The Complicated Nature of Red Sea Geopolitics

The Red Sea is a vital economic artery and is likely to become more so in the coming decades. In geopolitical terms, it should increasingly be seen as worthy of unified policy attention on its own, perhaps more so than the traditional and broad “Middle East” focus of American and European policy-makers. More than 10 percent of global trade passes through the Red Sea each year, crossing two of the 10 most strategic waterways in the world, the Bad al-Mandab at the sea’s southern entrance and Egypt’s Suez Canal in the north.

The region comprising the Red Sea littoral nations along Africa’s northeastern coast and the Arabian Peninsula is poised for tremendous growth. The population is projected to rise from about 620 million to nearly 1.3 billion by the early 2050s, with a concomitant rise in GDP over the same period from $1.8 trillion to $6.1 trillion. But today the area’s African coast is largely underdeveloped, limited by a lack of infrastructure and large deepwater commercial ports. As the region’s potential becomes apparent, political, economic, and military interest in the Red Sea area is on the rise—and so are armed conflict and political instability.

The Regional Security Situation

The drivers of insecurity in this area of the world vary but center on proxy activities and regional rivalries. Piracy off the coast of Somalia—formerly the number one security issue in the environs of the Red Sea— has been reduced to a nonfactor by a massive international naval operation that began in 2008. Since then, the war in Yemen has taken the place of piracy as the leading source of instability.

The drivers of insecurity in the Red Sea area of the world vary but center on proxy activities and regional rivalries.

What began as a political uprising and civil war, following the ouster of longtime Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, soon became yet another theater in the Saudi-Iranian contest for regional supremacy when Iran supported Yemen’s Houthi rebels. This drew in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in support of the existing government. In addition to creating a massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the war quickly evolved into a major threat to Red Sea shipping.

Houthi forces have carried out dozens of attacks on international vessels off the cost of Yemen, beginning with relatively unsophisticated rocket propelled grenade attacks. At least two dozen Houthi strikes employed anti-ship missiles, including the Chinese-Made C-802 and its Iranian knockoff, the Noor missile. Saudi forces also claim to have disarmed numerous Houthi-laid mines discovered in international shipping lanes.

More recently, armed naval drones have become a bigger threat. According to War on the Rocks, the Houthis carried out 24 “successful or attempted” attacks utilizing maritime drones between January 2017 and June 2021. Houthi forces have occasionally targeted military vessels as well, including an unsuccessful missile attack on the American destroyer USS Mason in 2016.

Regional rivalries among the Gulf states themselves have added to political tensions along both coasts of the Red Sea. After long-standing ill-will between Saudi Arabia and Qatar burst into the open in 2017, Riyadh launched a political boycott and economic blockade of Qatar, with Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain supporting the Saudis, and Turkey taking Doha’s side. One result was that the “dueling powers rushed to lock up friends, loyalty pledges and real estate—including a mad dash for commercial ports and military posts on Africa’s Red Sea coast,” according to a Brookings Institution report.

These rivalries extended to political interference in the region’s transitional politics, including in Somalia and Ethiopia, but most notably in Sudan. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE were all involved in supporting military rule after the fall of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, while Turkey and Qatar sought to support Islamist elements. In this, Sudan was representative of the broader political struggle among these parties elsewhere in the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia and its allies sought to beat back the forces of political change. (The recent coup in Sudan by the head of the Sovereignty Council, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, has put the country back in the camp of authoritarian states, helping to bury the stirrings of the Arab Spring revolutions that began in later 2010.)

The political-military free-for-all was accompanied by a gush of aid, investment, and port management and trade deals. These were intended not only to lock in patron-client relationships between the Arab states of the Gulf and African nations along the Red Sea, but to position the Gulf Arabs to exploit and profit from the region’s enormous untapped resources and its economic potential, including petroleum, natural gas, and mining.

