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 a series of analytic pieces exploring these dynamics, their long-term impact on international peace and security, and the implications for U.S. interests. Payton Knopf, an advisor to the Africa program at USIP, opens the series, “The Red Sea Rising: A New Strategic Crossroads,” in the below piece.

Refugees fleeing the war in Yemen arrive at the port in Djibouti after crossing a narrow strait in the Red Sea, April 20, 2015. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Refugees fleeing the war in Yemen arrive at the port in Djibouti after crossing a narrow strait in the Red Sea, April 20, 2015. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

In the last two months, the Trump administration has appointed four special envoys to coordinate U.S. policy toward key hot spots: Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan. Yet in the Red Sea—one of the most volatile and lethal regions of the world afflicted by several interconnected conflicts and rivalries that pose significant challenges to American interests—U.S. policy has been rudderless in large part due to the absence of a similar post. High-level diplomacy and maneuvering outside bureaucratic stovepipes are prerequisites for successfully advancing U.S. policy priorities in the Red Sea. Without such attention from a dedicated envoy, a number of the United States’ vital interests will be compromised along one of the most rapidly shifting, if underappreciated, geopolitical fault lines.

The littoral states on the western side of the Red Sea to the south of Egypt and the Arab states from the east of Egypt through the Arabian Gulf have long been considered distinct regions. This is increasingly a distinction without a difference, however, as these states now operate more as a common political, security, and economic zone. 

The longstanding U.S. role as the dominant external power in the Horn of Africa, however, is being contested by others—China, the Gulf states, and Turkey, for example. While no one Middle Eastern power is likely to achieve regional dominance in the Red Sea, their rivalries fuel instability and insecurity in an already fractious region.

While no one Middle Eastern power is likely to achieve regional dominance in the Red Sea, their rivalries fuel instability and insecurity in an already fractious region.

There are four large-scale armed conflicts underway in Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen, in which states on both sides of the Red Sea are entwined. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example, have relied on a number of bases on the western coast of the Red Sea, particularly in Eritrea, to prosecute their military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. In addition, Sudanese troops are deployed in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition.

The Horn of Africa is also becoming a battleground for Middle Eastern rivalries, which have sharpened since Saudi Arabia and the UAE, supported by Egypt, instituted a blockade against Qatar, supported by Turkey, in July 2017. In Somalia, for example, the federal government in Mogadishu has grown closer to Qatar and Turkey while the regional governments have aligned with the UAE. These rivalries have exacerbated political fissures in a country that is struggling to build state cohesion as a bulwark against the terrorist group al-Shabaab.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have established at least five military installations on the coast of East Africa. Meanwhile, Turkey has its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu and recently signed a lease for Sudan’s Suakin island to include operation of a naval dock. Three months later, Qatar allegedly signed a $4 billion agreement with Sudan to develop and operate Suakin’s port. Meanwhile, China inaugurated its only overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017—near a U.S. base there—and reports have emerged of talks between Khartoum and Moscow over establishing a Russian naval base on Sudan’s coast.  

This militarization of the Red Sea is compounded by the competing economic ambitions of the Middle Eastern powers. Nearly $700 billion worth of goods—most of the maritime trade between Asia and Europe—transits the Red Sea each year. In pursuit of markets and the projection of commercial influence, the Gulf states and Turkey combined now control and operate half a dozen ports along the African side of the Red Sea coast. How these ports compliment or conflict with China’s investments under its Maritime Silk Road initiative remains to be seen but should be considered in the context of the larger Indo-Pacific region given that U.S.-China strategic competition is a core pillar of the Trump administration’s national security strategy.

The United States cannot afford to see its interests in the Red Sea undermined by adherence to an anachronistic distinction between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

The United States cannot afford to see its interests in the Red Sea undermined by adherence to an anachronistic distinction between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Instead, it should leverage its considerable assets to stabilize the competition among other external actors and ensure that some of the positive developments in the region—such as the role played by the UAE in defusing the “frozen war” between Ethiopia and Eritrea—are sustained over the longer term rather than becoming triggers in a perceived zero-sum game of rivals.

In addition to its projection of military power in the Red Sea, including counterterrorism operations in Somalia and support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the United States spends nearly $5 billion per year on development, humanitarian, and security assistance in the Horn of Africa. What the United States lacks, however, is an integrated regional political strategy. Just the job for a special envoy.

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