A Changing Balance of Power in the Red Sea
On March 23, the Ever Given container vessel veered out of control while sailing through the Suez Canal and ran aground. For nearly a week, the container ship totally blocked one of the most critical global choke points of international commerce, which handles more than 12 percent of world trade each year.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s green light to the Suez Canal Authority’s proposal to widen and deepen the canal reflects the waterway’s importance to both Egypt’s economy and the country’s international reputation. Indeed, only an uninterrupted flow of cargo ships through the Suez Canal allows Cairo to preserve its relevance in the regional architecture and, most importantly, to extract a substantial amount of revenue – $5.8 billion in tolls in 2019 – necessary to sustain its troubled economy.
As world attention gradually waned, and as soon as the queue of hundreds of ships successfully passed through the Suez Canal, the dynamics regulating the Red Sea regional system also reclaimed their relevance.
A New “Scramble for Africa”
The Red Sea is a pivotal waterway that extends from the Suez Canal at the north and the Bab El-Mandeb Strait to the south. It plays a crucial role in the global maritime trade by connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean. Its geostrategic relevance and commercial potential have attracted regional players who decided to enter the waterway and establish a foothold along the Red Sea’s shores. Indeed, from Sudan to Somalia, countries including Turkey, Qatar, Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have built an increasing number of seaports and military facilities in recent years. This accelerating proliferation seems to indicate – as pointed out by Zach Vertin – that a “new scramble for Africa” is taking place in the African coastal states.
Nevertheless, the economic profitability of the region is closely entwined with the safeguarding of the security of its waters, a prerequisite that has been increasingly difficult to maintain since the Saudi-led intervention into the Yemeni Civil War against the Houthi militants started in March 2015.
In this regard, Egypt has always considered a conflict on the Red Sea as a threat to the maritime security of the entire region. This is why President al-Sisi has been highly reluctant in joining the Saudis in their Yemeni military adventure, in spite of his close ties to Riyadh. The fear of jeopardizing the Suez Canal’s tax revenue by turning the Red Sea into a battlefield, and the memory of the so-called “Egyptian Vietnam” in Yemen during the 1960s, have played a crucial role in limiting Cairo’s contribution to the anti-Houthi campaign.
The Houthi Threaten World Commerce
Indeed, while the Egyptian nightmare of a total blockade in the southern part of the Red Sea never materialized, several minor incidents have occurred in the proximity of the Bab El-Mandeb. While piracy seems to be mostly eradicated thanks to multilateral security initiatives such as the EU NAVFOR Operation Atalanta, the main threat to the free flow of cargo ships and oil tankers seems to be identified as attacks carried out by Houthi militias. This threat has manifested itself to the extent that, in July 2018, then-Minister of Energy of Saudi Arabia Khalid A. Al-Falih temporarily suspended shipments of Saudi crude oil after a series of Houthi assaults targeted Saudi Aramco’s tankers.
These events, and the Ever Given incident, illustrate the extent to which the two chokepoints of the Suez Canal and Bab El-Mandeb are in close symbiosis in affecting the flow of global trade along the Red Sea. This means that any single episode affecting the gateways at both ends of this route inevitably reverberates in the Red Sea region and spills over to the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, the Red Sea should be considered as an integral system where the security of its maritime routes is part of a complex regional security framework extending beyond its geographical borders.
At the moment, Saudi Arabia appears to be focused on finding a way out from the Yemeni quagmire, while the UAE has officially committed to a gradual downsizing of its military presence in the region, a process that started in 2019 when the Emiratis initiated their withdrawal from the Yemen conflict. The closure of the UAE base at the Assab seaport in Eritrea in February 2021 further accelerated this process, which sees the UAE commitment to the area evolving from power projection to power protection. As a result, the Emiratis are likely to preserve their regional presence only through the military installations located along the Yemeni coast from Perim Island to the Socotra archipelago. This will allow the UAE to devote more attention to developing a commercial empire, linked by the ports operated by Dubai Ports World in Yemen and Somalia.
Saudi Arabia Rises…
With the UAE recalibrating its regional active military involvement, Saudi Arabia has indicated its intention to assume political leadership in the region. Indeed, in January 2020, King Salman inaugurated in Riyadh a new council uniting Somalia and the six countries adjacent to the Red Sea – except for Israel – to coordinate these countries’ efforts in ensuring maritime security.
Signs of rising Saudi ambitions in the Red Sea area have been previously suggested in the interest of Riyadh on the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in 2016. Located at the Gulf of Aqaba’s entrance, they were the objects of an old territorial dispute between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, King Salman and President al-Sisi resolved the dispute in April 2016 by signing an agreement in Cairo. In exchange for Saudi sovereignty over the islands, Riyadh promised a $1.5 billion plan for development projects in Sinai, the construction of the so-called King Salman bridge connecting the two countries, and several trade contracts.
Saudi control over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir signaled the rising geopolitical presence of Riyadh in the region at the expense of Cairo. Crucially, the agreement also received implicit recognition by Israel; since having access to the Strait of Tiran is of existential importance for the latter, this territorial exchange would not have been possible without the approval – even if silent – of Tel Aviv.
Rising Saudi ambitions in the Red Sea are inevitably linked to the reshaping of the Saudi area of strategic interests, which involves a gradual shift away from the Gulf. What comes to mind are the flagship projects of Vision 2030, as well as the $500 billion futuristic mega-city NEOM in the Tabuk region, the Red Sea Project for luxury tourism, and the promotion of the al-Ula heritage site as a tourism hotspot. As these projects are developed, solidifying its lead and guaranteeing the Red Sea’s maritime security is of primary importance for Riyadh to ensure the success of its diversification initiatives.
… Egypt Struggles
Despite the rising role of Saudi Arabia, Egypt has made clear that it has no intention of limiting its function as a security guarantor of the Red Sea waters. Indeed, Cairo has gradually strengthened its military presence in the Red Sea thanks to the modernization of its blue-water fleet and the improvement of the military capacity of the Berenice naval base at Ras Banas.
Given the increasing geopolitical importance of the Red Sea as a vital channel for maritime trade, Egypt has been forced to accept a changing balance of power in what Cairo has long considered its domain. A growing number of regional and international actors, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey, but also China and Russia, and Qatar, are set to stay and to play an even more significant role in Red Sea politics in the near future.
However, the recent attack at the Saudi Yanbu port reinforces the high level of vulnerability of onshore infrastructure. The recent warming of the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Turkey on the other suggests that, in spite of existing intra-Gulf rivalries, all these actors have a vested interest in keeping free, open, and secure the maritime routes crossing the Red Sea – and thereby keeping clear of a risky arms race in one of the most important seaways for global trade.
Dr. Kristian Alexander is an adviser at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy, and a former assistant professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. He has published in numerous outlets, such as the Middle East Institute, AGSIW, International Policy Digest, IFIMES, Inside Arabia, and Fair Observer.
Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco is a research assistant at Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.