The Red Sea holds immense significance as a crucial sea route for commercial traffic between Europe and Asia, as well as for transporting oil from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. This sea has historically served as a vital link in a global network of waterways stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. It has been aptly referred to as the “Interstate-95 of the planet” by a US defense official, signifying its strategic and economic importance. The Red Sea’s centrality to maritime trade and its chokepoints have attracted the attention of conquerors ranging from Alexander the Great to Napoleon, making it a subject of interest in geopolitical affairs.
The geostrategic significance of the Red Sea is not a recent development. In ancient times, it served as a miraculous passage for Prophet Moses and his followers, who escaped from the oppressive rule of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Similarly, Prophet Muhammad’s companions, who had endured torture in Makkah, sought refuge and protection across the Red Sea in Al-Habasha, an area encompassing much of the current Horn of Africa, as mentioned by Dr. Yusuf Sheikh Omar in his work on new geopolitical dynamics in the Red Sea area in 2019.
Colonial powers such as Britain, France, and Italy recognized the security and economic value of the region, leading them to establish military bases in the main ports of the Red Sea, including Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Yemen. This trend continued during the Cold War with the United States and the Soviet Union following suit.
Over the past decade, major nations have increasingly focused their attention on this region. China and Japan, for instance, have established their first overseas military bases in Djibouti, a small nation located in the Horn of Africa on the edge of the Bab El Mandab Strait, which serves as the southern entrance to the Red Sea and a crucial international shipping corridor.
Due to its geostrategic importance, Djibouti emerged as a key location for military bases built by the US, as well as countries from Europe and Asia, to safeguard their interests in the Red Sea. Despite its small size and barren landscape, Djibouti has successfully leveraged its geopolitical advantage to amass economic prosperity and earn global recognition.
The Red Sea acts as a link between the strategic waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Indian Ocean. It serves as a maritime domain with a military chokepoint and facilitates efficient supply routes for oil and gas, trade, information cables, and military operations.
Consequently, it also faces challenges such as maritime boundary disputes, transnational threats, and international crimes, including piracy and terrorism, the illegal dumping of toxic waste and chemicals, illicit fishing, theft of natural resources, arms and drug trafficking, oil spills, and other forms of pollution.
Due to these factors, the issue of security and military presence arises to ensure freedom of navigation, regulate trade, and safeguard the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which serves as the strategic southern entrance to the Red Sea. This presence is particularly prominent in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia, which host crucial sea routes and serve as logistical bases for international commercial activities.
Moreover, there is growing competition and tension among global powers, most notably the US, China, and Russia.
Russia, in its efforts to enhance relations with Khartoum and other regional countries, is utilizing its presence in Port Sudan to establish mutually beneficial trade and economic partnerships, as well as provide assistance to African nations that have suffered significant economic and humanitarian setbacks due to Western countries.
China and the US, on the other hand, are engaged in a competition to develop communication systems for military and security forces, establish databases, and create surveillance networks in Africa. While Beijing lobbies for ownership of African port facilities, Washington aims to restore security cooperation with Khartoum by removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Considering these realities, it is important to reflect on the concept of geopolitics.
Geopolitics is the study of how geography influences politics and international relations. Analysts in this field examine the interactions between various actors, including individuals, organizations, companies, and national governments, and how these interactions impact political, economic, and financial activities.
These relationships are crucial for understanding investments as they contribute to key factors affecting investment performance, such as economic growth, business performance, market volatility, and transaction costs.
Another definition is the struggle over the control of geographical entities with an international and global dimension, and the use of such geographical entities for political advantage.
Geopolitics encompasses two interconnected aspects: geopolitical practice, which involves actions like committing terrorist attacks or deploying troops in foreign countries, and geopolitical representation, which refers to the portrayal of these actions as just or moral while depicting the actions of one’s adversaries as aggressive and unjustified.
Geopolitics provides a framework to comprehend the complexities of our world. Global politics, or the pursuit of achieving one’s objectives in the global arena, requires a geographic perspective. Geopolitics explains how countries, businesses, terrorist groups, and others strive to achieve their political goals by controlling geographic features of the world, referred to as geographical entities. These entities encompass places, regions, territories, scales, and networks that constitute the world.
Thus, geopolitics can be understood as the struggle for control over these geographical entities, which possess international and global dimensions, and the utilization of these entities for political advantage, according to Colin Flint, author of Introduction to Geopolitics.
Horn of Africa as a center of global peace and security
Not only at sea but also on land, the Horn of Africa has played a central role in global peace and security. It has become an arena of competition among extra-regional powers, including the US, China, and Russia, who are strategic global rivals.
Significant international powers such as the EU and its members, India, and Japan have a presence in the region. Several Middle Eastern countries, primarily members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey, Iran, and Qatar, are also entangled in competition in the area.
The maritime domain of the Horn of Africa boasts natural resources such as oil and gas reserves, marine life, shipping, and port services. Analysts estimate that Somalia possesses around 110 billion barrels of on- and offshore oil reserves, potentially making it the world’s seventh-largest holder of oil reserves. Moreover, Somalia is said to have approximately 440 trillion ft3 of offshore gas, which could position it as the fourth-largest holder of gas reserves globally.
Due to its strategic importance, competition for influence over the Red Sea and the states that rely on it for trade and transit, the Horn of Africa has become an integral part and link among the security systems of the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific, and the Mediterranean. Consequently, developments in the Horn not only shape these regions but also directly impact their political, economic, and security environments.
The Red Sea, the Gulf, and the Horn can be understood partly through the lens of dichotomy, with contrasting notions of the Red Sea as a unifying or divisive feature. While people and states have interacted across this narrow seaway for generations, global trends such as rising inequality, shifting centers of power, increasing migration, popular demands for democracy, and intense maritime trade competition are now blurring boundaries across the Red Sea like never before. The emerging transregional order, whether cooperative or competitive, will require our sustained attention.
