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The Red Sea, Where Alliances Shift With the Tide

The region is too strategically valuable to be left alone by regional and even global powers.

Deep Dive

|February 8, 2018

Summary

The Red Sea is an immensely valuable region strategically. It’s been an active trade zone since the time of the ancient Egyptians, and today some 20 percent of global trade by volume passes through it. In 2016, nearly 17,000 vessels crossed from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea or vice versa through the Suez Canal (there is no consolidated organization that measures all Red Sea traffic), transporting approximately 820 million tons of cargo. Most of the maritime trade between Asia and Europe – about $700 billion annually – traverses it. Access to the Red Sea, and therefore to the Suez Canal, substantially shortens shipping times, making it easier and cheaper for China and the rest of Asia to sell to Europe.

The Red Sea is also a volatile region – in great part because of its value. Passage requires ships to navigate several narrow straits, which empowers countries that rarely draw international attention to affect the security of far more powerful countries around the world. In fact, this made the Horn of Africa, at the southern end of the Red Sea, a major zone of competition between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, and it’s the reason so many faraway countries have military bases in Djibouti today.

Security around the sea is often jeopardized for reasons wholly unrelated to the sea itself. Among the littoral states there have been wars over natural resources, ethnic Arabs fighting non-Arabs, non-Arabs fighting non-Arabs (as in Ethiopia), Muslims fighting Christians, Sunnis fighting Shiites, and secular Muslims fighting traditionalist Muslims. And of course, there are battles to control passageways. With so many different national identities and so many weak states, conflict is nearly inevitable.

To untangle this morass, we need to approach the Red Sea from several angles. This Deep Dive will consider regional powers (such as Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia) versus weaker Red Sea states, explore distinctions between countries on the west and east coasts of the sea, outline the interests of powers just outside the region (Turkey and Iran), and look at how the region’s dynamics affect distant powers (China and the U.S.). At times the category distinctions will be arbitrary – it’s impossible to truly separate one from another – but they are necessary to bring clarity.

But first, we must understand what makes the Red Sea so important: the volume of trade and the abundance of chokepoints.

Choking Trade

The Red Sea is a narrow body of water – only about 190 miles (300 kilometers) at its widest point – stretching from the Sinai Peninsula to the Gulf of Aden and ultimately leading to the Indian Ocean. At the north end of the sea are the Gulf of Aqaba, which leads northeast to Israel and Jordan, and the Gulf of Suez, which connects the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. The canal in turn connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, shortening the distance between the Arabian Sea and London by approximately 4,900 miles compared to the path around the southernmost tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope.


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Saudi Arabia and Yemen form its eastern shore, and on its western shore are Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. Before 1991, Eritrea was part of Ethiopia, and to this day Ethiopia’s actions still factor heavily into the region’s geopolitics even though it doesn’t border the sea. For similar reasons, South Sudan – part of Sudan until 2011 – will be included in this analysis despite being landlocked.


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The Red Sea is littered with chokepoints. To the north is the Suez Canal, which, if blocked, can severely disrupt trade between Asia and Europe. When Egypt closed the canal from 1967-1975, the cost of maritime shipping for the United Kingdom increased so dramatically that in 1967 it was forced to devalue its currency by about 14 percent, which was one of the final drivers that led to the end of the Bretton Woods system – and therefore the end of the gold standard – in the United States.


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At the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba are two small, uninhabited islands – Tanir and Sanafir – that together can be used to block Israel’s and Jordan’s access to the Red Sea. Though Israel has a second shore on the Mediterranean, the Red Sea is Jordan’s only outlet to the rest of the world. The Strait of Tiran – formed by these two islands – was the flashpoint that sparked the 1967 Arab-Israeli war known as the Six-Day War. Egypt blockaded the straits, choking the passage through which Israel received 90 percent of its oil.

Farther south, near the entrance to the Red Sea, are the Hanish Islands. The islands are about halfway between Eritrea and Yemen, which engaged in a three-day battle in 1995 over their possession.

Finally, there is the Bab el-Mandeb, the narrow passageway into the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden. In the middle of the Bab el-Mandeb lies Perim Island, which separates the strait into an eastern and western channel. The strait is about 18 miles across at its narrowest point – between Yemen and Djibouti – and most shipping traffic that passes through it uses the western channel, which is only about 13 miles wide.

