Last September, an extraordinary scene played out in Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah. The presidents of Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries mired in conflict for almost six decades, came together to sign a peace agreement under the gaze of King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who described the Jeddah pact as “a wind of hope blowing across the Horn of Africa.”
The Jeddah Peace Agreement was the most visible sign of growing political and security ties between several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Horn of Africa states. According to reports, senior UAE and Saudi officials played a prominent role in bringing the two sides together, leading to the historic meeting in Jeddah, and GCC states have set up or are planning military bases in key Horn of Africa countries.
This flurry of political and security activity has created calls in Washington to create a Red Sea envoy, while Washington think tanks have begun a series of events and conferences around Red Sea security dynamics.
While this new attention on the Red Sea is welcome, the conversation should be about more than security and geopolitics. The Red Sea region should not be viewed solely through a security prism. Rather, it should be viewed as an economic opportunity zone for the Horn of Africa, broader Indian Ocean Africa, the Mediterranean North Africa and the Arabian peninsula.
While all political eyes have been on Red Sea geopolitics, the waterway continued to play a vital role in global commerce. In fact, the Red Sea’s main artery, the Suez Canal, witnessed a record year in 2018, with more than 18,000 ships passing through, according to a recent study. Roughly 9 percent of all international trade passes through the canal, making the Red Sea a vital link on East-West trade routes.
A container ship from Singapore to New York saves about 2,000 miles by transiting the Red Sea, rather than taking the Pacific route via the Panama Canal. Meanwhile, an oil tanker from Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura refinery headed to Rotterdam saves more than 5,000 miles via the Red Sea than sailing around the Cape of Good Hope.
While the Red Sea passage has become critical for container ships and oil tankers, the region should also play a vital role in the future of Indian Ocean Africa, which could potentially support broader African development. There are few greater challenges than the demographic tsunami facing the African continent. With a population of 1.2 billion expected to double by 2050, even the most optimistic forecasts of African growth cannot keep up with the job needs of sub-Saharan Africa’s youthful population.
Once you start seeing the world in terms of waterways rather than land masses,it begins to look much different — and more promising.
Young, unemployed, underemployed, urbanized, wired and connected young men portend instability no matter what part of the world they live in. That is partly why so many young Africans risk their lives on flimsy boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life. This migration has contributed to the rise of populist nationalist and sometimes xenophobic politics across Europe. For this vicious cycle to end, a virtuous cycle must be created, and one good place to start would be an economic corridor covering the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Arabian Sea.
Far too often, when we think of the global economy or global politics, we think in terms of political geographies based on outdated classifications. We are told that Saudi Arabia is a part of the Middle East and North Africa region, or that Angola is a part of sub-Saharan Africa, or India is a key state in South Asia. What we should also note is that Saudi Arabia, particularly its key western coastal cities, are part of the Red Sea region, Angola is a part of the South Atlantic Ocean region, and India is part of the Arabian Sea-Bay of Bengal-Indian Ocean region. Once you start seeing the world in terms of waterways rather than land masses,it begins to look much different — and more promising.
For more than a millennium, traders along the Swahili coast of East Africa have been engaged in Red Sea-Indian Ocean-Arabian Sea trade with the Indian subcontinent and Arabian peninsula coastal cities. Though policy circles seem to have recently “discovered” the importance of the Red Sea, it has long been a vital waterway for the cosmopolitan world of trade from the Arabian peninsula to the Iranian plateau to the Indian subcontinent.
What is needed now is a Red Sea Economic Forum to be held in major Red Sea cities that would also include both the Mediterranean Sea commercial zone and the broader Indian Ocean world. It is no coincidence that the world’s rising prosperity in the past few decades has been accompanied by rapidly increasing trade, but it is also no secret that there are winners and losers in the economics of globalization. Currently, only two ports in the Red Sea region are among the world’s 100 busiest ports, according to Lloyd’s List container terminal port rankings, and both are in Saudi Arabia.
A country such as Somalia has some of the most enviable commercial geography in the world, with a long coastline on the Indian Ocean. If it could get its governance right, it could be a major Indian Ocean economic power. Port Sudan on the Red Sea is punching far below its potential weight. What is needed are a string of well-run and managed ports across the African side of the Red Sea, linked to logistics hubs, railways and other connectivity infrastructure. A Red Sea forum could bring together key stakeholders as well as major external powers such as China and the US to build strategies for this infrastructure of connectivity.
The world’s future will, in large measure, be determined by how we build our economic future. A good place to start would be to see the Red Sea as a zone of opportunity for Africa, the broader Middle East, and the Indian Ocean region.
- Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and is the editor and founder of the New Silk Road Monitor. Twitter: @afshinmolavi