Sunday, June 16, 2024
CommentaryGeopolitical hotspot: Significance of the Red Sea

Geopolitical hotspot: Significance of the Red Sea

Part two: Rivalries and interests of major players


Djibouti, located at the actual meeting point between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, can be considered a global colony. Its population of one million people is predominantly of Somali, Afar, and Arab descent. Despite its small size, Djibouti hosts more foreign bases than any other country in the world, including those of the United States, France, China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Italy. With over 10 percent of global trade passing through its territory, Djibouti holds significant strategic value for many powerful nations.

Despite being susceptible to various pressures related to the interests of external forces, Djibouti, manages to maintain relative stability. It carefully balances the political and personal interests of its rulers, regional interests within the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the competing influences of extra-continental powers. Djibouti has a protective treaty with France, primarily aimed at countering potential threats from Ethiopia and Somalia, and this arrangement contributes to its stability.

Since gaining independence in 1977, Djibouti’s governance has been controlled by a single family, which renders it vulnerable to external pressure while also enabling it to adeptly navigate the international environment.

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Nonetheless, Djibouti and its rulers have limitations, and the issue of major power competition sometimes compels them to change positions. For instance, when Russia expressed interest in establishing a base in Djibouti, the US opposed the idea.

However, Djibouti granted permission to China to build a large military base to safeguard its extensive trade activities in Africa, thereby intensifying Sino-US competition. Occasionally, confrontations between American and Chinese soldiers occur in the region. Similarly, during the campaign for the African slot in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Djibouti wavered on accepting the African Union’s choice, mainly due to external pressure.

In addition to various Middle Eastern and African powers such as Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Egypt, several global players have recognized Djibouti as a strategic asset. Major superpowers have either secured or pursued military bases in Djibouti, which is located near the strategically vital Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. China’s first overseas military base, situated in Djibouti, is only a few miles away from Camp Lemonnier.


Adjacent to Djibouti on the African side of the Red Sea is Eritrea, home to a population of four million people mainly of Tigray and Afar descent, also found in Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Eritrea boasts abundant resources such as copper, gold, marble, and potash. The current situation presents an opportunity to boost its economy and attract foreign investments, particularly due to its strategic location. Unlike landlocked Ethiopia, Eritrea enjoys a 1,151 km long coastline along the Red Sea, which serves as one of the busiest shipping routes globally. In the southeast, Eritrea shares a border with the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a vital chokepoint. Moreover, it is in close proximity to the war-torn Yemen and Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula.

Currently, Eritrea has two ports—Massawa in the north and Assab in the south—but with its extensive coastline, it has the potential to rival the much smaller Djibouti as a port nation. Consequently, Eritrea could emerge as a significant regional trade and military hub.

The UAE and the US reportedly played crucial roles in negotiating the peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Both countries have vested interests in establishing a foothold in the Horn of Africa, particularly amidst their military engagement in the Yemen war and the spill-over effects of the Gulf Crisis in the region. Additionally, they aim to compete with regional and global powers in extending their influence in Africa.

The UAE, in particular, has strategic interests in closer cooperation with Eritrea. Rising tensions with Djibouti, where the UAE has a military base, prompted the UAE to turn to Asmara to establish its military base for operations in Yemen, leasing the Assab port in 2016. Furthermore, deeper engagement with Eritrea presented an opportunity to sway the country away from its ties with Iran and Qatar, which had mediated between Djibouti and Eritrea.

The UAE’s involvement in the peace negotiations has also elevated its significance as a trans-regional actor and enhanced its power projection capabilities in the Horn of Africa. These developments are crucial for safeguarding the UAE’s and its allies’ control over the Bab-el-Mandeb, as both Iran and the Houthi rebels pose security threats.

The rapprochement between Eritrea and the UAE also opens up new investment prospects, as the UAE has already announced plans to finance new oil and gas pipelines connecting Addis Ababa with Eritrea’s Assab port.


Sudan is a large country with the River Nile flowing through it, running northwards towards Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of the African nations that experienced multiple colonial periods under the British and Egyptians, resulting in a reduction in territorial size.

Geopolitically, Sudan finds itself caught between Egypt and Ethiopia. The country has witnessed volatile leadership that oscillates between religious zealotry and displays of military strength.


Egypt has long been discontented with Ethiopia, primarily due to the use of Nile waters. Ethiopia, with the second-highest population in Africa after Nigeria, takes pride in having resisted European colonization in the 19th century and defeating Italy at the battle of Adowa.

Britain and Italy, colonized what is now Somalia preventing emperor Menelik II’s expansion of his empire to the Indian Ocean. European powers, especially Britain, often overlooked Ethiopia when strategizing their imperial moves in Africa.  

