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

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

By Abdeta Dribssa Beyene
Posted on Monday, 16 November 2020 15:25, updated on Wednesday, 2 December 2020 10:00

People visit the Red Sea beachfront, in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

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.

This is part 4/9 of a series

The Horn of Africa and the Gulf States are bound together, yet far from being aligned. As long as financial, political, and military imbalances set the scene, short-term gains will define the development of the security complex over the Red Sea.

The GDP of Saudi Arabia is more than double that of Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia combined. This is the reality setting the tone for the relations between the two coasts of the Red Sea.

For the Gulf, the Horn represents a cluster of allies that can be harnessed bilaterally or through nurtured networks to solidify influence on both sides of the sea.

For the Horn, the Gulf represents a deep pocket best utilised in the form of direct deals maximizing short-term gains.


Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tour the Suez canal as a cargo ship passes, (Mohammed Samaha/MENA via AP)

Almost 10% of global trade, and 40% of that of Europe with the east, passes through the Suez Canal located on the northern end of the sea. In addition to representing a significant financial variable, the relations across the Red Sea set the tone for how the Arab world engages with the African one. These tones pick up their shades from the palette beyond the sea.

The Gulf looking at the Horn: from weakness to strength and opportunities

All countries on the western coast of the Red Sea find themselves on the latter half of the Human Development Index and share a history of political volatility combined with economic stagnation and instability. With this in mind, the Gulf gazes across the sea and sees strategic locations held by actors with limited negotiating power, but huge financial needs. These needs take the shape of military spending in Egypt, instability in Sudan, and political unrest in Somalia – to name examples.

READ MORE Sudan weakened by US demands on compensation & ties with Israel

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are significant players in the Horn and their involvement in Yemen has solidified their presence in Eritrea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Yemeni islands.

Though working together, the allies have tactical differences with the Emirati actors focusing on developing port infrastructure with a vision of a post-oil economy, while the Saudis eye the green pastures of the Horn looking for economic diversification and food security. The Emiratis remain, for example, active in the port of Sudan and have solidified their presence in Somalia too. The Saudis have, in turn, supported Egypt financially with investments ranging from fighter jets to agriculture.

Despite their strategic goals, the economic and political wins have an added benefit to them, so long as it keeps these big players in the lead – far ahead from Iran, Turkey, and Qatar.

This does not mean that power balances are static. Turkey has gained a solid foothold in Somalia as a significant provider of aid, managing key infrastructures of the port and airport, and backing the military. What may appear to be goodwill has several layers to it: Somalia recently invited Turkey to explore its off-shore oil fields – something Turkey has already begun in Libya.

READ MORE Egypt and Turkey head-to-head in Libya, stalemate looms

The magnitude of authority the Gulf has secured in the Horn is not solely due to its economic might. Its levers have been lengthened by the misalignment of the Horn, and the continuous internal crisis in the region.

  • Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia are in a dispute over the management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
  • Djibouti keeps its neighbours alert by hosting military bases for a multitude of foreign actors.
  • Ethiopia is keen on establishing a navy despite a lack of a coastline. But the ongoing war with the Tigray region in the north might delay this ambition. The war, if it is not swiftly concluded will attract other actors and might take a regional crisis shape.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Escalating strife with Tigray could lead to civil war

In the meantime, some littoral states are denying Ethiopia an observer status in the new multilateral body, the Council of Arab and African Littoral States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

This move speaks volumes in the fear of power-sharing. For the Gulf actors, these types of skirmishes are cracks that are open to outside influence.

The Horn looking at the Gulf: Asymmetries, wealth and instability

To simplify a complex network of allies and adversaries, one can conclude that some in the Horn are eyeing the Gulf’s wealth, and have used existing rivalries within and between Gulf countries to gain access to resources for their individual survival.

The approach has been brought to light in the wake of the ongoing GCC crisis that has pitted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar. In other words, Horn countries in need of support have used the adverse dynamics between the Gulf states to negotiate better deals for their own benefit.

The approach has saved some Horn regimes from economic and political meltdowns, but at the price of stalling efforts to create a coherent regional approach that would position the Horn as a unit able to negotiate with the Gulf on equal terms. This short-term thinking has cemented endemic weaknesses to respective nations. Moreover, it has meant that complementary advantages remain untapped, bilateral rivalries flourish, and the vicious cycle of instability continues.

Despite the injections of support and security, the Gulf’s approach remains unsustainable.

An example of this short-sighted bickering is presented by Somalia and Sudan. Fights for influence and elbowing rivals blind the two from setting a political vision for a potential Gulf-Horn partnership. Another example can be derived from the relations between Ethiopia and its downstream counterparts.

As the primary source of the Nile waters, Ethiopia has kept Egypt and Sudan on their toes through the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project that may bring a paradigm shift to the way power is exercised in the Horn. As Ethiopia builds a huge dam on the Nile, downstream neighbours have been pushed to use Gulf and players, such as the US, to execute pressure upstream.

