This shift also reflected generational and personality changes in the leadership of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. By 2014, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed had increasingly consolidated his authority (and that of Abu Dhabi) within the UAE, after the relative position of Dubai was weakened by the 2008 global crisis. The death of the ruler of Ras al-Khaminah (RAK), Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammad al-Qasimi, in late 2010 altered the relatively tolerant posture of that emirate towards the Islamist movement Al-Islah. In 2014, the president of the UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed (brother of Mohammed) suffered a stroke and left Mohammed as de facto ruler. In January 2015 in Saudi Arabia, following the death of King Abdullah, Mohammed bin Salman emerged as the key driver of Saudi foreign and security policy—first as deputy crown prince and defense minister, and subsequently as crown prince.[22]

During the past decade, Turkish re-engagement in the Horn of Africa and the wider Red Sea region has intensified as part of a more assertive foreign policy under the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or the AKP). Since 2003, the AKP has been led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as prime minister, and then since 2014, as president. The push of Turkey into Africa dates back to the mid-1990s but its engagement in the Horn of Africa has picked up considerably since its humanitarian intervention in Somalia during the 2011 famine.[23]

Sometimes referred to as ‘neo-Ottomanism’, Turkish foreign policy in the wider Red Sea region has been underpinned by two main pillars. These are securing commercial interests and cementing the position of Turkey as a security influencer in the Mediterranean and wider Red Sea regions.[24] Turkey was an early adopter of a regional approach to the Horn of Africa, opening embassies in every country in the region.[25] As a party with Islamist roots, the AKP is seen by the Gulf monarchies (especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE) as having supported Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movements during the Arab Uprising.[26] Following a 2016 coup attempt, and subsequent entrenchment of Erdoğan’s presidential position through a constitutional referendum in 2017, Turkish security interventions have intensified, including in Libya and Syria, positioning the country at further odds with the Saudis and Emiratis.

Turkey also supported Qatar amid the embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain from 2017 until early 2021. In the Horn of Africa (and globally), an important third agenda has been added to Turkish engagement; namely, the elimination of business and educational projects linked to the Gülenist movement alleged to be behind the 2016 coup attempt.[27] This has led to an intensification in cultural diplomacy, including investment in education in the region and scholarship programs. Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and to some extent Egypt are all cultivating influence and commercial and security interests on the African shores of the wider Red Sea region.

In addition to the US agenda, an increasingly important geostrategic consideration is the commercial and security presence of China in the Red Sea region and the western Indian Ocean. Since 2013, much of this engagement has come under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There is a long history of China–Gulf relations, which have deepened with intensifying Chinese investment since the BRI was announced.[28] This has created opportunities for collaboration. At the same time, the economic competition has become sharper. This is particularly visible in Djibouti, where the Emirati firm Dubai Ports World (DP World) has lost out to Chinese companies in the port sector. Chinese engagement in maritime security has also contributed to competition with the Gulf states and Turkey (and global naval powers) in the context of counter-piracy operations, with Djibouti again proving an important locus where such competition plays out, and providing the Djiboutian government with opportunities to advance its own interests.[29]

Towards a Red Sea Council

Since 2018, the push to develop a new regional bloc, centered on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which connects it to the western Indian Ocean, has taken shape in this dynamic and complex context. Given the competing visions and rivalries described above, the artificial division created by the Red Sea into African and Middle East geographies has proven to be a stumbling block for the promotion of regional cooperation and dialogue. As such, the January 2020 summit in Riyadh to launch the charter for the Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (or Red Sea Council)—comprised of Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia—marks an important departure. The bloc (however nascent) offers a potentially significant platform for cross-regional diplomacy and cooperation, although it faces significant challenges.

Discussions with potential members of the Red Sea Council were initiated by Saudi Arabia in late 2018.[30] According to Ahmed Kattan, Saudi minister of state for African countries, ‘Saudi Arabia was the first to realize the importance of the Red Sea and the first to initiate a call for international collective efforts aimed at coordination to protect and secure the safety of the waterway.’[31] The initial aim of the organization is strengthening economic, environmental, and most importantly, security cooperation, especially on piracy, smuggling and immigration.[32]

Until the Red Sea Council was established, none of the multilateral bodies that included the major states in the wider Red Sea region—most significantly, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference—had a clear focus on a shared agenda for this region. Rather, most multilateral initiatives reinforce artificial distinctions between the Middle East and Africa. Further, multilateralism has taken different courses in Africa and the Middle East, with African regional bodies more actively engaged in diplomatic cooperation than their Middle Eastern counterparts.

With the COVID-19 pandemic contributing to the delayed setup of the council, the structure and function of the organization currently remains unclear. As a Saudi diplomat posits, ‘The Red Sea Council has stalled with COVID but the plan is that it will serve as a major platform for developing political, economic, cultural and security ties, including maritime issues and criminality and migration issues.’[33] While it is a critical multilateral initiative illustrative of transregional strategic engagements, the added-value of the Red Sea Council should be judged against the possibilities for cooperation that it offers, as well as the capacity of members to deal efficiently and effectively with regional issues.