At the time, Britain controlled the entire Nile Valley from Egypt to Uganda and sought to impose restrictions on the utilization of Nile River waters. In 1891, with Italy having colonized Eritrea, Britain and Italy agreed that Italy would not impede the flow of the Nile by constructing anything on the Atbara River (known as the Black Nile), which flows northward to the Nile in Sudan.

In a 1902 border treaty between Ethiopia and British Sudan, Ethiopia also agreed not to interfere with the flow of the Blue Nile waters. In 1929, when Britain imposed a Nile River Treaty on its colonies, it did not bother to consult independent Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile originates.


Somalia, within the Horn of Africa, has often become a proxy for external powers. With a long coastline along the Indian Ocean, Somalia holds strategic importance for many nations.

Having experienced multiple colonial influences from both Britain and Italy, Somalia initially attempted to suppress internal differences by adopting an irredentist Pan-Somali ideology, which advocated for state elasticity. This ideology posed a threat to the existence of other newly formed states, leading them to argue for the principle of state in-contractibility.

However, the failure of the Greater Somalia dream and the lack of a unifying ideology resulted in the fragmentation of the country. Competing identities based on different colonial experiences emerged, leading to a civil war that further disintegrated the state. During the Cold War, Somalia oscillated between aligning with Moscow and Washington.

In a misguided attempt to weaken Mogadishu’s ties with Moscow, the US made the grave mistake of supporting Siad Barre’s irredentist invasion of Ogaden, as Ethiopia claimed to be Marxist. This support for Barre’s aggressive move into Ogaden proved to be a shortsighted decision by US President Jimmy Carter.

The failure in Ogaden contributed to Somalia’s subsequent disintegration. Following Barre’s removal, many Somali elites, including Barre himself, fled the country, creating a power vacuum that made Somalia vulnerable and attractive to external interests.


Kenya is a country most impacted by the instability in Somalia, and it holds significant strategic value for both African and non-African nations. In Eastern Africa, Kenya serves as the region’s economic powerhouse and acts as the gateway to the sea for landlocked African states.

For global powers like China, Japan, and India, the Horn country is an entry point into the region’s resources. Additionally, Kenya’s location on the Equator gives it satellite value, evidenced by the presence of the San Marcos satellite station near Malindi, which tracks global weather patterns. Kenya also functions as the financial and communication hub of Eastern Africa, hosting the only UN agency outside of North America and Western Europe, as well as some of the largest embassies on the continent.

Due to its strategic position, Kenya must navigate and balance various interests involving regional and extra-continental forces. Within the region, Kenya hosts refugees and plays a stabilizing role while being concerned about instability in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan. In 2011, Kenya led an incursion into Kismayo, initially targeting al-Shabaab and later becoming part of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping mission. It maintains active operations, with approximately 10,000 troops deployed, 5,000 in Somalia and 5,000 in other security zones within Kenya.

Kenya has sought to carve out its niche within the evolving global realignment but has encountered clashes with powerful global interests. It has positioned itself as a global activist, advocating for a Pan-Africanist agenda to counter hostile external forces and making significant contributions to UN peacekeeping missions and secured a two-year rotating seat on the UN Security Council to advance its own and African interests.

It has also maintained positive relationships with competing powers such as the US, establishing direct flights from Nairobi to New York, and with China, which dominates Kenya’s infrastructure and housing industries. Kenya’s participation in projects like the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) also aligns with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Overall, Kenya’s strategic significance, regional engagement, and global activism have positioned it as a key player in the Horn of Africa, constantly navigating complex geopolitical dynamics.


Egypt has historically sought to be a symbolic leader of the Arab world and increase its influence in the Horn of Africa. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, there has been a reassertion of Egyptian influence and prestige in Africa, with increased activity along the Red Sea coast. The country has made efforts to modernize its fleet, engaged in naval exercises with Saudi Arabia, France, and Russia, established a new base along the Red Sea coastline, and initiated discussions with Djibouti for a logistics zone near the Bab-al-Mandeb strait.

While Egypt has aligned with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it remains cautious about ceding too much influence in the Red Sea region to any other Arab state, including its Gulf partners. The most significant concern for Egypt is the Nile River, historically vital to Egyptian society. Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile has created tensions between Egypt and its upstream neighbors.

Middle Eastern Interests and Rivalries:

Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, the UAE, and Qatar have significantly increased their engagement in the Horn of Africa in recent years due to economic, political, and geostrategic reasons. These countries’ interests often overlap and compound each other. Gulf States employ economic tools, such as private-sector investment, to advance their political objectives in the region.