The Three Major Red Sea States

Three Red Sea countries stand above the rest in terms of economic size and military might: Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Egypt was once the center of the Arab world. Its pre-eminence has faded since its two defeats at the hands of Israel in the 1960s and 1970s and as the Saudis accumulated oil wealth, but it still has a strong military. Egypt’s interest in the Red Sea is closely linked to the Suez Canal. Control of the canal confers obvious security advantages, and power, to Egypt. The Egyptian government also collects fees from ships passing through the canal, pulling in more than $5 billion annually.

Still, its economy has been struggling since the Arab Spring in 2011. As a result, it has come to depend more and more on Saudi economic aid. In return for $25 billion in economic support, Egypt returned possession of the Tanir and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia in 2016.

But Egypt does not cooperate with Saudi Arabia without concerns. Saudi Arabia is known to support the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the Egyptian government’s main opposition group. Egypt is also wary of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to overthrow the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. Both Syria and Egypt are military-centric, secular governments, and Egypt fears that if Assad were to be ousted, it would set a precedent for a challenge to its own government. Egypt and Saudi Arabia also differ on the issue of Iran, which, due to its location farther east, is less of a concern to the Egyptian government than to the Saudi monarchy.

Israel needs to work with both countries. Israel and Egypt both have an interest in combating jihadists, who consider Israel to be an occupying state and believe that Egypt – a secular state – is cooperating with Israel and thus is complicit in the occupation. One of Israel’s imperatives is to maintain free passage through the Tiran straits to the Red Sea, and an important part of that effort is to have a good working relationship with Egypt.

Lately, Israel has needed to refocus some energy on cooperating with Saudi Arabia. Despite Saudi Arabia’s historical antagonism toward Israel, they share the need to combat the spread of Iranian influence. For Saudi Arabia, the concern – at least militarily – is over Iran’s support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, which sits on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. For Israel, the threat is Iran’s support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which borders Israel and with which Israel has fought wars before.

On the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia’s direct access to the Arabian Sea – and thus the Indian Ocean – is blocked by Yemen and Oman. Since so much of the Saudi economy depends on oil exports, access to shipping lanes is critical. Saudi Arabia mostly exports through the Persian Gulf to its east, where it runs the risk that Iran will disrupt traffic going through the Strait of Hormuz. Saudi Arabia therefore has a strategic interest in maintaining a backup option through the Red Sea, from which it can access both the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean through the Bab el-Mandeb. To that end, Saudi Arabia stores reserves on the Red Sea coast so that it could continue exporting if anything were to happen in the Persian Gulf.

That said, Iran’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war has threatened Saudi Arabia’s second access point to the Arabian Sea. Iran supports the Houthis, who control the port of Hodeida, just north of the Bab el-Mandeb. The Saudi intervention, therefore, isn’t just about preventing the fight from spilling over the land border; it’s also about keeping the maritime route clear. The Saudis tried to enlist Egypt’s support in their intervention in exchange for aid, but Egyptian participation has been minimal. Saudi Arabia wanted Egypt to commit a ground force to the fight, but Egypt would commit only to deploying warships and aircraft on patrol and reconnaissance missions in the southern regions of the Red Sea. The memory of Egypt’s intervention in Yemen’s previous civil war from 1962-1970, which resulted in 26,000 Egyptian deaths, no doubt played a role in this decision.

The Western Shore and the Horn of Africa

Unlike the Red Sea’s east coast, the western side consists of weak states that often struggle to control their own territory. With weak central governments and many points of contention, the states on the western shore constantly realign themselves in search of elusive security. It’s not an absolute power vacuum, but it’s close. This encourages – even demands – the intervention of neighbors, the countries of the eastern shore and foreign powers that have trade interests in the area.

For the states on the west coast, there are two geographic features that can help frame an understanding of their interstate relations: the Nile River and the central location of Sudan, which is bordered by seven other countries. Those two features play a significant role in the conflicts that have plagued the Horn.

The Nile

Egypt depends almost entirely on the Nile for its water. The Nile is the confluence of two rivers, the White and Blue Nile, which come together in Khartoum, Sudan. Most of the Nile’s water comes from the Blue Nile, which runs north from the Ethiopian highlands to Sudan, where it meets the White Nile and moves on into Egypt. Almost no water is added to the Nile within Egyptian borders, making Egypt 95 percent dependent on water originating beyond its borders.


