“The more cooperation and coordination that you have among the countries of this region [Red Sea], the less negative outside influence will be on this region.” Former Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel Al Jubeir.”
New economic and security interests are fast reshaping geopolitical dynamics on both sides of the Red Sea in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Competition and engagement from outside powers have proved both tonic and toxin in the region. The fate, stability and interests of these two distinct sides of the Red Sea are increasingly becoming interconnected yet the region is very volatile and vulnerable to any external intrusion for two main factors: the importance of its geographical location and untapped natural resources, and its abject poverty and the simple nature of its people.
From Egypt’s Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean off the coast of Yemen and Somalia, the Red Sea is one of the world’s most valuable trade routes, through which hundreds of billions of dollars in oil and other exports pass. The geostrategic importance of the region is not new. In ancient times, the Red Sea was a miraculous passage for Prophet Moses and his followers who escaped from servitude under the Egyptian Pharaoh of the day. Similarly, Prophet Muhammad’s companions who had been tortured in Makkah crossed the Red Sea seeking refuge and protection in Al-Habasha, an area that included much of the current Horn of Africa.
Colonialist nations such as Britain, France and Italy understood the security and economic significance of the area by building military bases in the main ports of the Red Sea, in countries such as Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen. America and the Soviet Union did the same during the Cold War.
Throughout the past decade, powerful nations have been paying increasing attention to this region. China and Japan, for instance, have established their first overseas military bases in Djibouti, the tiny nation in the horn of Africa located on the edge of the Bab El Mandab Strait, the southern entrance to the Red Sea and the corridor for international shipping. Due to its geostrategic importance, Djibouti has now become a key location for military bases built by the US and countries from Europe and Asia to protect their interests in the Red Sea. This small, barren land has managed to convert its geopolitical advantage into an economic fortune, and gained the respect of the world.
The collapse of the central government of Somalia has led to the emergence of piracy in the Red Sea, intensifying the importance of the area. The Saudi-led coalition’s military involvement in Yemen since 2015, and the conflict between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt on the other since 2017 have redefined the significance of Red Sea geopolitics.
Fragile states and the new geopolitics
These rival Gulf countries have exported their political conflicts to the countries located around the Red Sea, which are generally already reeling under their own internal problems. Experts in this region have warned of the devastating impact of the Gulf conflict on the stability and territorial integrity of Yemen and Somalia; both fragile states have been destabilised and fragmented, and are perhaps set to be partitioned.In the past, Saudi Arabia, with its position in the Muslim world represented by the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah, has adopted a softer attitude, particularly towards Somalia. However, in a new policy shift, it seems to have recognised the passport of breakaway Somaliland by granting visas for President Muse Bihi and his entourage to travel to Makkah and perform Hajj this month. The UAE recognised Somaliland passports in 2018, when its relationship with Somalia’s federal government deteriorated. In fact, the UAE has invested and built a strong relationship with Somalia’s regional leaders and invited them to Dubai in order to provoke the federal government. Kenya and Saudi Arabia are also in favour of strong regional states as the building blocks for reviving Somalia as a viable nation.
At the other end of the spectrum, Qatar, the US, Turkey and Ethiopia (particularly after the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed) have been consolidating and buying the influence of the central government of Somalia, believing that the reconstruction of Somalia should start with its empowerment. These competing interests are further polarising and destabilising the conflict-ridden state.
Relatively stable countries such as the landlocked Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan — until its recent social revolution — have managed to minimise the negative impact of the Gulf conflict. At the same time, they have reaped its benefits by attracting substantial development projects from both sides.
Competition between Gulf nations in the states bordering the Red Sea has been simmering for some time. In the past decade, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have invested heavily in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan with different agendas and perhaps irreconcilable end goals. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been strengthening their security and economic cooperation with the Red Sea countries since the beginning of the war in Yemen in order to counter Iran’s influence and the Houthi militias, whose missiles have been hitting Saudi airports, pipelines and military facilities.
Cracks in the Saudi-UAE alliance
In a new development, the Saudi-UAE alliance in Yemen is now at a crossroads. Divergent approaches and cracks have appeared. Their contradictory policies seem to divide Yemen more than keep it united. Saudi Arabia essentially recognised the crippled Yemeni government in exile in Riyadh, while the UAE supported the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Security Belt in the south of Yemen, which is now in full control of the city of Aden. This separatist group is trying to recapture the entire south. Indeed, the STC has publicly demanded that the UN Security Council should recognise the reality on the ground in the south of Yemen by accepting its self-rule there, which basically means full independence. Training and equipping such a secessionist group with a clear agenda to secede from the north of Yemen is an indicator that the UAE is complicit with the separatists to divide the country. As such, it is obvious that the UAE’s influence in the Red Sea countries, particularly in the fragile states, is likely to destabilise and divide. What we do not know, however, is if the UAE has been acting as a proxy for other, more powerful nations.Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE has considered its vulnerability should war break out between Iran and the US, and has opted for dialogue with Tehran in a clear shift from a “military-first” to a “peace-first” strategy. In contrast, Saudi Arabia has long perceived Iran to be its main enemy in the Middle East. These different policies have impacted negatively on Red Sea countries. Any crack in the alliance will also weaken US President Donald Trump’s effort to contain Iran’s expansionism in the Middle East in general, and the Red Sea area in particular. As a sign of the weakening of relations between Trump and Arab regimes, the Gulf States have started rather cautiously to evaluate Trump’s reliability and unpredictability, to the point that analysts have described their relationship with Washington as “a marriage that has issues“.
Another possible clash within the alliance is that Saudi Arabia has recently started to improve its relationship with the moderate Islamist Al-Islah Party – which is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – and involved it in Yemen’s political affairs; the UAE is vehemently opposed to this initiative. However, apart from Islah in Yemen, both the UAE and the Saudis want to contain the democracy-inspired political Islam that emerged during the Arab spring, perceiving Islamic democracies as a direct threat to their ruling families. In comparison with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar and its ally Turkey supported moderate political Islam, such as the deposed Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who was the first democratically-elected Egyptian leader, and the movement’s offshoots, including Al-Islah.
The UAE-Saudi bloc is also trying to deter Turkey’s increasing economic, cultural and military influence in Africa, particularly the Horn of Africa. Hence, the bloc has been infuriated by Turkey’s military training base in Somalia, and its presence in Sudan, which allowed the government in Ankara to invest in the strategic port of Suakin. Some western commentators and Arab nationalists have raised the spectre of Turkey’s long-term revival of the Ottoman Caliphate, a prospect that strikes fear into the heart of some Arab regimes as well as Israel.
There have been a number of attempts by regional and international bodies to solve the problems in this region but little progress has been made. As a result, the Red Sea nations have to take more responsibility themselves, learn to work together and form networks if they are to find solutions to the issues affecting their development.