The changing geopolitics of the Red Sea: Gulf rivalries and global competition
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.
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) held a panel discussion on February 26, 2020 on the changing geopolitics of the Red Sea, which assessed the opportunities and risks posed by regional rivalries and great power competition in the region. The panel consisted of a group of distinguished scholars and experts, including: Zach Vertin, visiting fellow at the BDC and nonresident fellow in the Brookings Foreign Policy program; Rashid Abdi, researcher and analyst on the Horn of Africa and the Gulf; and Khalid Al-Jaber, director of the Middle East and North Africa Center for Research. Afyare A. Elmi, associate professor of security studies in the Gulf Studies program at Qatar University, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities.
Zach Vertin opened the discussion by pointing out that there has been an unprecedented surge in Gulf engagement across the Horn of Africa in recent years. This new trans-regional dynamic has challenged the boundaries of two regions that, though enjoined by the Red Sea, were previously thought of as being distinct. Vertin argued that asymmetry has defined this new dynamic, as smaller, richer Gulf states engage with larger, poorer African states. He stated that, while there is a huge opportunity for political and economic integration in the Red Sea region, there are also considerable risks.
Addressing the question of why the Gulf has increased its engagement with the Horn of Africa, Vertin identified a number of key motivations, including the desire to project influence abroad, ensure regime security, promote counterterrorism, and shape maritime trade. He added that the Gulf crisis has been exported to the Horn of Africa, with considerable destabilizing impacts. Vertin also discussed the issues that are likely to shape Red Sea geopolitics going forward, including the war in Yemen, the upcoming elections in Somalia, the political transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia, Gulf states’ tensions with each other and with Iran, and the Nile water negotiations. Lastly, Vertin advocated for the creation of a Red Sea forum, through which all relevant regional players could come together to discuss challenges.
Rashid Abdi continued the discussion by noting that the Horn of Africa is historically conflict-prone, in addition to facing one of the largest human displacement crises in the world and a pattern of political transitions that never seem to end. He added that the impact of the Gulf crisis has been acute across the Horn for a variety of reasons. In Somalia, for instance, there is a long history of engagement with the Gulf and a political class with close links to the Arab world. As such, the Gulf crisis forced Somalia’s political elite to choose between the Qataris and the Emiratis, leading to serious rifts.
Abdi noted that Gulf states are investing in the Horn of Africa in part to compete with one another politically, economically, and militarily. He highlighted that many of the geopolitical realities in the Gulf stem from the awareness of a post-oil future. These states want to make use of the money they have now to invest strategically in the Horn; Ethiopia, for example, has some of the richest water resources in the region. Abdi also argued that Gulf interest in the Horn has the potential to produce positive outcomes, pointing to Qatari efforts to broker a settlement between Somalia and Kenya and Saudi-Emirati efforts to broker peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Khalid Al-Jaber shifted the focus of the discussion to the religious and ideological issues shaping the Red Sea region, noting the increase in Sunni-Shiite conflict and the rise in extremism. Al-Jaber also discussed how the Gulf crisis has divided states in the Horn of Africa; Eritrea and Djibouti, for example, are aligned with opposing sides of the blockade. He added that, while Western aid is contingent upon implementing democratic and/or market reforms, Gulf assistance is contingent upon loyalty. Al-Jaber also commented on how conflicting Gulf allegiances shape media coverage of Horn states, pointing to the differences between how Sudan’s recent uprising was covered by Qatar’s Al Jazeera and the United Arab Emirates’ Sky News Arabia. He concluded that Gulf involvement in the Horn is also shaped by a broader set of medium-power interventions, especially from states such as Iran and Turkey, which the Gulf states view as threats.
In the subsequent question and answer session, panelists focused on prospects for peace in the Horn and the role of great powers in the Red Sea region. Abdi called into question the sustainability of the peace that was brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018. Vertin noted that the peace deal was actually almost entirely driven by domestic Ethiopian politics, rather than by Gulf states. Vertin also discussed the relationship between Gulf states and China in the Horn, referring to it as “coop-etition” (i.e. something between cooperation and competition) and saying that both sides are still feeling each other out. Abdi argued that Gulf states have significant issues with China’s model of engagement; Al-Jaber agreed, adding that Gulf states have a problem with China’s treatment of Muslims. Vertin also discussed Europe’s interest in the region, which he attributed to migration issues and the size of the Horn’s market, and U.S. interest, which he associated with free trade and conflict-related concerns.
Afyare A. Elmi
Associate Professor of Security Studies at the Gulf Studies Program - Qatar University
Former Brookings Expert
Researcher and Analyst, Horn of Africa and Gulf
Director - MENA Center for Research
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