From a geostrategic perspective, the Horn of Africa is preparing for a new order sparked by national political mobilization in the region’s countries and global competition related to the strategic positions taken by major powers toward Africa. The competition in the Red Sea region extends to its supply routes and vast market.
The role of the red sea in world politics
In terms of the direction of change, some strategic analysts believe that developments are setting the stage for a more intense international struggle, rivalry, and conflict. This is particularly evident in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean, where patterns of interaction have gained strategic importance both regionally and internationally. The presence of numerous foreign military bases and concentrations along the western shores of the Red Sea has introduced new physical realities that not only make the region more vulnerable to instability but also hinder the pace of trade and economic development for several states located there.
Certain countries in the Red Sea, especially those in the Horn of Africa, face internal and mutual tensions that are rooted in or fueled by ethnic conflicts. For instance, the Somali state exhibits many features of extreme fragility that are exploited by various foreign parties. Tension between federal and state governments, arising from disputes over the current electoral process, wealth and oil revenue distribution, and the conduct of foreign relations by some state governments, further undermine the stability and effectiveness of the state.
The coastal states in the region possess several ports, including Suez, Jeddah, Port-Sudan, Mokka, Hodeida, Aqaba, and Djibouti. If effectively integrated, these ports could strengthen the system by refocusing various regional and international settlements and considerations that have contributed to declining liquidity.
Crucially, projects like Africa, serving Africa and the Middle East, and Blue-Raman, linking Europe and India, will require close coordination and cooperation among the coastal states of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This is especially true for Djibouti, which serves as the main hub for cable communications, as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.
Moreover, border disputes add to the complexity of the situation. These include the Sudan-Ethiopia conflict and its aftermath, the temporarily deferred border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea (which reached an agreement to collaborate on other priorities in the Horn of Africa), and the Sudan-South Sudan dispute. Additionally, there is a maritime border dispute between Kenya and Somalia.
The fierce dispute over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its filling with the waters of the Nile involving Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt also fits into this scenario. Neither side is willing to concede in this matter.
The concept of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Council, which was initiated by Egypt in 2017, gained momentum through a series of meetings of eight foreign ministers in Riyadh since 2018. This culminated in the formal establishment of the Arab and African Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Coastal States Council in January 2020.
Demographic aspects of the Red Sea area
The population of the Horn of Africa is projected to grow by 44 percent in the next fifteen years and by 87 percent in the next thirty. The ongoing political transitions in Ethiopia and Sudan, sparked by protest movements, highlight a demographic explosion where an entire generation is reaching political maturity.
This generation is frustrated with the corruption and criminal activities of many regional leaders. They resent political and economic exclusion, as well as the lack of equal opportunities and legal protection. They also question the credibility, legitimacy, and effectiveness of their governments in meeting their aspirations for security and economic prosperity.
Importantly, this generation does not primarily identify themselves based on citizenship, and their interests increasingly diverge from how their countries’ elites define them.
The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are witnessing emerging threats beyond the longstanding issue of piracy. These include among others sophisticated methods of human and weapons trafficking, cyber threats such as attacks on shipping lines, remote hijacking of navigation systems, controlled breaches of oil pipelines, and the severing of undersea cables that could impact global internet access for up to half of the world’s population.
Competing powers that seek to establish their influence in the region have turned the Horn of Africa, into an imperial battleground. In doing so, these powers generally hold a disdainful attitude towards Africans, preferring to keep the region fragmented and unable to assert its own interests.
This disdain was evident in remarks made by one of President Barack Obama’s economic advisors, Larry Summers, who seemingly advocated “garbage imperialism” to dispose of various types of waste, including nuclear waste, expired medicines, outdated technology, and even contaminated food, in Africa.
Furthermore, imperial powers not only hold disdain but also assume they have the right to do anything, including regime change, because they possess superior military might and technology. Edward N. Luttwak argued that the US, being a major power, can take action as it deems necessary due to its broad responsibilities that require appropriate military means. Consequently, they do not feel obligated to provide solid justifications for military actions against smaller countries that do not adhere to America’s agenda.
When big powers seek regime change, they often employ extreme operations, including promoting insurgency to delegitimize legitimate governments. They fuel internal debates to create instability and undermine the political and economic well-being of states. The goal is to weaken states, render them ineffective in delivering services, and then highlight their failure to provide those services. This narrative justifies calls for privatization of services within the state and perpetuates racist impatience that supports the return of “imperial over-lordship.”
China, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has decided to enhance its sea power and has been successful in doing so. In addition to developing extensive maritime commerce, China projects power through the construction of ports that provide strategic access points in Asia, Europe, and Africa. In the Horn of Africa, China has established a presence in Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya.
Each country in the Horn of Africa responds to geopolitical dynamics differently, taking into account domestic challenges, regional interests, and pressures from aid donors or external powers. The leadership’s ability to handle domestic challenges, address the interests of political rivals, demonstrate institutional competence, promote socio-economic well-being, and allow citizens to express themselves freely is a crucial factor.
The Horn has a unique history of conflict, dating back to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. This development facilitated European powers acquiring territories along the Red Sea. Britain gained control over Egypt and Sudan, Italy colonized Eritrea, and France took Djibouti.
Britain, particularly, exerted dominant influence with its focus on controlling the Nile waters. The region also faces internal divisions within each member state, and in addressing global challenges.
The responses of leaders in these countries are shaped by their ability to navigate domestic, regional, and extra-continental challenges. Examining each country closely allows us to understand their individual and collective circumstances.
Contributed by Teshome Berhanu Kemal