Red Sea geopolitics: Six plotlines to watch

A Saudi border guard patrols Saudi Arabia's maritime border with Yemen along a beach on the Red Sea, near Jizan April 8, 2015. Iran sent two warships to the Gulf of Aden on Wednesday, state media reported, establishing a military presence off the coast of Yemen where Saudi Arabia is leading a bombing campaign to oust the Iran-allied Houthi movement. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser - GF10000052482

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor's note:

Many of the countries bordering the Red Sea suffer a mix of violence, corruption, instability and tyranny. Compounding the problem, outside states are meddling more in an attempt to increase their influence while the Trump administration stands by. My Brookings Institution colleague Zach Vertin offers six areas to watch in the months and years to come, ranging from potential great power competition to the growing role of Gulf states in African politics. -Daniel Byman.

This article was originally published in Lawfare. 

The Red Sea has long represented a critical link in a network of global waterways stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean to the Pacific—a strategic and economic thoroughfare one U.S. defense official dubbed the “Interstate-95 of the planet.” Prized by conquerors from Alexander to Napoleon, the Red Sea’s centrality to maritime trade and its chokepoints have for centuries made it a subject of keen geopolitical interest. But a new kind of rivalry has emerged in recent years, sparking a season of unprecedented geopolitical competition astride the Red Sea, as the boundaries of the two regions it enjoins—the Arabian Gulf and the Horn of Africa—are fast disappearing.

Driving the action have been resource-rich Gulf states, whose expanding notions of their near-abroad have yielded projections of influence across ever-greater swathes of land and sea. The map includes Yemen, home to one of the world’s deadliest wars, and the Horn of Africa, host to three extraordinarily delicate political transitions. In each, Gulf states and Middle Eastern rivals—embroiled in rancorous struggles for regional supremacy—have jockeyed for access, clients and influence.

Changing transregional dynamics have also been animated by migration and refugee flows that top global indices, a combined population greater than that of the United States, and the establishment of China’s first-ever overseas naval base at the Red Sea’s southern gate. Geoeconomics have also figured prominently: In addition to the $700 billion of seaborne commerce that already traverses the route each year, Beijing’s new maritime silk road, Africa’s rising consumer classes, and hydrocarbon finds in the Horn have been subjects of chatter among powerbrokers in the region and beyond. So too are the deep-water ports, roads, and railways needed to make such a network tick.

After 30 months of action, the initial rush for influence appears to have run its course. Red Sea protagonists are now reflecting on their interventions to date and taking stock of the modified land-and seascape. As they consider their next moves, here’s a recap of events and a look at six plotlines that will shape the next season of Red Sea geopolitics—for better or worse.

Rivalry for Export

When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) cut political ties with neighboring Qatar in 2017 and imposed an economic blockade, the resulting feud—which drew in Egypt and Turkey—was promptly exported to the Horn. 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. While the rush of foreign interest (and cash) demonstrated huge potential for economic development in the Horn, it also revealed how dangerously vulnerable the region was to external shocks.

Though the Gulf crisis prompted a flurry of new engagement, these forays were not without prelude. Saudi Arabia and the UAE first turned their attention to Egypt in 2011, concerned by the tumult of the Arab Spring and the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2014 they purchased influence in Sudan and Eritrea to prevent Iran from establishing a foothold on their western flank, and the following year they established a military base in the Horn from which to prosecute an expanding war against Iranian proxies and Islamist adversaries in Yemen.

By 2017, the question of great power rivalry had also begun to animate the Red Sea script. When Beijing established its first-ever overseas military base in Djibouti, at the nexus of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the American defense establishment started paying close attention—both at the Pentagon and at the combatant command headquarters responsible for Africa, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. The presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army at the intersection of these regions, and the significance of this maritime bottleneck to trade routes and freedom of navigation worldwide, made it a touchstone in the great conversation on great power competition.

Meanwhile, trade interests and unstable migration mean European states have been paying attention to Red Sea developments, while China’s growing investments make it a player for Gulf and Horn states to reckon with. Washington, meanwhile, remains mostly absent from Red Sea debates—save for regular debates about its absence. Whether the Trump administration will develop a political strategy for the rapidly evolving region, or exercise any diplomatic muscle, remains to be seen.

Six Plotlines to Watch

The first of six plotlines to watch is the war in Yemen, which in 2015 prompted Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to establish military outposts on nearby African shores. When a bitter fallout with Djibouti (over alleged UAE mismanagement of its commercial port) prevented Gulf coalition forces from setting up shop, they moved one stop north, to Eritrea. After Saudi and Emirati leaders wooed the isolated country’s autocratic strongman with pledges of cash and cooperation, UAE fighter jets and warships soon began launching attacks from Eritrea toward the contested port city of Aden—just 150 miles to the east.

Since then, international attempts to halt the fighting in Yemen or shape a political settlement have failed. Not only has the war dragged on far longer than the sheikhs in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had hoped, but tension with Iran in the adjacent seas has muddied already murky waters. UAE forces have stepped back in recent months, while the Saudis, their aims unfulfilled and local allies imperiled, have been forced to make a hard pivot.

