Protecting the Red Sea is in the vital interest of all trading nations, including the US, Europe, China, Japan and other Asian countries, who export and import through the waterway. If passage through the Red Sea is interrupted or threatened, the alternatives are costly. One alternative — going around the African continent — would nearly double the distance and time ships have to travel.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Red Sea for international trade, as well as the enormously important economic opportunities it provides for the region. The Suez Canal to the north connects the Red Sea with Europe and the Mediterranean, while the Bab Al-Mandab Strait connects it to Asia and the Indian Ocean. Trade passing through the Suez Canal accounts for about 8 percent of the world’s total, while about 4 million barrels of oil and refined petroleum products pass daily through Bab Al-Mandab.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have recognized that maintaining security in the Red Sea requires political as well as economic tools. Most of the countries overlooking the Red Sea are poor and some, such as Somalia, are failed states. Security cooperation and political and economic stability are essential to immunize populations against the scourges of terrorism, piracy, human trafficking and illegal migration.
Saudi Arabia last year took a number of decisive steps to bolster political stability and promote development in the Red Sea region. In September, it hosted Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and they signed a peace accord to end more than 50 years of animosity and conflict. That agreement was followed by reconciliation between Eritrea and Djibouti. To bolster Djibouti’s development, Saudi Arabia and a number of its Gulf Cooperation Council partners created a five-year, $200 million program of vital economic projects and programs.
Last December, Saudi Arabia also announced an agreement to establish a new entity for cooperation in the Red Sea. The agreement followed a successful meeting in Riyadh of ministers and senior officials from seven countries bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Jordan. It was announced that subsequent meetings of experts would take place to translate the agreement into practical steps. Adel Al-Jubeir, then-Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, said that the aim of the new organization was to “protect its interests and those of its neighbors and … to stabilize the region that we live in and to try to create synergies between the various countries.”
Saudi Arabia has lately begun to develop its own Red Sea coast and explore possibilities for greater transport links with neighboring countries. In addition to the Neom mega-project on the Gulf of Aqaba, it announced the establishment of the Red Sea Development Company — a closed joint stock company owned by the Public Investment Fund — to execute the Red Sea Project, a major development that was announced in 2017. Several other mega-projects along the Red Sea coast, including a $500 billion business zone shared with Egypt and Jordan, have also been proposed. These projects, although located in Saudi Arabia, will create synergies across the Red Sea and revitalize the economies of neighboring countries.
With such enormous investments, Saudi Arabia has realized the need to establish stronger ties with its Red Sea neighbors and cooperate more closely with its international partners to safeguard those investments and ensure their viability and profitability.
Trade, investment and economic development should be essential parts of the global and regional efforts to safeguard freedom of navigation and the long-term security and stability of the countries overlooking the Red Sea. By contrast, a major military presence is essential in the short run. But, without development, that is not going to be enough in the long term, just as government-to-government financial assistance is transitory and could sometimes be counterproductive to long-term stability and economic development.
• Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal, and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1