The Red Sea has been attracting an increasing amount of attention from Gulf states in recent years. Saudi Arabia and the UAE offered $3 billion in aid to Sudan following the ouster of former dictator Omar Al Bashir, and some states have intervened as part of the Combined Task Force off the coast of Somalia to help combat piracy in the area. Also just last week, this trend culminated in the creation of a special council for Arab and African nations bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, at a conference held in Riyadh this month.
However, one might ask what prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE to find renewed interest in collaborating with their neighbours across the Red Sea and in the Horn of Africa?
The region has always been a strategic waterway. The Red Sea is a conduit between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, and an ancient trade route from Asia to Europe and the Americas. Yet it has gained even more significance as increased rivalry has pushed regional and global powers to vie for influence in two key straits: Bab El Mandab – located between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea – as well as the Suez Canal, in Egypt.
Roughly 10 per cent of all oil exports in the world go through Bab El Mandab, according to the US Energy Information Administration, most of it exported from the Gulf. From this perspective, it is no wonder that although none of the members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, or GCC, border the Red Sea – save for Saudi Arabia – the area is still of interest to them, which as a whole export more oil than any other region in the world.
The Red Sea is also the Arabian Peninsula’s last line of defence against a host of threats across and within the sea. In the early 2000s, piracy had plagued the coast of Somalia, where criminals preyed on commercial and fishing vessels. Somalia is also prone to violent outbreaks and terror attacks, as well as a separatist movement in the north. Yemen shares many of the same problems with its neighbour on the Arabian side of Bab El Mandab. The nation has witnessed decades of conflict and since 2014, it has been torn apart by a Houthi insurgency against the internationally-recognised government in Aden. Conflicts on both sides of the Red Sea have rendered co-operation essential between the GCC and other coastal nations, to keep commercial maritime routes safe.
This push for safety is being challenged by malevolent states and dangerous militias. The Iran-backed Houthis have allowed Tehran to establish a foothold in the Red Sea, pushing the Saudi-led Arab coalition to defend its interests and that of its allies. The group aims to defend Yemen's internationally-recognised government and curb Iran's malign influence. Another impediment to fruitful collaboration in the region is the ambition of Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan, who has also worked to establish a toehold on the Red Sea. In 2017, Ankara approached Al Bashir's defunct regime to ask for a temporary lease on Suakin Island on the Red Sea. It is still unclear whether this agreement will hold after Al Bashir's ousting. Turkey has also signed a military co-operation agreement with Mogadishu, giving the Turks a concession to manage the Arab capital's seaport for 20 years.
At a time when the countries located on Bab El Mandab are either being wooed by faraway countries with an agenda in the region, or falling prey to Iranian-sponsored violence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are concerned about the protection of vital mutual interests. These concerns are at the core of the launch of a separate council for Red Sea and Gulf of Aden nations, so that these states can discuss and resolve issues that concern them directly, with limited outside interference.
Co-operation among those states is a must if they are to safeguard their security and interests in the Red Sea. The organisation launched on January 6 is a step in the right direction. Persistent co-ordination among the littoral states will optimise co-operation to fend off extra-regional powers meddling in the strategic region of the Red Sea.
Albadr Alshateri is a former professor at the National Defence College in Abu Dhabi