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Alignments between western Red Sea littoral states are fluid, but the northward flow of the Nile sets up a fairly constant antagonism between Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt, despite being the far more powerful of the two, is concerned about what Ethiopia may do upstream that could restrict its water supply. Ethiopia is concerned that Egypt’s fear will cause it to intervene in Ethiopia’s domestic politics to keep the country weak. Most recently this has taken form in the dispute over the Grand Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia wants to construct on the Blue Nile to generate electricity and secure a more reliable water source. The speed at which this dam is filled risks slowing the flow of the Nile, threatening Egypt’s water supply. Last week, Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian leaders agreed to cooperate on construction of the dam, but no amount of diplomacy can dispel the fact that, ultimately, Egypt’s water supply is in Ethiopia’s hands.

Sudan’s Location

Sudan borders Egypt, Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Being surrounded by so many countries would pose a challenging security situation for any state, let alone one beset by a chronically weak central government that lacks the resources to effectively meet these challenges. Sudan has only one major settlement on the Red Sea, Port Sudan, which is also the country’s only commercial port. Suakin, another port town on the Red Sea farther south, lacks the infrastructure to conduct large-scale commerce.

Sudan has been in a nearly constant state of civil war since the mid-20th century, which has tended to draw its neighbors into its domestic affairs. It constantly seeks foreign military support to defend itself, but it’s also gone a step further, exporting Islamist insurgencies to neighboring countries as a defense strategy. If Sudan can’t defend itself, it will try to keep its neighbors weak.

But ironically, Sudan’s support for and harboring of jihadists, including Osama bin Laden, has cultivated a constant fear among its neighbors that the country is trying to undermine their security, which only encourages them to interfere. Egypt, a secular Arab republic, worries that Sudan’s support of several Egyptian radical Islamist groups could threaten the military regime. (In 1995, Sudanese extremists attempted to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while he was on a visit to Ethiopia.) Sudan has also supported Islamic rebel groups in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In response, almost all of its neighbors have been pulled into Sudan’s (and, subsequently, South Sudan’s) civil wars. Ethiopia, where Christianity is the largest religion, supported Sudan’s main Christian rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – which would later become South Sudan’s regular army – in its rebellion in the south against the central government. Sudan’s support of Eritrean rebel groups led Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in 1995 to declare, “We are out to see that [the Sudanese] government is not there anymore. We will give weapons to anyone committed to overthrowing it.” Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia supported Eritrea’s anti-Sudan stance. Egypt has also supported anti-government forces in Sudan’s civil wars.

Sudan eventually found a friend in Iran, receiving defensive assistance in 1989. But Iran’s presence in the Horn of Africa was a threat to Saudi Arabia’s position in the Red Sea, as well as to American interests in preventing the spread of jihadism to the Sahel. To combat this, Saudi Arabia recently brought Sudan back into its orbit by providing it with significant investments – up to $11 billion by 2016 – including a $1 billion deposit in its central bank to increase its foreign reserves. Saudi Arabia essentially paid Sudan to end its relationship with Iran. (Similarly, Saudi Arabia provided Somalia with $50 million in 2016 to sever ties with Iran.)

Another example that excellently depicts the region’s shifting alliances is the budding relationship between the old adversaries Sudan and Ethiopia. The two found common ground after South Sudan declared independence in 2011. By 2013, South Sudan had descended into civil war in a fight over oil resources between the president of the new republic and his vice president. Ethiopia was concerned about spillover and refugees. In an attempt to keep Ethiopia out of the war, South Sudan established closer ties with Ethiopia’s adversary, Egypt. Sudan countered by increasing its cooperation with Ethiopia – which now relies on Sudan for its supply of petroleum. And if that’s not confusing enough, Egypt is deeply concerned about the Ethiopian-Sudanese alignment because of Sudan’s proximity, its tendency to harbor anti-Egyptian insurgent groups, and the fact that the Nile flows through both Ethiopia and Sudan.