Gulf investments in the Horn of Africa have primarily focused on agriculture, manufacturing, and construction sectors. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been particularly active investors, aiming to transform and expand their national oil companies’ roles in oil refinement, shipping, and plastics manufacturing. Creating overseas demand for these value chains is crucial for their diversification strategies.

In recent years, Gulf States have expanded their security interests to include the Horn of Africa as a critical arena to gain strategic depth against Iran’s perceived expansionism. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long been concerned about the potential encirclement by Iran through the Strait of Hormuz and Bab-al-Mandeb. These concerns intensified when Iran established ties with the Houthi movement in Yemen, which has conducted attacks on vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

External Regional Actors


Türkiye considers the Red Sea region as both an essential part of its historical sphere of influence dating back to the Ottoman era and a crucial area for maintaining military access in support of its broader regional ambitions. The country has actively participated in combined task forces on counterterrorism and antipiracy in the region. It has embassies in all Red Sea littoral countries except Yemen, as well as in Ethiopia and South Sudan. Türkiye’s closest ties in the Horn of Africa are with the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), which receives Türkiye’s largest assistance program in Africa.

Türkiye opened its largest overseas military facility in Mogadishu in 2017, with reports indicating that it would train around10,000 FGS troops there. It is also providing the FGS with equipment to establish a coast guard, and a Turkish firm operates the port of Mogadishu. In the GCC dispute, Türkiye is aligned with Qatar and has a military facility with approximately 5,000 personnel in the country. In 2018, Türkiye signed an agreement to establish a naval base in Qatar.

In 2017, Ankara signed a 99-year lease with Sudan to redevelop the Ottoman-era Red Sea port of Suakin. Qatar agreed to provide USD four billion to develop and manage a port with a naval dock to be constructed by Türkiye.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt expressed concerns that this would result in a Turkish military base, a claim denied by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The overthrow of President Bashir in Sudan in 2019 put the Turkish-Qatari project in Suakin in limbo due to the close ties between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and the military elements within Sudan’s transitional government.

Türkiye aims to project power from the Persian Gulf to the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean through bases in Doha, Mogadishu, potentially Suakin, and likely soon in Libya. Two bases are being planned in Libya in conjunction with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord.


China’s military presence in Djibouti represents its recognition of the Red Sea arena as a significant part of the competition within the Indo-Pacific theater. This is further emphasized by the former US Deputy National Security Advisor’s suggestion of shifting the geographic frame from Hollywood to Bollywood to California to Kilimanjaro.

While China’s military presence has expanded, its engagement in the Red Sea region remains primarily focused on economic activities. China has not expressed interest in becoming the primary security provider in the region and is unlikely to match the US military commitment in the foreseeable future.

While concerns have been raised by civil society stakeholders in the Horn region regarding Chinese complicity in government corruption and the implications of Chinese-owned debt, African and Middle Eastern Red Sea states have generally welcomed China’s economic engagement and have avoided taking sides between the US and China.

China has refrained from political intervention in the region’s conflicts and rivalries, playing a lower-profile diplomatic role since the transitions in Ethiopia and Sudan compared to its involvement in conflicts such as Sudan and South Sudan.

The country’s influence in the region is evident from the fact that Muslim-majority countries in the Red Sea arena have avoided criticizing China for its detention of Muslim Uighurs, indicating the extent of China’s built influence in recent years. Many of these countries have openly supported China’s policies in the Xinjiang region.

China attaches great importance to the maritime component of its Belt and Road Initiative, which passes through the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and Suez Canal. The connection between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean is crucial for China to ensure access to the sea lane that carries a significant portion of its trade.

Given this reliance on the Red Sea for trade, China does not want to rely on the US or any other naval power to protect this sea lane.


EU member states are primarily concerned about ensuring freedom of navigation through the Red Sea for commercial purposes, as a significant portion of their trade transits the region. The EU launched its joint naval operation, EU NAVFOR, in 2008 to protect shipping from Somali pirates. Additionally, EU member states have security interests related to counterterrorism and migration in the Red Sea arena.

The EU and its member states have been major providers of development and humanitarian aid to countries in the African Red Sea region.

France, in particular, has a strong presence in the Red Sea arena. It relies on the Suez Canal to resupply its Overseas Departments of Réunion and Mayotte in the western Indian Ocean and has maintained a military base in Djibouti since colonial times. In 2019, landlocked Ethiopia signed an agreement with France to help build an Ethiopian navy, presumably to be based in neighboring Djibouti.

Although France has reduced its military presence in the Horn in recent decades, its military relationship with the US remains strong across Africa. The US-French relationship remains strong particularly in the adjacent Sahel region where AFRICOM provides significant support, including in logistics and intelligence to French troops involved in counterterrorism and stabilization under Operation Barkhane.

