Increasing Contestation over the Red Sea and Horn of Africa

Growing international and regional involvement in the Red Sea-Horn of Africa theater has made this area a potential hot spot that is somewhat reminiscent of Berlin during the days of the Cold War. With most observers of this region focused on the Yemen war and the country’s dire humanitarian crisis, an underreported story has been the competition by global and regional parties to establish military and intelligence bases in the area to extend their influence, protect sea lanes and trade, mount counter-terrorism operations, and monitor the activities of their rivals.

Despite renewed talk of a so-called “pivot to Asia,” the incoming Biden Administration would be well advised to pay close attention to the Red Sea-Horn of Africa region, not only as a means to end the disastrous Yemen war and counter extremist groups, but also to ensure that vital waterways are open to international shipping. Without strong American leadership, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Turkey are likely to play a dominant role in the region. At the same time, care must be given to ensure that any mishaps do not turn into an active war whose deleterious outcomes may plague the region for a long time.

Strategic Importance of the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait

According to 2018 data from the Energy Information Administration, the research arm of the US Department of Energy, about 6.2 million barrels per day of crude oil, condensate and refined petroleum products pass through the Bab al-Mandab Strait toward Europe, the United States, and Asia. This strait, which is only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point and separates Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula from Djibouti and Eritrea in East Africa, is considered one of the vital “choke points” not only for the transport of oil and related products but for international commerce in general. For example, more than 50 million tons of agricultural products pass through the strait every year. A closure of the strait, which connects the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, would compel international maritime traffic to go around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, leading to increased costs of shipping and insurance, which in turn would lead to higher fuel and food prices for consumers.

The fallout from the Yemen war––in which the Houthi rebels have been engaged in a protracted five-year war against a Saudi-led coalition backing the Yemeni government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi––has already led to a number of incidents against commercial ships. In July 2018, after the Houthis targeted Saudi oil tankers, the Saudi government announced that it would suspend its oil exports through the Bab al-Mandab Strait as a way of swaying American and European officials to support its coalition’s efforts against the Houthis and to exert more pressure on Iran which the Saudis see as directing the Houthis’ actions.

As a result of such Houthi attacks near the strait, Saudi Arabia has been transporting more oil from its Eastern Province through an east-west pipeline to its port of Yanbu on the Red Sea.

As a result of such Houthi attacks near the strait, Saudi Arabia has been transporting more oil from its Eastern Province through an east-west pipeline to its port of Yanbu on the Red Sea; but that effort has apparently not halted Houthi attacks on ships in that vicinity too. The latest of these incidents occurred on December 14 when an explosion hit a Singapore-flagged oil tanker, named BW Rhine, that was discharging its cargo near the port of Jeddah. A British maritime trade organization said the ship was hit “from an external source whilst discharging.”

Although the Houthis did not claim credit for the attack, they have reportedly used sea mines and drone boats in the recent past to hit at Saudi Arabia’s shipping interests. After the December 14 attack, an official from the Saudi Energy Ministry, hoping to draw international attention and solicit international condemnation of the incident, stated: “These acts of terrorism and vandalism, directed against vital installations, go beyond the kingdom and its vital facilities, to the security and stability of energy supplies to the world and the global economy.”

The United States Navy continues to have a conspicuous presence in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. In October 2016, after the Houthis fired missiles twice within a week at US Navy ships (missing their targets), a US Navy ship fired Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three Houthi-controlled coastal radar sites. That retaliatory strike seems to have deterred the Houthis from undertaking any further attempts to attack or harass US Navy ships in the area. However, in its waning days in power, the Trump Administration is considering designating the Houthis as a terrorist group, something that international aid agencies strongly oppose because it would hinder their assistance programs in Yemen. Such a designation could also possibly result in renewed Houthi attacks on US Navy ships.

Global Power Rivalry

In addition to concern about the fallout from the Yemen war, the United States has sought a presence in the region to counter extremist groups. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, American officials established a military and intelligence base in Djibouti as well as military training bases in Somalia. The purpose of these bases was not only to pursue terrorist groups like al-Qaeda affiliates al-Shabab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) but to also protect against piracy, as there were some 60 pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden in 2008 alone. France has also maintained a military base in Djibouti, one of its former colonies.

Seeing such bases as a lucrative source of income, poverty-plagued Djibouti did not limit its hosting to western powers. In 2017, China established what it called a military support base there that is a source of concern for US strategic planners.

Seeing such bases as a lucrative source of income, poverty-plagued Djibouti did not limit its hosting to western powers. In 2017, China established what it called a military support base there that is a source of concern for US strategic planners. The former US Africa Command (USAFRICOM) commander, General Thomas Waldhauser, testified before Congress in 2019 that the Chinese base in Djibouti (which is only a few miles from the US base) “encroaches on and, at times, diminishes U.S. access and influence” in the area. From Beijing’s perspective, its base in Djibouti not only signals its projection of military power thousands of miles from its borders, but protects its substantial commercial interests in the Horn of Africa, which include hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in roads, rail, energy, and communications infrastructure projects. The railway project linking Ethiopia and Djibouti in particular is part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In addition, the Chinese firm, CM Port, has begun an expansion of Djibouti port facilities that will provide Chinese ships with priority handling and lower docking fees.

