The Red Sea has fast become an arena of geopolitical intrigue, as new engagement between Gulf and African states is challenging old assumptions and erasing old boundaries. Expanding economic and strategic interests are driving unprecedented activity on both shores, while great powers pay increasing attention to the maritime gem in the middle, the Bab al Mandab—a strategic chokepoint and gateway to one of the world’s most heavily-trafficked trade waterways.
Here, at the nexus of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a series of state actors—with different cultures, different models of government, and different styles of diplomacy—are feeling each other out. Opportunities and risks abound, and as in any emerging frontier, the rules of the game are yet to be written.
Establishing a “Red Sea forum,” where concerned states might come together to discuss shared interests, identify emergent threats, and fashion common solutions, is a sensible next step. Efforts are underway to shape such a collective, and as leaders from these rapidly integrating regions sketch further blueprints, four design elements are worthy of consideration.
But first, some context. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have each deepened relations with states in the Horn in recent years, hoping to win friends, investments, and influence. (Reviews to date are mixed; some African states have reaped benefits while others have been destabilized.) The most tangible manifestation of this engagement has been a real-estate boom on the African coast, where new military bases and seaports have accompanied diplomatic and commercial investments in Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Sudan.
Ethiopia, the largest country in the Horn, also figures prominently in the new calculus, as does sometimes-rival Egypt, home to the Red Sea’s longest mainland coastline. Since mid-2017, these new forays into the Horn have also been colored by the Gulf crisis, a toxic feud that has infected politics in several African states as rival camps vie for access. Yemen rounds out the dizzying chessboard, where the onset of war deepened interest in strategic access to nearby African shores as well as control of the Red Sea’s southern gate.
Hundreds of billions of dollars in annual trade flows through this 20-mile wide waterway each year en route to Europe, Asia, and the Gulf. The narrow strait is also critical for freedom of navigation throughout the Mediterranean and Western Indian Ocean, thus making it the subject of interest in Washington, Brussels, and most recently, Beijing. The recent arrival of the Chinese navy in Djibouti—the tiny port nation already host to the U.S. and four other foreign militaries—means the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden are now also a theater for great power rivalry. (Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, and Japan have all signaled interest in establishing a military footprint here, too.)
As I argued recently in Foreign Affairs, the idea of a Red Sea forum, as advanced by some forward-thinking diplomats in the region and in the West, is a good one. Such a collective could confront issues as diverse as trade and infrastructure development, maritime security, mixed migration, environmental protection, and conflict management. For example, tens of thousands of irregular migrants leave the Horn of Africa each year en route to the Gulf, often by way of Yemen. Meanwhile, huge numbers of Yemeni refugees, displaced by war, flee in the opposite direction—ending up not only elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, but across the Horn of Africa. States on both shores would benefit from a common conversation about this increasingly complex landscape, especially in the event of a post-war transition in Yemen.
One issue must ripen before this aspirational forum can become a reality, however, and another before its value can be fully realized. First, Gulf Arab states should resolve (or otherwise de-escalate) the ongoing Gulf crisis, which has polarized the Red Sea region and will complicate the participation not only of its feuding protagonists but also of their African allies. Second, states in the Horn should coordinate efforts toward re-balancing what are, at present, deeply asymmetric relationships with small, wealthy Arab monarchies. This will not happen overnight, of course, but the sweeping political and economic changes currently underway in Ethiopia and across the Horn provide a starting point. To be clear, the transformational potential of these transitions is matched only by their potential to destabilize, but success advancing domestic reforms, coupled with progress toward regional integration, could allow these African states to come to a Red Sea forum on a more equal footing.