Council leadership is a source of tension for the larger member states. While Saudi Arabia and Egypt both floated the idea of this council back in 2018, Riyadh has been the main driving force behind its realization. The kingdom presumably seeks to organize Red Sea affairs under its umbrella.[34] As such, there is a fear (especially in Cairo) that Saudi Arabia will use the council as a tool to serve its own foreign policy concerns; namely, against Iran,[35] whose profile in the Red Sea has risen as the conflict in Yemen has intensified since the Saudi-led intervention in 2015. Described as a Saudi political initiative, it is useful to point out some initial discrepancies between the two countries over the nature of the organization: Cairo seemingly called for a decentralized body, the work of which should focus on a wide range of topics; meanwhile, Riyadh enforced a centralized and security-focused approach.[36] Reflecting willingness to enhance cooperation under its aegis, in 2018 and 2019, Riyadh organized extensive joint naval exercises in the Red Sea (Red Wave 1 and 2) including almost all the maritime states, with the exception of Israel and Eritrea.[37]

In contrast, pushing back against Iranian influence (and attempts to influence) is not a major concern for Horn of Africa countries. Nonetheless, Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti closed their embassies in Tehran in support of Saudi Arabia when it severed diplomatic ties with the Islamic republic in January 2016. In 2015, these countries joined the Mohammed bin Salman-led Saudi Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), which many also perceived as a tool to push back against Iranian influence. According to some observers, the council also targets Turkey.[38] In spite of apparent unity in the council, some member states are concerned about the increasing institutionalization of the Saudi political and security regional network, the objective of which would be to establish kingdom hegemony over the region. These divergent concerns risk weakening unity as ‘all littoral states need to share the same threat perceptions, which they [the council] do not’.[39]These fears and differences could further curb the overall cooperation level between council members, which would curb their capacity for action.

Despite growing interest in the Red Sea region, a Saudi commercial attaché sums up the situation this way:

Mohammed bin Salman’s political and economic focus since he became crown prince [and formerly as deputy crown prince] has largely been on traditional partners with the US at the top of the hierarchy (like never before), followed by European members [UK, France] and then strategic cooperation with Russia and China (especially economically). … But finally, the main threat for Saudi Arabia is Iran and dealing with Yemen. MbS also knows that the biggest threat of all is a lack of economic progress and, more specifically, job creation for Saudi nationals. … If the Red Sea developments can support the latter, then a council, a platform, may be useful.[40]

With the current twin fiscal pressures in Saudi Arabia (lower oil prices and COVID-19), fiscal prioritization may direct political support and economic efforts towards consolidation, possibly at the expense of Horn of Africa-directed efforts and interests. From a military expenditure perspective, one observer predicts that ‘military spending will grow as a proportion of the budget … and mega projects are likely to continue on as a result of the “personalized” policymaking in the kingdom’.[41]

The official Eritrean posture captures some of the challenges the council poses for the Horn of Africa states—Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia—in navigating a bloc that includes richer states with the potential to dominate its agenda.[42] A key priority for Eritrea is ensuring that the principle of subsidiarity is written into the new mandate of the Red Sea Council, whereby member states only seek to involve external actors in regional security issues when they lack the collective capacity to deal with such issues internally.[43] The transitional government in Sudan comprises a variety of different interests but there are a number of voices calling for Sudan to take a more assertive position in pursuing its interests in the Red Sea, given its strategic location.[44] A Red Sea commission was announced by the transitional government in 2020, to develop Sudanese policy options, but details have not yet emerged. The Somali position is complicated. Although the federal government in Mogadishu represents the country in the new council, 85 percent of its Gulf of Aden coastline falls under the control of the de facto independent Somaliland government in Hargeisa.

The interests of the broader Horn of Africa will be represented by the IGAD Task Force on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, although divisions remain within IGAD and Eritrea has not resumed its participation in the organization.

Challenges for the fledgling council

Internal rivalries are a key challenge for the new Red Sea Council. Moreover, some key non-littoral players need not rely on the council to engage in the region, as they deal on bilateral and trilateral levels with state-level actors. A prime example lies in the flourishing UAE–Somaliland partnership. Somaliland has provided the Emirates with major assets on the Gulf of Aden over the last five years. As a security adviser to the UAE government notes, ‘The Horn is a natural sphere of influence. It does not matter whether the UAE is a de jure littoral Red Sea state. Investments, people–people exchanges, diaspora, aid, and security are the drivers of our relationship.’[45] Another observer echoes this perspective, indicating that being part of the council would not bring much additional benefit to the UAE regional positioning.[46]

Significantly, Abu Dhabi holds stakes in southern Yemen via its Southern Transition Council allies, who control the key city of Aden.[47] The importance of UAE anti-ISIS– Al-Qaeda activities in Yemen provides the country with a keyring of ports and strategic sites on the Gulf of Aden;[48] namely Shihir, Mukalla and Mokha; and Socotra[49] and the Perim Islands. Similarly, other commentators observe that Abu Dhabi has a critical interest in the Yemeni coastline rather than the hinterland.[50]

Another key issue is that Ethiopia—with a population of more than 100 million people— is not part of the council. Without access to the Red Sea since Eritrean independence in 1991, Ethiopia is nonetheless still a major player, the absence of which risks undermining council effectiveness. In 2019, Alexander Rondos, EU special representative to the Horn of Africa, claimed:

The discussion [about a Red Sea forum] focuses on bringing together the littoral states. Ethiopia has interestingly reminded people that it is merely 60 miles from the Red Sea. … There is a huge stake there and it would be wise for all those who are designing this Red Sea arrangement to remember that fact. That’s a reality. You never want to drive a country to mug one with its realities when it feels driven to do so.[51]

Abdul Mohammed, chief of staff and senior political adviser of the AU High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan, recently stressed the need for the council to be inclusive in getting Ethiopia involved, one way or another.[52] Ethiopia’s absence is generally attributed to Egypt’s sensitivities. The two countries are still divided over the GERD. Ethiopia—with its demographic (and increasingly its security and economic) stature—would also significantly reduce the political weight of Cairo in the organization. Finally, the absence of Somaliland is another challenge. With nearly 800 km of coastline along the Gulf of Aden, its absence from the council risks further hampering the work of this new Afro–Arab bloc. Somaliland membership, however, would be unacceptable in Mogadishu.

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