Zoom-In: The Red Sea
There are two recent significant developments to follow related to the Red Sea.
Council of Red Sea Shore and Gulf of Aden Countries
On January 8, 2020, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, overlooking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, eight Arab countries signed a treaty to establish a new organization called the “Council of Red Sea Shore and Gulf of Aden Countries.” The eight members are Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan stressed that the new entity, which was initiated by Saudi Arabia in 2018, will prioritize efforts to address “the threats and challenges facing our region, and safeguard the security of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.”
Egypt Expands Military Presence on the Red Sea
On January 15, 2020, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated one of the largest military bases in the Middle East – the Berenice (Barnis) base.
Berenice is Egypt’s second base on the Red Sea. In January 2017, al-Sisi inaugurated the headquarters of Egypt’s southern naval fleet at Safaga.
Berenice is a 150,000-acre installation and includes air and naval base. Located south of Safaga, it sits on the Red Sea 825 km south of the Suez Canal and about 250 km north of the Egypt-Sudan border.
Berenice is one of three identical navy bases currently being built in Egypt. The other two are on the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to developing new ports, Egypt is presently expanding four existing harbors. When each project is completed, Egypt will have seven maritime military installations.
The Red Sea – A Global & Domestic Asset
The Red Sea is an arena of global importance. It is one of the most crucial maritime transport routes in the world, connecting the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait, located at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, is one of the most strategic places on the planet. Estimates are that 12 to 20 percent of the world’s trade passes through the Strait. It is the shortest trade route between the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the rest of East Asia. The Strait, 18 miles wide at the narrowest point, flows between Yemen on the East, and Djibouti and Eritrea on the west. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is the chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, the link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, and the connection between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is a vital link between Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and North America.
The Suez Canal lies at the northernmost point of the Red Sea. The canal connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. More than ten percent of the world’s trade flows through the Suez Canal. It is one of Egypt’s primary income sources. In July 2015, Egypt widened the Suez Canal. The goal of the project is to increase revenue by allowing more – and larger ships to pass through with shorter waiting times and to develop service and industrial zones around the canal. According to the Suez Canal Authority, since the expansion, the number of vessels passing through the Suez has almost doubled. Before its widening, the Suez Canal generated an annual revenue of 5 billion USD for Egypt. The current annual income stands at about 6 billion USD. Cairo projects that by 2023 the canal will generate 13 billion USD.
The Red Sea area also offers diverse economic and commercial opportunities and partnerships around tourism initiatives, infrastructure development, and transportation projects. Saudi Arabia is currently planning one of the most ambitious projects in the Middle East – and it will be on the shores of the Red Sea. The project, which will be in the northwestern part of the Kingdom, is a futuristic city called NEOM. Another massive international project underway is the King Salman Causeway that when completed, will connect Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Tensions & Threats in the Red Sea
Maritime Piracy. According to official observers, although attacks in the area have decreased, the danger still exists. Specifically, in the waters of the “southern Red Sea, / Bab el Mandeb Strait, the Gulf of Aden, including Yemen and the northern Somali coast, Arabian sea / off Oman, Gulf of Oman and off the eastern and southern Somali coast.”
The Proliferation of Islamic Terrorist organizations. Taking advantage of the chaotic conditions in the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, and Somalia, Militant Islamic groups such as Al-Qaida, Al-Shabab, ISIS, and others are expanding their presence and activities in those areas. Thus, their ability to threaten maritime traffic in the Red Sea grows.
Turkey and Iran, driven by the vision of regional hegemony at the expense of the Arabs and Israel, employ aggressive policies using violence and threats to achieve their goals.
Turkey. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would like to restore the glory of the Ottoman Empire and position himself as the leader of the Sunni Arab world. A key to his vision is controlling the Red Sea. As part of his strategy, Erdogan went to Sudan in December 2017, where he signed several agreements, including a lease to the island of Suakin Island. Suakin was a central seat of power for the Ottoman Empire, the capital of the Ottoman province of Habeş, and a significant link for trade between Africa and the western Arabian Peninsula from the mid-sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century. It is located in the Red Sea across from the Saudi Port of Jedda. Sudan’s dictator Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in a military Coup in the spring of 2019. The succeeding government prefers to develop relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the expense of its ties with Turkey and Qatar. Thus, Sudan has canceled Turkey’s lease to Suakin Island.
Iran. Iran uses the Red Sea to smuggle arms, primarily to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In January 2002, November 2009, and March 2014, Israel intercepted Iranian weapons shipments in the Red Sea that were destined for the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. In 2009, 2011, and 2012 Israel reportedly attacked Iranian weapon shipments that were offloaded and stored in Sudan.
Iranian-backed Yemenite Houthi tribes present a constant and severe threat to transportation in the Red Sea and surrounding waterways. In July 2018, the Houthis attacked two oil tankers in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Between July and September 2019, water mines susceptibly scattered by the Houthis damaged several ships in the Red Sea.
The Middle East is a chain of links. What happens in one region influences another. Increasing Turkish and Iranian influence in the Red Sea will increase tensions and instability in the region.
In his bid to lead the Muslim world and spread Turkish control throughout the region, Erdogan pursues every opportunity he can to secure a foothold (in the case of the (defunct) deal with Sudan); increase his power – as in the November 2019 agreement Turkey signed with the Libyan Government of National Accord expanding Ankara’s maritime borders, or initiate provocations – as he demonstrated through his involvement in the Gaza Strip flotillas, and more recently his gas drilling in Cypriot waters a mover that draws the ire of Cyprus, Greece, as well as European countries.
Like Iran, Erdogan sees instability as a way he can gain power. He is skillful at leveraging chaos to promote his own ambitions, at the expense of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel – who he views as a threat to his own ambitions. Should Turkey gain control in the Red Sea, Erdogan, who today challenges Egyptian influence in the Mediterranean by attempting to assert himself into the war in Libya, will likely challenge Egyptian and Saudi control in the Red Sea as well.
Should Iran gain control in the Red Sea, it will increase military shipments to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, which will result in escalating military rounds between Gaza-based Palestinian militant organizations and Israel.
Israel & The Red Sea Arab States
Israel and the Red Sea Arab States (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen) want to curb the influence of Iran and Turkey in the Red Sea and surrounding waters.
The threats to marine traffic in the Red Sea impact all the Red Sea states – including Israel and Jordan. The Israeli port of Eilat is vital for Israeli security and its trade with Africa and Asia, and the Red Sea port of Aqaba is Jordan’s only access to the sea.
Although not a member of the new institution, one can assume that Israel supports the “Council of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden Countries” – yet another layer in the formation of the Israeli-Egyptian-Saudi axis. This alliance strives to curb Iran and Turkey from spreading their influence and power in the Middle East and restore stability to this turbulent region. In the dramatically reshaped landscape of the Middle East, the geostrategic importance of the Red Sea cannot be emphasized enough. From every perspective, it is one of the most sensitive and vital regions in the world.
Final Note: Though not explicitly related to the Red Sea per se, speaking of the changing alliances, it is worth noting the announcement of Israel’s Interior Ministry on Sunday that it will now allow Israelis to travel to Saudi Arabia for religious or business visits.
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