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Ethiopia and Eritrea

Ethiopia is the second-largest African country by population after Nigeria. Before 1993, Eritrea was part of Ethiopia, which gave it direct access to the Red Sea and made Ethiopia a pivotal state in the great game between the U.S. and the USSR. Their relationship didn’t immediately break down after Eritrea gained official independence; from 1993 until 1998, Eritrea allowed Ethiopia to freely use its Red Sea access. The benefit for Ethiopia was manifest, and for Eritrea it provided jobs and economic activity. Beginning in 1998, however, disagreement over a border territory sparked a two-year war that left between 70,000 and 300,000 dead. Suddenly landlocked in practice as well as theory, Ethiopia came to depend almost entirely on Djibouti for access to the sea.

Outside powers have also factored into the alliances in the Horn of Africa. Israel, for example, has had a role in Ethiopia’s conflicts. Before Eritrea’s independence, Israel historically supported Ethiopia as a regional counterweight to Arab power. Ethiopia, like Israel, is a non-Arab state almost surrounded by Arab-dominated countries (Sudan to the north, Egypt farther north, and Yemen and Saudi Arabia to the east). Even after Ethiopia in 1974 became a Soviet satellite and therefore an adversary to the U.S., Israel’s primary patron, Israel continued to support Ethiopia (though it did sever diplomatic relations).

When Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war, Israel switched sides and began providing aid to Eritrea. The rationale had to do with maintaining access to the Bab el-Mandeb, which is too far away for Israel to reliably defend. Given Eritrea’s newly acquired coastal territory, Israel decided that whichever state ultimately hugged the Red Sea coast would be the one that Israel would need to have influence with.

Containers and a general view of the Port of Djibouti, located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, on March 27, 2016. SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

The Horn also featured prominently in the proxy wars of the Cold War. For nearly 30 years preceding Eritrea’s independence, several ethnic Eritrean liberation groups waged insurgencies against the Ethiopian government. Until 1974, the U.S. supported Ethiopia and the Soviet Union supported Somalia, Egypt and South Yemen, Ethiopia’s adversaries at the time. The loss of Egypt to the West in 1973 was a blow to the Soviet Union’s position on the Red Sea, and it committed heavily to toppling the Ethiopian government. In 1974, it succeeded, and the military-communist regime known as the Dergue ascended to power.

Alliances flipped, with the Soviet Union supporting the Ethiopian government and the U.S. siding with Egypt, Somalia and insurgent groups seeking independence within Ethiopia. Somalia, which at this point was not yet a failed state, even launched an invasion of Ethiopia in 1977, beginning what came to be known as the Ogaden War. Sudan also supported Eritrean liberation groups against Ethiopia, although it would later become an adversary of Eritrea after Eritrea gained independence. Returning the favor, Ethiopia regularly supported the Christian rebel group SPLA in Sudan’s southern region (now South Sudan).

After the fall of the Dergue in 1987, a new government came to power, dominated by the Tigrayans, an ethnic minority that accounted for less than 10 percent of Ethiopia’s population. Now without its Soviet patrons, the Ethiopian government no longer had the resources to continue waging the counterinsurgent war against the Eritrean liberation groups. Peace talks started in 1991, and Eritrea declared itself, by referendum, an independent republic in 1993.

Regional Powers: Turkey and Iran

The access to trade routes provided by the Red Sea and the ease with which it can be blocked at several points make it a critical area not just for its littoral states, but also for regional powers Iran and Turkey. And the weakness of most states around the Red Sea makes it easier for larger, extra-regional powers to intervene and exploit rivalries in their favor.

Although Sudan sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, that didn’t stop Iran from drawing closer to Sudan after a military coup in Khartoum brought an Islamist regime led by Omar al-Bashir to power. For one thing, Sudan let Iran use its port at Port Sudan in exchange for military and economic support. Having an ally in the Horn of Africa let Iran ship arms to Sudan and then smuggle them north through Egypt to Hamas in Gaza to threaten Israel. The arms traffic also went the other way, with Iran supposedly smuggling Russian-made surface-to-air missiles from Libya back into Sudan to be studied and replicated for developing Iran’s own arms industry.

Iran also wants to deny its chief rival, Saudi Arabia, clear access to the Red Sea as a backup shipping route in the event Iran were to blockade the Persian Gulf. It has pursued this goal by supporting Yemen’s Houthi insurgency, which then threatens Saudi Arabia from the south. In this way, Iran threatens Saudi Arabia both on land and by sea.