After attacks on two Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 exposed the vulnerability of the country’s dominant economic sector, Riyadh began talking directly with the Houthis, seemingly intent on ending the disastrous conflict and putting distance between the Houthis and Tehran while also cleaning up its tarnished reputation. A negotiated endgame in Yemen—including not only a political deal but also territorial considerations, control of ports on Yemen’s 1,200-mile coast, and safeguards for the strategically located Bab al-Mandab strait—could shape transregional dynamics as much as anything.

The second narrative to watch will unfold across the Red Sea, in Somalia—still the Horn’s most fragile state, where President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo and his colleagues had an especially turbulent introduction to Gulf rivalry. After Farmajo resisted pressure to take sides in the 2017 feud, and later accused the UAE of bribery and meddling (a spectacular seizure of $10 million in Emirati cash on the tarmac at Mogadishu airport followed), Abu Dhabi swore off relations with the central government. Angered by the Farmajo government’s political and financial ties to Doha, the UAE turned its attention, and its checkbook, to Somalia’s federal states and breakaway peripheries. The move laid bare an intensifying battle for foreign influence in Somalia and exacerbated the country’s already deep fissures.

But after two years of estrangement from Mogadishu’s political scene and persistent concern about both Turkish and Qatari influence, the Emiratis may look to reestablish themselves in the capital ahead of Somalia’s 2020 elections. While Gulf states have used cash to curry favor with local elites, the Somalis have also proved remarkably adept at playing external patrons off one another in the service of their own campaign chests. With elections on the horizon, a spoiler alert is hardly necessary—another season of proxy shenanigans, finger-pointing and illicit contributions may be in the offing.

The third transregional plotline concerns transformational change in Ethiopia and Sudan, where, after the exits of decades-old regimes, new leaders are attempting high-wire political transitions. Gulf states have been quick to insert themselves into both, yielding mixed results.

Though Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christian establishment has long been wary of Muslim influence from abroad, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accepted a much-needed $3 billion aid and investment package from the UAE in April 2018. Months later, Saudi and Emirati royals hosted Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki for ceremonies to mark their historic peace pact (for which Abiy was later awarded this year’s Nobel Prize). Talk of revitalized seaports, oil pipelines, telecommunications, and other investments followed. Abiy has wisely sought balance in his near-abroad relations, coupling new Saudi and Emirati engagement with official visits to Qatar and Israel.

Abiy’s ascendance marked a historic opening in Ethiopia, and while his modernizing vision has been widely celebrated, the changing of the guard has also yielded social unrest, political uncertainty and a spike in ethnonationalist rhetoric. Gulf partners (and many in the West) have put great personal faith in the charismatic reformer, hoping he can preside over stable political and economic development while offering them access to privatized industry and 100 million consumers. Aid from wealthy Arab partners can help bolster the transition, but the long-term interests of Gulf states and Ethiopia will be best served if those investments are sensitive to the country’s complex ethnoregional politics. They should also be geared not toward any individual, but to institutions and growth sectors that will serve all Ethiopians.

In Sudan, when Arab Spring-like protests gripped the nation in 2018, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi sensed that President Omar al-Bashir’s time might finally be up. After courting the famously opportunist dictator for years, these Gulf patrons halted the cash injections that had propped up his regime, hastening its April 2019 demise. Likewise uneasy about Khartoum’s relations with Qatar and Turkey, and viewing Sudan’s upheaval through the prism of Egypt’s convulsions, Saudi and UAE diplomats, intelligence officers, and military men then moved quickly. Bent on capturing a piece off the geopolitical chess board, they sought to snuff out Islamism and fashion a new, pliant Sudanese partner. In addition to offering billions in aid, they invested in a short-term insurance policy on stability by backing a new military strongman in the interim—one with a history as dark as Bashir’s.

But the heavy-handed Gulf interventions were met with outrage on the streets of Khartoum. “We don’t want your aid!” came chants from the assembled masses, as the popular movement for democratic change saw its revolution being hijacked. When others in Sudan and abroad expressed similar concerns, Saudi and UAE officials adjusted course, and a hybrid civil-military government ultimately emerged. Though they’re still hedging their bets, the Gulf partners have pledged political and financial support to the transitional authority and are coordinating their engagement with the wider international community. Sudan’s new government must overcome internal divisions and remake a state destroyed by corruption, mismanagement and isolation. Their success will be hugely dependent on foreign aid, not least from Gulf states that can and have deployed it more quickly than the West. The transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia are as precarious as they are potentially transformative; each will shape the Horn—and the wider Red Sea context—for a generation to come.

The fourth plotline concerns the establishment of a so-called Red Sea forum. As I detail in a new Brookings Institution report, forward-thinking diplomats on both shores of the Red Sea, and in Europe, have spent the last year laying the groundwork for what they envision as a multilateral talk shop. The idea—a venue in which littoral states might come together to discuss shared interests, identify emergent threats, and fashion common solutions—is a sensible response to new realities. In its ideal incarnation, African and Gulf states could together confront issues as diverse as trade and infrastructure development, maritime security, mixed migration, and conflict management. At a minimum, such a forum could raise the costs of destabilizing activity by any individual state and provide African countries a platform to engage Gulf states on a more equal footing.

