Linking three continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe—the Red Sea is the main gateway for Gulf oil that is bound for North America. It is the world’s most valuable and shortest commercial route to Europe through the Suez Canal in the north and to Asia through Bab-el-Mandeb in the south. Hence, in December 2018, Saudi Arabia agreed to partner with six adjacent Arab and African nations (Egypt, Djibouti, Jordan, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) to establish an alliance to “protect its interests” over the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Although they border the Red Sea, Eritrea and Israel are not members of the alliance.
This new alliance is being forged contemporaneously with another new alliance: the anti-Iran Middle East Security Alliance (MESA)—otherwise known as the “Arab NATO.”
All Eyes on the Red Sea
Over the past three decades, the U.S., France, Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have competed for control of the Red Sea.
Over the past three decades, the U.S., France, Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have competed for control of the Red Sea. The military bases built by these countries in the coastal nations of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have altered the Horn of Africa’s geopolitical structure.
Somalia, Eritrea, and Djibouti are particularly fragile and unstable. Civil wars have weakened central governments and divided their lands into armed militias and tribal factions. They have welcomed foreign military bases and accepted investments to gain economic momentum and receive military protection in return.
These factors are contributing to Saudi Arabia’s increasing control over a large portion of the Red Sea coast as the Kingdom buys the loyalties of fragile Iran-friendly countries, such as Eritrea, Sudan, and Djibouti, to undermine Iranian influence.
Saudi Arabia’s Fear of Regional Enemies in Context
Saudi Arabia fears that Iran may act on its frequent threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil tankers pass. Indeed, such threats have increased since the Iranian-backed Houthi militia took control of Hormuz in 2015. The Houthis’ control over Hormuz might lead Iran to impose a total naval blockade against Saudi Arabia either through the Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea, or the Arabian Sea in conjunction with the Houthis, who did attack a Saudi oil tanker off the coast of Yemen in 2018.
Riyadh was in control of the Red Sea at the onset of the Yemeni civil war in 2015.
Riyadh was in control of the Red Sea at the onset of the Yemeni civil war in 2015. It achieved a political breakthrough by consolidating relations with the African countries that border the Red Sea. Along with the UAE, its key ally in the coalition, it has established military bases in Djibouti and Eritrea to launch military attacks against the Houthis in Yemen.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia hosted the signing of a peace agreement to resolve the decades-long conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in mid-September 2018. Moreover, new geo-strategic developments have emerged since Egypt surrendered control of its Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia in 2017.
Egypt, which is a key member of the coalition, now controls a significant portion of the Red Sea—from the Suez Canal to Bab-el-Mandeb. Cairo has become the new Saudi-UAE “agent” to curb Turkey’s growing influence. Turkey opened its biggest overseas military base in Somalia in 2017. Turkey also signed an agreement that year with Sudan to refurbish an Ottoman-era port in Suakin city—on the Red Sea’s western coast—as a tourism hub and military base.
The deal subsequently sparked tensions between Sudan and Egypt, after Egypt sent troops to the UAE’s military base in Eritrea just a few weeks after the Turkish president visited Sudan. Nonetheless, months later, Sudan granted Egypt approximately 500 acres of land to build an industrial zone on the Nile, near the capital city of Khartoum to reinforce Abu Dhabi’s power. In effect, the UAE and Saudi Arabia both use Egypt to impose their power in Sudan indirectly.
In turn, Saudi Arabia is trying to use the alliance against Turkey because of Erdogan’s pressure on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) after his alleged involvement in the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Finally, Israel will also benefit from the alliance to maximize pressure on Iran. In August 2018, Tel Aviv warned that Iran’s threat to block the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait would drive its allies to form an international coalition.
Saudi Arabia Seeks to Strengthen Ties with Israel
Israel would prefer the Red Sea to remain under the influence of the Saudi-led coalition which can face the menace posed by the Houthis’ control of the Strait of Hormuz, argues Israeli General Shaul Shay, director of the research unit at the Center for Policy and Strategy. However, it is still unclear whether Riyadh will attempt to protect the interests of Israel, which has been steadily strengthening and normalizing relations with a number of African countries.
Since his ascension to power in 2017, MbS has attempted to win over the U.S. and brand himself as a reliable ally of the West.
Since his ascension to power in 2017, MbS has attempted to win over the U.S. and brand himself as a reliable ally of the West. Six months after Washington relocated its embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, President Trump, the mastermind of the so-called “Deal of the Century”, commended Saudi efforts to protect Israel.
In 2017, Jared Kushner, Trump’s advisor, and son-in-law detailed the plan to MbS so that he could promote it among the Arab leaders, particularly Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was secretly invited to Riyadh in December 2017 by MbS.
Two years after its announcement, the details of the “Deal”– a supposed peace plan for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—still have not been unveiled. Indeed the plan, which seems to be faltering, was expected to give Israel full security control over the occupied West Bank and to provide for building a new capital for Palestinians in Jerusalem’s extensive surrounding areas.
While the U.S. had also suggested the creation of an “Arab NATO” to effectively counter Iran, Riyadh needed the cooperation of the Red Sea countries. The goal was to create an additional alliance that supports the Arab NATO as a southern bulwark against Tehran. Accordingly, the alliance will also protect Israel.
If the alliance comes about, Saudi Arabia would be the strongest political and economic actor in the Red Sea region. Ultimately, this alliance would allow it to expand its influence beyond the African continent while simultaneously shielding Israel and isolating Iran.