The Red Sea stands as a crucial focal point in global security policy, acting as a strategic and economic conduit connecting three continents. Investments from Gulf states are reshaping the geopolitical landscape on both shores of the Red Sea, offering opportunities while carrying inherent risks. Delving into the varying diplomatic and military strengths among regional countries proves to be a fascinating study. While some nations, notably the UAE, exhibit shrewd strategies, others like Saudi Arabia have faced challenges in forging effective relationships with their neighbors. The Saudi monarchy historically leaned on immense wealth to build alliances, but recent years have witnessed a shift toward more authentic engagement. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia grapples with building trust due in part to past support for religious fundamentalist groups.
Understanding the Red Sea’s Significance
The Red Sea, historically underestimated, stands as a vital waterway dividing the Middle East and Africa. Its strategic importance has been evident across centuries, facilitating the movement of goods like silk and spices from the East to European and African markets. People from opposite sides of the basin engaged in significant migrations, shaping intercommunal exchanges. The region’s dynamics saw shifts with the discovery of petroleum and the emergence of new Arab states, driving migration towards the oil-rich Gulf states.
Recognition of the Red Sea’s strategic value by the British and French fueled their colonial ambitions and control over trade routes to the East. Their involvement led to establishing colonies and ports along the Red Sea coast. The Cold War further highlighted the sea’s significance, aiming to counter the USSR’s influence on Arab countries, particularly Egypt’s control of the Suez Canal, a critical gateway to the Red Sea.
In the post-Cold War era, the Red Sea’s importance surged as a conduit for global trade, linking three continents. However, any conflict or instability in the region profoundly impacts the market, as evidenced by past events like the Israel-Arab wars, Suez Canal blockages, and the Yemen conflict. Recent events, such as Houthi attacks in response to Israeli actions in Gaza, further underscore the sea’s influence on international trade.
Gulf States’ Influence in the Red Sea Region
Gulf states, with considerable resources, assert their presence in the Horn of Africa like never before. Their economic and military investments are rapidly altering geopolitical dynamics on both sides of the Red Sea, merging two previously distinct regions. While this presents opportunities for development and integration, it also poses significant risks, particularly for fragile African states on the Red Sea’s western shores.
Interestingly, no regional organization effectively addresses the security challenges in the Horn and the Red Sea. The African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) cover parts of the region but lack comprehensive representation, while the Arab League’s influence remains limited. This void has prompted the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to take the lead in interventions, using financial clout rather than multilateral diplomacy to garner African countries’ support.
UAE’s Regional Engagement
The UAE’s policies and engagements in the Red Sea Basin, despite not being a member, have been notably active. Direct investments, financial ventures, and support for proxy conflicts have significantly influenced the region’s geopolitics. Its intensified interest, especially post the Yemen crisis in 2015, led to active military involvement, establishing bases and operations in Yemen’s southern region. However, subsequent withdrawals caused friction with allies like Saudi Arabia, highlighting the need for diplomatic resolutions.
The UAE’s involvement in destabilizing Sudan through support for the Rapid Support Force (RSF) and intervention in Ethiopia’s Northern Tigray region garnered international criticism. Moreover, its strategic moves, including port construction in Somaliland without central government consultation, raised concerns about regional stability.
Critics and analysts suggest the UAE’s assertive port-building policy aims to counter China’s growing interest in Eritrean ports for its Belt and Road initiatives. This competition for trade routes highlights the UAE’s aspirations to influence maritime trade, potentially impacting income through UAE ports.
Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Engagements
Saudi Arabia’s active involvement in the Red Sea region dates to the 1960s, engaging in Yemen’s conflict and supporting anti-communist efforts. Over time, it invested in curbing Israel’s influence in the area, collaborating with regional powers to establish Arab dominance over the Red Sea.
However, its propagation of Wahhabism, ostensibly to combat communism, inadvertently destabilized regions in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Kenya and Ethiopia, contrary to fostering peace.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia shifted focus to build diplomatic ties in the region. Initiatives like the Red Sea Council and efforts to resolve Sudan’s conflict showcase attempts at regional cooperation. The Kingdom’s role in advocating for lifting sanctions against Eritrea and facilitating peace deals reflects its commitment to conflict resolution.
The Red Sea’s elevation as a strategic priority has garnered global attention, emphasizing its historical, economic, and security significance. However, the competition for influence between the UAE and Saudi Arabia intensifies, impacting African countries and potentially destabilizing an already fragile region. Both countries’ divisive policies and support for various groups amplify internal conflicts and challenge state institutions’ stability.
While Gulf investments offer opportunities for infrastructure development and economic growth in African states, effective management and regional diplomacy are crucial. Coordination between Gulf and African nations is pivotal to ensuring mutual benefits and averting exacerbation of existing security challenges in the region.