Turkey’s interests and recent presence in the Red Sea are connected to trade and security. Turkey’s new Suakin Island base in Sudan – which is still in development – will give Turkey a presence on both sides of the Suez Canal, which decreases its dependence on Egypt should Egypt decide to close the canal. The investment Turkey provides to Sudan to redevelop the base will also give it influence with the Sudanese government, which will be cautious to undertake actions that jeopardize the flow of funds. Turkey’s relationship with Sudan will become increasingly relevant as its rise as a regional power leads it to revisit areas that were historically under Ottoman control, such as Egypt, in its aim to develop greater strategic depth. Sudan, on Egypt’s southern border, can threaten Egypt on Turkey’s behalf – which Turkey can then exploit.

In fact, Turkey’s location at the intersection of East and West will compel it to pursue similar strategic forward positions to those the Ottoman Empire held along the Arabian Peninsula and the western shore of the Red Sea. The base in Suakin and Turkey’s existing military base in Qatar already roughly parallel the farthest reaches of the Ottoman Empire in the Arabian Peninsula.


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It’s a worrying trend for the Red Sea littoral states. Egypt is concerned because Turkey has historically dominated the eastern Mediterranean, subjecting Egypt and folding it into the Ottoman Empire. Saudi Arabia, though it shares Turkey’s apprehension about Iran, is worried that a greater Turkish presence will threaten its position as a leader of the Sunni world. The Saudis remember when the Ottoman Empire – then also the Muslim Caliphate – subdued and controlled the coastal reaches of the Arabian Peninsula, and they know there is strategic logic for Turkey to do so again if it can. Sudan’s Islamist regime, for its part, is happy to receive support from both Saudi Arabia – which provided it funding to end relations with Iran – and Turkey, another rising Sunni power.

Distant Powers: U.S. and China

Several hundred billion dollars’ worth of trade between Asia and Europe passes through the Suez Canal every year. Given China’s dependence on exports to maintain economic growth, if the canal were to shut down, it would put extreme stress on China’s finances. The Chinese economy specializes in low-cost, low-margin goods produced at scale. China is already experiencing pressure as the costs of inputs rise. If it then had to pay the higher shipping costs of sending goods to Europe around the Cape of Good Hope because the Suez Canal was closed, it would be a heavy blow.

This is why China recently opened its first overseas base in Djibouti, the Red Sea’s weakest state. China has invested more than $15 billion in Djibouti’s port expansion and related infrastructure activities, and though the base is too far from China for it to supply and maintain a military force large enough to pose a real security threat to the neighboring states or other foreign military facilities in Djibouti (such as the U.S. base at Camp Lemonnier), its presence nevertheless can alert China to any risks to its maritime traffic.

In addition to having a base from which it can monitor and conduct anti-terrorist operations, the U.S., like China, recognizes the critical role that the Red Sea plays in international commerce. Unlike China, the U.S. is a truly global power, and its strength relies in large part on international commerce. It therefore has a global interest in keeping sea lanes open.

The U.S. pursues this goal in the Red Sea through a strategy of alliances with local powers. After Egypt shifted camps from the Soviets to the West, the U.S. began pouring military aid into the country to ensure that it didn’t stray and that the Suez Canal remained open for business. The U.S. still maintains a close relationship with Egypt, providing substantial aid to its military, as well as with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Sometimes the U.S. has taken more direct action. When two of the Red Sea’s chokepoints were mined in 1984 (some suspect Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, others point fingers at the non-state group Islamic Jihad), the U.S. was forced to clear them. This remains a critical concern to the United States. The Houthis have been implicated in mining around the Yemeni port of Hodeida in an attempt to break the Saudi blockade of the country.

About the only thing the Red Sea states have in common as far as identity goes is that they’re all near the Red Sea. With so many competing interests and no institutions to encourage regional cooperation, the Red Sea is a conflict-prone zone where alliances are as fickle as the wind. That so much of the world’s trade passes through the region only raises the intensity of its conflicts and draws in foreign powers that depend on the passage’s openness. And chokepoints along the way empower the weak states nearby to impinge upon the interests of far more powerful countries, providing the impetus for regional and distant powers to intervene in the Red Sea’s domestic politics and wars.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this report accidentally said Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a coup in 1989. He was, of course, the one doing the ousting. The error has been fixed on site.