The Red Sea Military Buildup

As Middle East rivalries spread into the Red Sea, military involvement has stepped up considerably. The United Arab Emirates established a base at the Eritrean port of Assab in 2015 as a point from which to pursue both naval and air attacks against Houthi forces in Yemen. This base, as well as numerous other port access and development agreements in the area, has greatly expanded Emirati presence in the Red Sea and brought a host of military and economic implications, notwithstanding the UAE’s cancellation of plans in 2020 to build a second military base in Berbera in breakaway Somaliland.

As Middle East rivalries spread into the Red Sea, military involvement has stepped up considerably.

The Saudis are not far behind. In addition to the existing King Faisal Naval Base at Jeddah, the Saudi armed forces seized control of ports in al-Mokha and al-Khokha in Yemen in 2019, expanding their significant naval presence in the Red Sea. This control came after the United Arab Emirates declared that it was drawing down its forces in the country.

While Turkey and Qatar, closely allied in the struggle for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, currently lack naval or other military facilities per se in the Red Sea region, both countries have deployed economic assistance and trade deals as a way to achieve influence with the Red Sea littoral states. Turkey operates a training base for Somali troops in Mogadishu, and in 2017, it signed an agreement with Sudan for the restoration of Suakin Island, a former Ottoman possession on the Red Sea coast. Turkey has denied reports that its presence there is a precursor to construction of Turkish naval and military facilities on the island; nevertheless, its activities are in keeping with the broader Turkish policy of expanding political and military ties to African states.

Not to be left out, Iran, too, has reportedly sought a permanent naval presence in the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden to counter the Arab Gulf states and increase its own influence, without any particular success so far.

More Complications

In addition to the Yemen conflict and the active military threat it poses to international shipping in the Red Sea, simmering conflicts could introduce new elements of uncertainty into the political picture. The ongoing war between Ethiopia and its restive Tigray region as well as flickering conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan have drawn the involvement of a host of regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt competing with Turkey and Qatar for influence. The increasingly tense confrontation between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has threatened to erupt into a military confrontation which could likewise draw in outside powers. All this is fanning the flames of “instability and insecurity in an already fragile, volatile, and conflict-prone region,” according to a report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Great Powers Power Up, Too

Given the overarching threats to stability in the Red Sea and its coastal states from a variety of sources, in addition to the high economic stakes for both the global and regional economies, it comes as no surprise that international powers are moving to make their military presence felt in the region alongside the states there with axes to grind. There are now more than a dozen naval installations operated by at least 11 countries in the Red Sea area, with several other navies, including Russia’s, enjoying basing rights at various ports.

Djibouti has become a key node for foreign military presence, hosting naval facilities of the United States, France, Italy, Japan, and China.

Djibouti has become a key node for foreign military presence, hosting naval facilities of the United States, France, Italy, Japan, and China. Each of these countries has participated in international anti-piracy operations and continues to maintain a presence there largely for that purpose, although the United States and China also have their eyes on broader strategic interests.

The United States maintains its Camp Lemonnier (in Djibouti) as an important link to its naval and air presence in the Gulf, Diego Garcia island, and farther afield in the Indian Ocean and points east. Notably, the camp also serves as US Africa Command’s primary base of operations in Africa, hosting 4,000 American and allied troops.

China has maintained a continuous naval presence in the region since it joined anti-piracy operations in 2008, at one time deploying upwards of 26,000 personnel there. In 2017, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) established a logistics base in Djibouti, which is intended to support Chinese naval and peacekeeping operations in the Horn of Africa as well as possible contingency operations, such as emergency evacuations (Beijing evacuated Chinese nationals from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015). China’s Djibouti presence is also intended to support potential counterterrorism operations as well as intelligence gathering.

More important, the PLAN’s base is considered one of the “overseas strategic strongpoints” that are vital to the protection of Beijing’s growing economic interests in the region as well as China’s ever-expanding Belt and Road Initiative, a significant branch of which leads through the Red Sea. As Chinese policy becomes more assertive globally, its military involvement in the Red Sea may become more pronounced.

