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Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan…Conflict or cooperation in the Red Sea?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Red Sea Dynamics

By Itonde A. Kakoma, Patrick Smith
Posted on Friday, 13 November 2020 12:41, updated on Friday, 27 November 2020 08:42

Over the next three weeks, 'The Africa Report' will publish a series of articles by independent experts on the political and security dynamics facing the Red Sea region.

This is part 1/9 of a series.

To truly understand the dynamics, one must begin with these two key questions:

  • What constitutes the Red Sea region?
  • What countries and institutions should establish peace and security cooperation mechanisms there?

These questions are fundamental and the answers are complex.

Littoral states, regional actors, and international powers all have interests to protect and ensure free passage through one of the world’s most critical trade routes. Yet it is also one of the world’s most volatile regions.

The articles reflect perspectives from leading analysts and policy makers from both banks of the Red Sea. Many states in the wider Horn of Africa are in transition, facing  heavy political challenges  if not open rebellions.

Sudan, which straddles the Gulf and the Horn culturally, is struggling to balance dealing with unsettled past grievances and managing expectations of the popular movements, military elite, and regional interests.

The limits of Ethiopia’s ethno-federalist constitutional framework are exposed by continued social protest, regional fragmentation, and  armed conflict between the central government and strategic peripheral states.

Regional and domestic pressures are mounting on Eritrea’s government while Somalia is trying to break out of a three-decade cycle of instability.

Egypt, the historic powerbroker in the Red Sea, no longer enjoys that convening authority to set the terms for African and Gulf cooperation. The eastern bank of the Red Sea also faces instability and complex transitions. It is a region at a critical point of change. Among the key issues are: the war in Yemen, Gulf rivalries, economic downturns triggered mainly by crashing oil prices, and shifting positions on the recognition of Israel.

The articles are the opinions of the individual contributors and experts. They attempt to shed light on the dynamics and dilemmas faced in a region with global peace and security at stake.

What’s clear from these opinions is that cross regional cooperation—while severely challenged by mistrust and asymmetrical relations—is the only way forward.

There are current and future interests at stake by African and Gulf states, but also global players such as the United States, China, Japan, India, Turkey, France, South Africa, and the European Union.

All should be invested in establishing viable mechanisms for cooperation and crisis management in the Red Sea.

The Africa Report collaborated with CMI-Martti Ahtisaari Centre in producing this series. CMI is one of a select set of independent actors who facilitate dialogue in a cross-regional format on the future of the Red Sea.

The articles will be followed by a dedicated podcast series to deepen the conversation with officially mandated actors and a wider set of analysts.

We commend these articles to you and see this as a contribution to a much overdue public conversation on the fate of a region of great significance for Africa, the Gulf and the world.

For part 2: Ports, military bases and treaties: Who’s who in the Red Sea

For part 3: The Red Sea: ‘A vital artery for the world economy’

For part 4: The Horn of Africa and the Gulf: Shifting power plays in the Red Sea

For part 5: Yemen: What happens here sends waves all across the Red Sea

For part 6: Somalia: Caught in the middle of a deeply divided region

For part 7: To avoid another Yemen, the Red Sea needs fresh governance

For part 8: Sudan – Red Sea basin: Four ways to make or break stability

Also in this in Depth:

Ports, military bases and treaties: Who’s who in the Red Sea

The Red Sea is governed by an alphabet soup of international agreements and peppered with dozens of strategic ports and military bases. To help you navigate, here is a non-exhaustive list of the principal players and treaties and locations.

The Red Sea: ‘A vital artery for the world economy’

Ten years ago the Red Sea was a backwater at the centre of the world. Today there is no place in the world with a greater and more complex involvement by regional powers. In the third part of our series, we look at why the Red Sea region continues to hold so much power.

The Horn of Africa and the Gulf: Shifting power plays in the Red Sea

The Gulf has the resources and the authority; the Horn the geography, the land, and the population. Everyone sees the asymmetries that push the complementary characteristics into a game of push-and-pull. In this fourth part of our series, we look into those constant power plays between the African and Gulf states in the Red Sea region.

Yemen: What happens here sends waves all across the Red Sea

The Houthi movement seized Yemen’s capital Sana’a and overthrew the government half a decade ago. Today, the ongoing conflict is creating a political, military, and security crisis that is polarizing actors across the region. In this fifth part of our series, we look at the changing dynamics created by Yemen and how it has engulfed the entire region.

Somalia: Caught in the middle of a deeply divided region

Somalia is an onlooker of a significant portion of maritime trade that makes its way to and from Europe. It is a gatekeeper for the Red Sea, a region increasingly on the radar of global players eyeing financial and military gains. In this sixth part, we look at the potential Somalia has as a key player in the region, once it strengthens its internal situation.

To avoid another Yemen, the Red Sea needs fresh governance

The Red Sea is a magnet for international and regional powers. And who governs the sea, governs one of the most valuable trade routes feeding and fuelling the east and the west. In this seventh part of our series, we look at why the region must put in place an inclusive framework of collaboration.

Sudan – Red Sea basin: Four ways to make or break stability

Following Sudan's revolution over a year ago, a peace agreement has been signed and political changes are taking shape with increasing speed. But attention must be directed to elements that can make or break peace in Sudan, including dealing with past atrocities, centre-periphery relations and the role of the military in nation building. In this eighth part of our series, we explore how Sudan's peace determines the stability in the Red Sea basin.

The Red Sea: A magnet for outside powers vying for its control

The overriding concern of non-regional actors in the Red Sea arena is freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal, Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and Gulf of Aden. In this final part of our series, we look at the constant quest and struggle for control of the Red Sea waterway by non-regional actors and their impact.

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