Not to be outdone, Russia recently reached a deal with Sudan to establish a naval base on the latter’s Red Sea coast. The agreement, which was announced on December 8, will allow Moscow to station four ships and up to 300 personnel at Port Sudan. The deal, good for 25 years, also allows Russia to use Sudanese airports to transport “weapons, ammunition and equipment” to support its new naval base. Like China, Russia wants to project power in the region as a way of extending its influence and to counter the roles of the United States and China. Russia has long been a major arms supplier to the Sudanese military, and its infamous Wagner Group of mercenaries has reportedly been involved in Sudan for several years. It should be remembered that this Russian port deal came at the time when Washington was removing Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SSTL), signaling warmer US-Sudanese ties. Undoubtedly, all three major powers are using, or will be using, their military installations to monitor each other’s activities, giving the region a kind of repetition of Cold War dynamics.

Regional Players and Countering Rivals

The most active regional player in the area over the past several years has been the UAE, which seeks to control the shipping lanes in Yemen’s southern and eastern regions, Perim (Mayyun) Island in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the Socotra archipelago in the Arabian Sea. Although the UAE established commercial relations with the inhabitants of Socotra several years ago, in April 2018 it upped the ante by deploying military assets and seizing the port and airport in Hadibu on the largest island. This action led to protests by the Hadi government and further strained relations between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Although both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are opposed to the Houthis, they have diverged on Yemen’s future, with the Saudis supporting the Hadi government and the Emiratis propping up the secessionist Southern Transitional Council. This rivalry has even led to clashes between the two sides in the Yemeni port city of Aden and the province of Abyan. The current Riyadh Agreement of 2019 between the two is currently in place, but conditions on the ground do not augur well for what it prescribes of a supposed intra-Yemeni peace and power-sharing compromise.

Outside of Yemen, the UAE has established bases in Djibouti and Somaliland––a breakaway region in federated Somalia––and has made large investments in port facilities. Part of the UAE’s involvement in this area is to counter the efforts of its rivals, Turkey and Qatar.

Outside of Yemen, the UAE has established bases in Djibouti and Somaliland––a breakaway region in federated Somalia––and has made large investments in port facilities. Part of the UAE’s involvement in this area is to counter the efforts of its rivals, Turkey and Qatar, which have established military bases and liaison relations in Somalia. Turkey established its military base in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 2017, and has built schools, hospitals, and infrastructure and provided scholarships to Somali students to study in Turkish academic institutions as a way of extending its influence throughout the country. Ankara has also provided training to a controversial Somali police unit, which prompted Somali opposition groups to send a letter to the Turkish government urging Ankara not to send arms and ammunition to this unit for fear they will be used against them in Somalia’s upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, Egypt has also been concerned about Turkish encroachments in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. Like the UAE, Egypt sees Turkey as a regional threat, not only for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which both Cairo and Abu Dhabi have designated as a terrorist organization, but also for seeking to expand its influence in the region. From Egypt’s perspective, Turkey is interfering in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean region where significant gas deposits have been found as well as to Egypt’s south. In 2018, Turkey reached a deal with Sudan to establish a military base in Suakin Island in the Red Sea––an old Ottoman trading post and staging area for Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca––signifying Turkey’s intent to be a major player there once again.

Cairo keenly wants to make sure that no power interferes with ships passing through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, as tolls from the latter account for around $5.8 billion a year and constitute one of Egypt’s main sources of foreign exchange earnings. In an effort to counter Turkey, Egypt has recently improved ties with Somalia, sending a high-level diplomatic delegation there in early December. An Egyptian political analyst has noted that Cairo’s interest in East Africa is not only about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which it fears will reduce water flows to Egypt, but about Somalia and the “massive and frightening Turkish infiltration into its territory.”

Implications for US Policy

Curiously, the Trump Administration recently withdrew American troops stationed in Somalia despite continuing threats to the region and opposition from the Defense Department as well as Somali military leaders. One Somali officer, Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, said the US training and assistance to Somali forces will not be easily replaced, adding that while US strikes against al-Shabaab can take place from Djibouti and Kenya, “it’s not the same as being in the country. You can’t train a force remotely.” The pullout decision was likely geared to President Donald Trump’s pledge to withdraw troops from “endless wars” that was part of his campaign message and which he wants as part of his legacy. Yet the US military establishment sees the situation differently. On the USAFRICOM website, there is a statement from its current commander, General Stephen Townsend, who says that his command will not only address terrorist threats but also “challenges from strategic competitors like China and Russia, who continue to expand their authoritarian influence worldwide, including in Africa,” a position that the incoming Biden Administration will likely embrace.

USAFRICOM shares much of this area with USCENTCOM, which has jurisdiction over Egypt, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Peninsula. President-elect Biden’s pick for defense secretary is former USCENTCOM Commander General Lloyd Austin, who knows the region well. If he is confirmed, Austin would be well positioned to address these threats to ensure that US security interests in the region are not threatened by Russia, China, or any other regional power seeking to outmaneuver its rivals. Such efforts will take time and considerable dexterity, however, given this region’s crowded field of players. Ending the Yemen conflict would certainly help, as it would hopefully stop Houthi attacks on Saudi shipping; but the Biden team would also have to focus on other threats affecting geo-strategic and economic interests in the region. At the same time, with so many active competitors, attention must also be given to prevent potential military clashes among these powers, as their military assets and bases are in very close proximity to one another. A hot war beyond the Yemen conflict in the Red Sea-Horn of Africa region would have deleterious economic effects on the world economy that is already struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here