Another strategic power, Russia, has been something of an afterthought in the Red Sea political-military game but it, too, is seeking to up its game. Moscow has signed military cooperation agreements with around 20 African nations, and despite a failed attempt to negotiate the establishment of its own base in Djibouti, it succeeded in reaching agreement with Sudan to host Russian warships. In 2020, Russia signed an agreement with Khartoum to establish a naval logistics base, a possible prelude to greater Russian military activity in the region. The moves can be seen as an extension of Russia’s opportunistic policies aimed at increasing its presence and influence in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria, Libya, and Egypt, even as it attempts to improve ties with the Gulf states.

Non-Gulf Regional States Watch—and Worry

Egypt, a Red Sea power since pharaonic times, has observed these developments with concern. Not only does the increasing presence of foreign navies and military forces in the Red Sea encroach on Egypt’s traditional influence along the Red Sea’s western coast, especially in Sudan, but Cairo may be worried about constraints on its freedom of action with regard to the GERD. Egypt has not been idle, however; in 2020, the government inaugurated a new air and naval base at Berenice seaport, due east of Aswan, and it is now the largest military base on the Red Sea.

Israel and Jordan are likewise keeping a wary eye on the contest for influence. The two countries maintain contiguous naval bases in the Gulf of Aqaba, at Eilat and Aqaba; they are acutely aware that their only access to the Red Sea (in Jordan’s case, to any sea) runs through the Strait of Tiran. That the three islands dominating this maritime passage—Tiran and Sanafir—are now under the control of Saudi Arabia (since they were formally ceded to the kingdom by Egypt in 2017) is a source of some strategic concern for Israel and Jordan. This is especially true for Israel, which was pointedly excluded from Riyadh’s Council of Arab and African Littoral States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, a group created specifically to enhance security and stability in the Red Sea.

Where Is Washington?

This modern-day “scramble for Africa” involving both Gulf countries and international players brings with it significant risk of military conflict, whether by accident, miscalculation, or the tensions that are sure to result from so many rival peers competing in fairly close quarters. Additionally, the overlay of regional power struggles onto the unstable politics of eastern African countries bears the danger of heightened violent conflict and humanitarian crisis. This situation is a disaster waiting to happen.

The overlay of regional power struggles onto the unstable politics of eastern African countries bears the danger of heightened violent conflict and humanitarian crisis. This situation is a disaster waiting to happen.

The United States has been largely absent from diplomatic efforts to set the rules of the road in the Red Sea and encourage regional parties to work together for economic advancement and political stability. Nor has Washington worked very hard to reach understandings with China and Russia to deconflict their engagement in the area. This is a mistake. For one thing, many regional parties look to the United States as a stabilizing presence as well as for the type and intensity of diplomatic engagement that would help jumpstart regional and international efforts to foster peace and security.

Some credit must be given to the Trump Administration for at least trying. It announced a new approach to Africa in 2018 that then-National Security Advisor John Bolton said would center on trade and investment deals, conditioned in part on how African states accommodated Washington’s policy goals. The aim, Bolton said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, was not only to counter Russia but primarily China, whose “predatory” trade and assistance practices are “riddled with corruption” and “hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.”

The Biden Administration should adapt and advance the approach outlined by Bolton, possibly with a less threatening gloss, in an effort to spur the American sagging trade and investment portfolio in Africa, particularly in the Red Sea states. The administration should also develop a comprehensive strategy to promote economic development and good governance in the region. USIP’s Senior Study Group on the Red Sea offers some detailed and timely recommendations in this regard, and in particular the formulation of a five-year “Integrated Regional Strategy” for the Red Sea that would link planning and goals among the State Department, Defense Department, and US Agency for International Development. This would serve as a good step to developing a more comprehensive strategic approach to the Red Sea and its littoral states, one that has been hampered by the fact that neither the State Department nor the Pentagon treat the Red Sea area as a single region, instead splitting responsibility among regional bureaus and different combatant commands.

The United States should also cooperate with regional and international efforts to enhance stability and manage maritime resources, cooperating with the EU’s Special Representative for the Horn of Africa, in particular, to help nudge such efforts forward. To be sure, as the Biden Administration contemplates moving toward a “pivot to Asia,” it must not leave strategic considerations in a burgeoning region behind.