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A sea of competition

Taking stock of the political and economic questions surrounding the Red Sea

Ayman Abdel-Wahab , Thursday 15 Apr 2021
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The increasing importance of the Red Sea as a nexus of geopolitical competition poses security problems to countries in the region. A lack of consensus on the rules of competition among international and regional powers has only intensified the frenzied race of both state and non-state actors over natural resources and spheres of influence there, while the balance of power in the region continues to fluctuate. Stakeholders have had to reassess their outlook and strategies in the light of various factors.

First, there is intensive security and military presence to safeguard freedom of navigation, secure the movement of trade and commerce and protect Bab Al-Mandab, the strategic southern entryway to the Red Sea.

This presence is particularly heavy in the ports of Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, portals to the vital maritime routes and logistical support bases for international commercial activities. The Red Sea is the most important maritime corridor for commercial traffic between Europe and Asia as well as for the movement of oil from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Secondly, competition and tensions between world powers, notably the US, China and Russia, has been mounting. In addition to rivalry over security arrangements for ships, ports and cargo, they vie for influence over certain governments’ decisions in ways that affect the flow of trade and access to local markets.

China and the US, in particular, are competing to build communications systems for armed forces and security agencies, and to develop database and surveillance networks in Africa. As Beijing lobbies to secure ownership shares in African port facilities, Washington is trying rebuild security cooperation with Khartoum, having knocked Sudan off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

AFRICOM has been leading Washington’s drive to renew the security partnership with Sudan as well as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Russia has also been working to improve relations with Khartoum and other countries in region, taking advantage of its presence in Port Sudan.

The growing influx of capital and investments, especially into infrastructure development on the African side of the Red Sea and food production in West Africa, has also contributed to closer security links between the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.

The mutual impacts of Middle East conflicts and tensions are clearly felt in the Red Sea region. Turkish, Iranian, Qatari, Emirati and Ethiopian agendas jostling alongside international powers and private security firms, not to mention the pursuits of the Red Sea countries themselves, have imposed their rhythm on the process of re-engineering the balance of power. The resulting friction has driven up the heat of competition over ports as well as military, commercial and cultural influence.

In many ways the war in Yemen too reflects changes in outlooks on the region, on the levels of cooperation and coordination, and on patterns of intervention and conflict, all of which have important implications for the warring parties, southern Yemen, navigation off its coasts and the future of the country as a whole.

In terms of directions of change, some strategic analysts believe developments are setting the stage for more intense international scrambling, rivalry and conflict as the patterns of interplay in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean grow in strategic importance regionally and internationally. The many foreign military bases and concentrations on the western bank of the Red Sea have added new physical realities that make the region more vulnerable to instability.

Current threats and challenges suggest that potential disputes and conflicts would be complex and multilevelled, while the current weave of regional and international interplay throws into relief the detrimental role that a number of influential regional and international stakeholders are playing in shaping the map of threats and challenges. This map also tells us that attempts to apply temporary palliatives to regional hotspots have not contributed positively to resolving protracted conflicts.

Some Red Sea countries, especially in the Horn of Africa, are seething with internal and mutual tensions rooted in or fuelled by ethnic conflicts. For example, the Somali state exhibits numerous features of extreme fragility exploited by various foreign parties. The federal government is still unable to restore stability and to confront the ongoing threat of the terrorist Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen movement (commonly referred to as HSM or Shabaab) which continues to control parts of the capital Mogadishu, portions of southern Somalia and some border areas near Kenya and Ethiopia.

Fraught relations between the federal and state governments, which stem from disputes over the current electoral process, the division of wealth and oil revenues, and the conduct of foreign relations on the part of some state governments, have also undermined the stability and performance of the state.

In addition, border conflicts include the one between Sudan and Ethiopia and its repercussions, the temporarily deferred border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea (which have reached an agreement to work together on other priorities in the Horn of Africa), and the dispute between Sudan and South Sudan over Abyei. In addition, there is the dispute between Kenya and Somalia over their maritime boundary.

A prime example of domestic conflicts with long-term regional ramifications is the Civil War in Ethiopia between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the government of the Tigray Region against the backdrop of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s bid to alter the power equation between the federal and regional governments as part of his larger project to cast himself as the strongman of the Horn of Africa and to present Ethiopia as a major economic power in the continent.

Meanwhile the activities of jihadist terrorist groups in Libya, Somalia and the Sahel and Sahara region demonstrate how gravely these groups threaten the stability of the relevant states and hamper their prospects for construction and development.

As a result of the foregoing factors, the role of certain non-Red Sea actors have gained ascendancy over that of the Red Sea states and that has resulted in greater unrest and conflict as opposed to opportunities for cooperation.

The idea of a Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Council, which originated with an Egyptian initiative in 2017, gained momentum in a series of meetings between the foreign ministers of eight states in Riyadh since 2018, culminating in the official establishment of the Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in January 2020.

As its charter states, the council aims to build a regional system for collective action to promote development and security in the Red Sea region and to facilitate remedies to various common concerns such as interstate commerce, infrastructural development, increased flow of capital, environmental protection and peaceful conflict resolution. As strategically significant as the council is, it still faces huge challenges in terms of its ability to transform its aims into concrete policies, coordinate its members’ positions and strengthen integrated collective interests.

However, there are a number of pillars that the council can build on to augment its role. Effective collective management of the ports crisis could contribute to crystallising policies that look beyond immediate profits to the development of a sustainable economic ecosystem in the Red Sea. The littoral states possess a number of ports – Suez, Jeddah, Port Sudan, Mocha, Hodeida, Aqaba, Mitsiwa and Djibouti – which, if effectively integrated, can enhance the system, reordering various regional and international calculations and considerations that have worked to reduce liquidity.

Another pillar is maximising the collective economic benefit of the council’s members. One factor that enhances the feasibility of such a drive is the increasing desire of global communications firms to build lines extending beneath the Red Sea and directly linking Africa and the Middle East to Europe. The new fibre optic cable systems offer the advantage of greater usage diversity than existing maritime capable courses.

More importantly in our context, such projects as 2Africa, serving Africa and the Middle East, and Blue-Raman, linking Europe and India, will require close coordination and cooperation among the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden littoral states, especially Djibouti (a main communications cable hub), Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The port networks, communications projects and other such developmental interests require extensive strategic discussions among the members of the council aimed at maximising consensus among them in the face of the competing agendas of outside players towards this region and its countries. As the new Red Sea and Gulf of Aden forum gains in efficacy it will have more say in the management of conflicts, interests and the power balance in this region and gain in ability to counter the detrimental repercussions of outside competition there.

At the same time, it will become more instrumental in conflict reduction and dispute settlement within the region as it strengthens collective development efforts and opportunities for joint security arrangements.

*The writer is senior analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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