Editor’s note: The U.S. Institute of Peace is launching a new initiative to examine the cross-cutting political and security dynamics in the Red Sea region, encompassing the Horn of Africa, the Gulf, and Egypt. As part of this initiative, USIP will be publishing “The Red Sea Rising: A New Strategic Crossroads,” a series of analytic pieces exploring these dynamics, their long-term impact on international peace and security, and the implications for U.S. interests. In this installment, David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, examines how great and regional power competition is impacting political and security dynamics in the Horn of Africa and complicating U.S. interests in the region.

Rear Adm. John Scorby, then commander of Navy Region Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia, left, speaks with Cmdr. Jeffrey Marty, right, during a brief of port operations in the port of Djibouti on May 19, 2015. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Rear Adm. John Scorby, then-commander of Navy Region Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia, left, speaks with Cmdr. Jeffrey Marty, right, during a brief of port operations in the port of Djibouti on May 19, 2015. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

USIP: Some attention has been paid to the competition playing out between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey, on the other, in Somalia. How do you see the increasing assertiveness of the Gulf states in the Horn of Africa impacting Turkish calculations in other parts of the region, whether it’s the role that the UAE and Saudi Arabia played in mediating between Ethiopia and Eritrea or the development of Emirati and Saudi ports and bases along the Red Sea coast?

Shinn: Turkey and Qatar are close allies working at cross purposes with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Horn of Africa. They both have a different position on Iran and the former has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood to the consternation of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Although Turkey initially supported the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen against Houthi rebels, it subsequently backed away from this support and is now focusing on providing humanitarian assistance. Iran backs the Houthi rebels, which further angers Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Turkey has military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and may be establishing one at Sudan’s port of Suakin, across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. In a related move, Qatar reportedly agreed to provide Sudan $4 billion to develop Suakin. Turkey is arguably Somalia’s strongest ally and is training its army. It is also a major source of investment in Ethiopia. Increasingly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE believe Turkey is trying to establish a neo-Ottoman influence in the Horn of Africa. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seems to be pursuing a policy that establishes Ankara as an alternative to Saudi leadership in the region.  

For their part, the UAE and Saudi Arabia launch military operations from Eritrea’s port of Assab in support of their war in Yemen; the UAE has actually established a military base outside Assab. Saudi Arabia had been in negotiations with Djibouti to establish a military base, although this may have stalled because of Gulf state conflicts. The UAE has reached an agreement with the government of Somaliland, which in 1991 declared unilateral independence from Somalia, to establish a military base at Berbera. The UAE also maintains strong relations with Somalia’s federal state of Puntland, which risks undermining the state’s ties with the central government in Mogadishu. In the case of the war in Yemen, Sudan is playing both sides of the Gulf state conflict by providing troops and several military jets to fight alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  

What is required diplomatically from the United States to navigate more effectively these shifting geopolitical dynamics among non-African players, who are all significant U.S. security partners and, in the case of Turkey, a treaty ally?

All of these developments significantly complicate relationships in the Horn of Africa, especially for the states themselves, but also for the United States, which is trying to maintain good relations with countries on both sides of the Red Sea. Although Gulf state foreign direct investment in the region and assistance in bringing Ethiopia and Eritrea together have been positive, most Gulf state diplomatic and military activity has had the effect of playing one African country against another, often with the promise of large amounts of money. Over the long term, this will further strain relationships in the Horn of Africa and add unnecessary reasons for increased conflict.

The single most positive development for the United States would be a conclusion to the war in Yemen. It would end the cost of military support for Saudi Arabia and reduce humanitarian expenditures for Yemen. It might lower the interest of Gulf states in having military bases in the Horn of Africa. It would remove one of the contentious issues in the Saudi-UAE dispute with Iran, thus improving chances for political stability on the African side of the Red Sea. 

Political stability is in the interest of the United States and would also allow countries in the Horn to deal more effectively with extremist groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia. Most important, U.S. diplomacy needs to be more proactive and move beyond bureaucratic stove piping by treating both sides of the Red Sea as an integrated region.  

The single most positive development for the United States would be a conclusion to the war in Yemen.

The Trump administration has prioritized strategic competition with China and Russia in its national security and defense strategies and recently released Africa strategy, and the proximity of U.S. and Chinese military installations in Djibouti has become a point of contention. How do the competing influences of Middle Eastern actors in the Red Sea impact the dynamics between the United States, China and Russia in that region? Are there areas of mutual interest and cooperation to promote stability in the Red Sea?   

The prioritization of China and Russia as global strategic competitors by the Trump administration makes it difficult, but not impossible, to find areas of mutual interest and cooperation in the Red Sea region. It is difficult to separate this region from broader U.S. policy and there are important reasons for U.S. concern about Chinese and Russian activities.  

China now has its only military base outside its borders in Djibouti and is expanding its naval activity from the Gulf of Aden and through the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. The United States has an even larger military base in Djibouti. There has already been one controversy when early in 2018 the United States accused China of targeting pilots of American military aircraft with military grade lasers. China is also a major supplier of arms to countries in the region. On the other hand, it has played a positive role in supporting U.N. peacekeeping operations in Sudan and South Sudan and supported the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. As China continues to expand its military influence in the region, however, inevitably it will bump up against American interests.  

Russia is also a large supplier of arms to the region and is looking to establish a military base there.  Unlike China, it has not been a significant contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations but it did participate in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. The government of Djibouti turned down Russia’s request for a base; Sudan is holding discussions with Moscow for construction of a “supply center” for Russian warships in the Red Sea.   

The competing interests of Middle Eastern actors are not the driving force for Chinese and Russian interests in the region. Both countries are more concerned about their own long-term strategic interests related to unfettered shipping, access to oil and/or minerals, protection of their nationals, and global power projection. 

Both countries, especially China, welcome political stability and economic development in the region. This is where their interests may merge with American interests. There has already been cooperation on peacekeeping operations and countering piracy. Where possible, this should continue and even expand to collaboration in economic development. For example, all three countries could encourage leaders on both sides of the Red Sea to meet for the purpose of agreeing on division of the rich seabed oil and mineral resources. This may be the next reason for conflict in the area.    

David Shinn is a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, and currently an adjunct professor of international relations at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

The Red Sea Rising: A New Strategic Crossroads

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