Riyadh recently hosted the foreign ministers of Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, the deputy foreign minister of Yemen and Jordan’s secretary-general of foreign affairs and expatriates for high-level discussions on enhancing cooperation and building supporting mechanisms.
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International interest in the Red Sea intensified as extra-regional powers such as the United States, China, France, Italy, Japan and Turkey cultivated a strategic presence in the basin. Arab Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have developed deeper ties to the region, focusing on economic and security dimensions in bilateral relationships.
International interest in the Red Sea is far from new. In the 1970s, Cuba’s Fidel Castro made hush visits to Red Sea states as an emissary amid intense Cold War competition.
The Soviet Union was pushing for a bloc of four radical Arab states to form a federation that could dominate the Red Sea against the US-aligned moderate bloc of Arab states, which was led by Saudi Arabia.
With the explosive history and complex rivalries on the Red Sea’s African side, international partnerships have traditionally been viewed as ways to secure competitive advantage rather than collective progress. Recent diplomatic pushes by Saudi Arabia and the UAE resulted in important breakthroughs but much work remains.
The Saudi rationale behind a cooperation bloc is that it could help provide a multilateral framework to manage disagreements that frequently take on a regional context. Left alone, the disputes, which have sometimes led to prolonged military confrontations, threaten the future of a highly strategic area.
Since the opening of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea has been highly strategic to global shipping and energy supplies. About 10% of global trade is connected to it and almost 5 million barrels of oil per day flow through its choke points.
Now Riyadh’s plans for NEOM, a $500 billion cross-border business zone and leisure destination that ties in Egypt and Jordan, presents a new strategic dimension to the Red Sea for the Saudis at a time when pirates, Iran-backed Houthis and other competitors are active in the maritime theatre.
Mediation efforts by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi helped broker a groundbreaking truce between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 3-decade war for independence and the two countries have often taken opposing sides on regional disputes since.
Other complex disagreements remain, however. Ethiopia and Somalia share a historic rivalry with territorial disputes and competition for influence over Djibouti, which became Ethiopia’s main outlet to the sea following Eritrea’s secession, where the population is predominantly Somali-related.
Egypt has longstanding disagreements with Ethiopia, most recently over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that would affect water flows into the Nile, along which as much as 90% of Egypt’s population resides and depends on for livelihood. The dam is backed by Sudan, which Egypt charges with being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and that has recently had warming ties with Qatar and Turkey.
Late in 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan concluded a deal with Sudan to take control of the Red Sea island of Suakin and its port for 99 years. Turkey is to construct a naval base on Suakin after also finalising an agreement for a military base in Qatar.
Saudi-backed Egypt responded to the Sudan-Turkey deal on Suakin by reportedly dispatching troops to Eritrea.
In March, Qatar announced a development package of almost $4 billion for Suakin.
Given that historical backdrop and uncertainty around emerging international context, Riyadh realised the need to cool rivalries and political differences among African partners across the Red Sea with the promise of enhanced security, stability and shared economic benefits.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir summed up the aims of the meeting he hosted when he said they formed “part of the kingdom’s efforts to protect its interests and those of its neighbours” by trying to “create synergies,” adding that with more cooperation among regional states it could become possible to reduce “negative outside influence.”
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