But differing visions of a Red Sea forum persist: How should it be structured, who should be invited, and what should be prioritized? The answers to these questions will determine whether a forum can serve the collective interests of states on both shores, or whether it is leveraged in the service of narrower agendas. (Some observers worry the Saudis—who took the reins of an Egyptian-born initiative and have since assumed a leading role in establishing a forum—may place undue emphasis on both Iran and security.)

Plotline five concerns intra-Gulf dynamics. The Gulf crisis began with an episode of high drama—a Saudi-UAE blockade of Qatar, a list of 13 demands and an alleged plot to depose the Qatari emir. But the feud has produced little since, while disrupting trade flows, destabilizing neighboring regions, and leaving Gulf antagonists exposed as tensions with Iran crescendo. Though President Trump initially parroted the anti-Qatar rhetoric advanced by its adversaries, he later pivoted and invited the Qatari emir for an Oval Office visit in July. While the White House should have long ago assumed an active role in resolving the Gulf crisis, the photo-op with Qatar’s leader helped zero out any hopes the Saudis and Emiratis might have had for Qatari capitulation.

This is among the reasons that the Saudi-Emirati alliance that has underpinned each country’s foreign policy in recent years is now under review in both capitals. Divergent strategies in Yemen, competing threat perceptions (Iran vs. Muslim Brotherhood), Emirati concerns about Riyadh’s troublesome global reputation, and the potential for long-term economic competition are likewise informing the reevaluation. The two allies will not go their separate ways, but the partnership may look different in the coming season. Wider dynamics among Gulf friends and foes, meanwhile, will hinge on events in Iran and on a quiet new effort to end the row with Qatar.

The sixth and final Red Sea narrative is one of great power competition—a focus across Washington’s political spectrum and a particular fixation of the Trump administration. In calling the Red Sea the world’s “I-95”—a reference to the eastern seaboard’s Maine-to-Florida highway—the American military officer was underscoring the waterway’s importance to a core tenet of U.S. national security strategy: maintenance of the global commons, including open sea lines of communication.

Critical Red Sea chokepoints include Egypt’s Suez Canal and the 20-mile-wide strait between Yemen and Djibouti known as the Bab al-Mandab. Military strategists identify this latter passage as one that could be closed, to great consequence, in the event of a major conflict. Not only is the Bab al-Mandab now home to both U.S. and Chinese military bases, but it has also been name-checked by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Forces as a potential target should its adversaries look to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Beijing’s growing presence in the region demands strategic consideration. It also offers the U.S. military an opportunity both to learn and to set precedents—after all, this is presumably the first of more Chinese bases to come. But focusing singularly on Beijing, absent complementary plans to engage states on both sides of the Red Sea, is short-sighted. Countering China requires the United States to be relevant in the region, and this means replacing the narrative of withdrawal with more active diplomacy in the Gulf and the Horn—enabling political transitions, mitigating rivalries, promoting trade, affirming security cooperation and supporting multilateralism.

Will Washington Make an Appearance?

The Trump administration has remained mostly on the sidelines, and it has said exactly zero about efforts to stand up a Red Sea forum. European officials, conscious of both the region’s global import and the limits of their influence with key players, have sought to cultivate greater American engagement. But not only have their appeals generated little interest, they have struggled even to find an appropriate senior U.S. official with whom to regularly engage.

The problem is also bureaucratic, as transregional dynamics challenge institutions that have long been divided into “Middle East” and “Africa” bureaus. At the State Department, Africanists and Arabists are neither accustomed to engaging one another nor encouraged to adapt. At the Pentagon, where the Red Sea likewise represents a seam between three of the U.S. military’s six combatant commands, defense officials wrestle with how to think about the challenge. While China’s presence has garnered plenty of interest, the task of developing and resourcing a long-term global strategy is no easy task, especially in the absence of an immediate and clearly defined threat.

Washington should make an appearance in the next season of Red Sea geopolitics. It need not drive the action, but its continued absence frustrates allies and leaves opportunities to advance U.S. interests on the table. There are simple ways to begin—without overhauling institutions or redrawing combatant commands.

For example, the assistant secretaries of state for Near East Affairs, and for Africa, should together undertake a diplomatic tour of the Red Sea region. They might engage capitals on emergent transregional dynamics while signaling what kind of Red Sea forum the United States could get behind, and what resources it could bring to bear. Given U.S. silence to date, merely demonstrating American interest could alter calculations in the region, reveal opportunities for cooperation, and help nudge allies on both shores toward stability, prosperity and integration.

The history of the Gulf and the Horn can be understood partly in dichotomy, with contrasting notions of the Red Sea as a feature of union or division. While people and states have interacted across this narrow seaway for generations, global trends—rising inequality, shifting centers of power, increasing migration, popular demands for democracy and a great maritime trade contest—are blurring boundaries across the Red Sea as never before. The emergent transregional order, whether cooperative or competitive, will demand our sustained attention.