Date: Tuesday, 15 January 2019
A meeting of the foreign ministers and representatives of seven coastal countries of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia – was held in December 2018 in Riyadh. An extremely significant outcome of the meeting was the decision to establish a new entity in the region – the Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (AARSGA) – to coordinate and cooperate on political, economic, security, cultural and environmental issues.
Concerns among the aforesaid countries bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden regarding piracy and maritime security is nothing new. There have been several meetings in the past among these countries to discuss the common security challenges facing the region. But the latest Saudi initiative to establish a new entity in order to bring together the countries of the region into a regional framework of cooperation is distinctly new. At the end of the meeting, the then Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir stated that this initiative “is part of the kingdom's efforts to protect its interests and those of its neighbours.…and to create synergies between the various countries” and added that “the more cooperation and coordination that you have among the countries of this region, the less negative outside influence will be on this region.”1 The meeting and Jubeir’s statement are also reflective of the emergent security and strategic concerns of Saudi Arabia in the region.
The region on the western side of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is critically important for Saudi Arabia. In recent years, Riyadh has made conscious efforts to engage with the countries of this region. Saudi Arabia recently mediated between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ending a decades old conflict. It has good ties with Djibouti where it is building a military base. Additionally, Riyadh has the financial power to provide developmental aid and assistance to the African countries.
Saudi Arabia’s outreach to the African side of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden is driven by its desire for security in these waters including safety of the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in view of threat from piracy and terrorism. At the same time, the growing influence of its regional adversaries such as Turkey, Qatar and Iran in the region has also emerged as a key strategic challenge for Riyadh. Given the strategic location of the region, Riyadh’s engagement has not been proportionately resolute and extensive. Concerned about long strides taken by the rivals in the region, Saudi Arabia seems to have come up with the idea of establishing a new regional entity to protect and promote its national interests.
The Houthis capturing power in Yemen has emerged as a direct national security challenge for Saudi Arabia. To the ultimate trepidation of the Saudis, the Houthis not only have launched rockets towards Riyadh but also have attacked Saudi oil tankers in the Red Sea. The Houthis were in control of the port city of Hodeidah till recently before they withdrew in December 2018 as per the ceasefire agreement with the United Nations. But the situation in Yemen is far from stable. Saudi Arabia has major ports along its Red Sea coast, which are used for trade and commerce.
The continuing presence of Houthis in Yemen close to the waters of the Red Sea is therefore an obvious security threat for Saudi Arabia. In the face of security challenges emanating from Yemen, the safety of the SLOCs in the Red Sea, Strait of Bab el Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden has emerged as an area of priority for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has alleged that Iran has been supporting the Houthis by providing them with funds, weapons and political support, an allegation that Iran categorically rejects. Iran has often threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in case of any conflict with the Gulf Arabs. Further, as the world’s top oil supplier, and its economy heavily dependent on petroleum sector, any threat to these choke points would directly affect its national economy.
Besides, and as stated earlier, a number of regional contenders of Saudi Arabia have stepped up their engagement with the countries in the region. In recent years, Turkey has expanded its relationship with Sudan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan in 2017 and both countries have signed a number of agreements including on security, trade and investment. Importantly, as per an agreement, Turkey would be rebuilding the Sudanese port of Suakin on the Red Sea. Both countries have also conducted joint military exercises and Turkey also provides training to the Sudanese police officers. Also, in the Gulf of Aden, Turkey has a strong presence in Somalia with its largest overseas military base located in Mogadishu.
Besides Turkey, Qatar is also strengthening ties with Sudan. For Sudan, Qatar is the most supportive country in the region. Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim has supported Sudanese President Omer Al Bashir who is facing popular protests. Qatar has signed a military agreement with Sudan and is a key investor in the country. Qatar also enjoys immense goodwill as it mediated between Sudan and the Darfur rebels. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo had visited Doha in 2017 and again in 2018.
In this backdrop, the recent Saudi initiative is an effort to build bridges across the Red Sea with its western neighbourhood as it faces compounding challenges in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi military operations in Yemen against the Houthi rebels have not yielded desired results. Rather, it has faced global criticism as it has been accused of causing civilian deaths and the ensuing humanitarian crisis in the country. The cracks within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that began with the diplomatic boycott of Qatar in June 2017 also continue to widen. The unity of the GCC, the regional organisation where Saudi Arabia once played the most dominant role, is now under severe stress. Further, Qatar has been strengthening ties with Iran and Turkey – two major regional challengers of Riyadh.
The regional geopolitics is getting redefined post the Qatar crisis: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan on one side, and Qatar, Turkey and Iran on the other. Thus, with the GCC as an organisation divided, Qatar swiftly moving closer to Iran and Turkey, and the Houthis fighting stubbornly in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is looking westward to establish a new regional arrangement. The formation and successful operationalisation of such an entity would likely bring a new dimension to the geopolitics in the region.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.