Germany, Spain, and Italy also maintain small contingents at the French base in Djibouti and participate in EU NAVFOR.

The United Kingdom participates in counter-piracy task forces in the Red Sea region and has a permanent military base and training center in central Kenya. It has also expanded its presence in Somalia by opening a small training center for Somali soldiers.

In Saudi Arabia, the UK has provided training for Saudi pilots and maintenance support for Saudi aircraft. However, the UK has faced scrutiny for its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with the UK Court of Appeal declaring such sales unlawful in June 2019. The government announced a suspension of sales and conducted a review but has approved new arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia on multiple occasions since the ruling.


Russia has shown renewed interest in the Red Sea region, primarily for security purposes, and has been willing to support authoritarian regimes, similar to its approach in other regions. While Russia does not have major trading partners in the Red Sea region, it has signed agreements with Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya to build nuclear power plants. It also engages in the mining and oil sectors and sells conventional arms to various African countries.

The country has been conducting military exercises with Egypt and reportedly has an agreement to use Egypt’s bases and airspace. The private military group known as the Wagner Group, which has close ties to the Kremlin, is active in Africa and has trained forces in Sudan. Its security ties with Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are also growing, with discussions of potential purchases of the S-400 anti-aircraft system.

Russia has expressed interest in establishing a naval base along the Red Sea coast, and agreements have been announced with Eritrea and Sudan for potential logistics centers or fleet logistics centers. However, the status of these arrangements remains uncertain, particularly with the change of government in Sudan.

While Russia has shown some engagement in Africa, its financial resources are limited, and President Vladimir Putin is likely to remain focused on other international issues and domestic concerns. The follow-up from the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019 has been minimal, raising skepticism about the extent of Russia’s long-term commitment to the region.


Japan’s primary interest in the Red Sea region is ensuring free passage for its commercial vessels. In 2018, the country had 134 a significant number of Japanese-flagged vessels transiting the Suez Canal.

In 2011, Japan established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which houses personnel and maritime patrol aircraft engaged in anti-piracy missions. The base also supports Japan’s UN peacekeeping contingent in South Sudan.

Japan and India are in discussions about a potential Indo-Pacific military logistics agreement that would provide India access to Japan’s base in Djibouti and Japan access to India’s base on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Additionally, Japan and India launched the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor initiative in 2017, which seeks to boost trade with Africa.


India has long-term aspirations of achieving naval predominance in the Indian Ocean, driven by concerns about potential Chinese encirclement. Passage through the Red Sea is also important to India for commercial reasons. India has been an independent participant in the Gulf of Aden antipiracy operation since 2008 and has contributed troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

India maintains defense and naval cooperation with GCC countries, conducts joint exercises, and regularly sends Indian ships for visits. It has also pursued closer military ties with Japan and has agreements with the US and France for access to their Indian Ocean bases. It is also negotiating an agreement with Seychelles to construct military facilities and has an agreement for logistical support for the Indian Navy at the Omani port of Duqm.

Economically, India’s trade with the Horn of Africa has significantly increased over the past two decades, with trade volume growing from USD 550 million in 2001 to nearly USD 54 billion in 2017. Trade with Egypt has also seen substantial growth, reaching almost USD 3.4 billion in the same period.

The country has also made foreign direct investments in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, primarily in sectors such as manufacturing, oil and gas, solar, and pharmaceuticals.


Although its engagements in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa have rarely featured prominently in the Western policy discourse, Israel has longstanding bilateral relationships with Ethiopia and Eritrea, including strong intelligence and security partnerships. It maintains a naval base at Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba, which is situated at the mouth of the Red Sea.

Israeli companies with ties to the country’s security establishment have supplied training, military equipment, and arms to various actors in the region. For instance, Israeli arms dealers provided support to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) during its long-running war with Sudan.


Iran has demonstrated its ability to be a spoiler in the Red Sea region at a relatively low cost through its support to the Houthis in Yemen. It has periodically sent naval forces to the Red Sea under the pretext of counter-piracy operations and also sent a flotilla to Syria through the Suez Canal in 2011.

While commercial transit through the Red Sea holds some importance for Iran due to its trade with Europe, Saudi and Emirati efforts have pushed Iran to a more defensive position in the region. However, the dynamic nature of the region means that Iran could potentially regain significance if other players lose interest or make policy mistakes.

In conclusion, the Red Sea region remains a dynamic arena where global powers vie for influence. China’s economic investments, the United States’ security commitments, Russia’s growing engagement, and India’s aspirations all shape the region’s future. Israel and Iran also play significant roles, with their longstanding relationships and strategic interests.

(The next edition will delve deeper into the Afar depression. Stay tuned for Part three of the article.)

Contributed by Teshome Berhanu Kemal

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