READ MORE US decision to halt aid to Ethiopia over GERD risks complicating talks

The current state of affairs will keep the Horn weak with arms stretched towards Gulf patrons. Particularly the war that has erupted in Ethiopia will have significant impact on the future of the Horn.

Despite the injections of support and security, the Gulf’s approach remains unsustainable. As effective as it is now, without a norms-based approach the Horn will not solve its sorrows. In essence, a collaborative stance towards the Red Sea and the Gulf is something the Horn countries cannot afford to miss.

From the Horn’s vantage point, the clientelistic relationships the Gulf countries have with bigger powers, such as the  western ones which supply arms and other strategic assets, act as examples of the types of relations they would like to nurture in the Horn.

This is already happening in Somalia and Sudan, countries that are involved in institutions such as the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation as well as the new Red Sea Council. All organisations have their counterparts in the Gulf. Consequently, the cascading power from big players to local levels is clear as is the division of influence and set tasks.

‘Just looking’

Due to its global significance, interest in the Red Sea expands beyond its longest shorelines. A player often deliberately forgotten from the equation is Israel. For the Gulf and Horn, Israel represents a power that cannot be disregarded but is not welcomed either. Despite being a littoral state, the country has not been accepted to the new Red Sea Council.

Yet, political tectonic plates have been on the move ever since the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalised relations with Israel earlier this year. Sudan is following suit and there is no reason why the list would end there.

READ MORE After the UAE, who is next to normalise relations with Israel?

In addition to the usual suspects, a new superpower has taken centre stage on the coastline: China. China established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2017 and has since strengthened its foothold on the Red Sea.

The sea is part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and to date, the biggest share of foreign direct investments to Djibouti come from the mighty Asian. China has established a Free Trade Zone in the country set to become Africa’s largest, and has financed the construction of the new Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway. Both developments are examples of the gravity of China’s vision in the region.

READ MORE Is China weaponizing ports built along the Belt Road Initiative?

Another actor caught in the theatre of destabilisation, but whose fate remains unknown, is Yemen. Until the eruption of the civil war in 2015, the role of the Gulf states in the Horn centred on business and trade, but the war has reshaped the dynamics across the region.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE … do not want to see Iran gain an inch of influence on the western coast of the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are deeply involved in Yemen, rendering it critical to follow the development of the conflict dynamics. The war is not contained by national boundaries and is creating waves of instability across the sea. Sudanese troops remain active in Yemen, Eritrea’s port of Assab is used for military purposes by the allies, and US vessels have been hit by missiles – to name some examples of the spill-over effects of the war.

The catastrophe unfolding in Yemen leads to the final onlooker and silent influencer in Horn-Gulf-relations: Iran. During the past couple of years, Iran was pushed out of the Horn because of the rising influence of Saudi Arabia, but it’s no mystery that Tehran has been attempting to lure Somalia and has joined the Houthi movement in Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE see this as a direct threat and do not want to see Iran gain an inch of influence on the western coast of the Red Sea.

The distant dream of a joint vision

In January 2020, representatives from Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Jordan, and Yemen gathered in Riyadh for the launch of the new Council of Arab and African Littoral States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The aim of the Saudi-led council was to secure stability on the Red Sea, but as the list of nations implies, not all littoral states nor relevant stakeholders were invited. Knowing this, assumptions that the council’s unvoiced agenda to keep Turkey and Iran at bay and Saudi Arabia in the lead are not unfounded.

However weak and idealistic, there is hope that the initiative can pave way for regional cooperation and multilateralism. The Horn and Gulf have the option to diversify their economy through the opportunity presented by the stressed global supply chain that is now amplified by the tariff war between the US and China. This would, however, demand the orchestrated management of the Red Sea. But genuine cooperation would demand a truly inclusive framework in which the Horn actors have to get their acts together.

READ MORE US-China tension creates opportunities Africa must seize

Regardless of what happens with the council, the security of the Red Sea region is becoming increasingly complex. The emergence of a common political and economic arena across one of the world’s most valuable trade routes offers opportunities for development on the one hand and considerable risks on the other.

As multiple examples imply and analysts conclude, for the fragile Horn states, active engagement from outside powers remains both tonic and toxin.

What happens between the Gulf and the Horn is not only on the radar of regional players, but also of international actors, such as the US, Russia, and the European Union.

READ MORE How Western companies undermine African democracy

For example, developments in the Horn have offered the Gulf the opportunity to sideline regional organisations, such as the regional bloc IGAD, and favour the military components of respective countries. In this manner, the Gulf has succeeded in undermining democratisation and cementing authoritarianism. A concern for some and an opportunity for others.

Bottom line

What remains clear is that Africa cannot afford losing its Horn and overlooking what is going on in the Red Sed. Earnest engagement is the only way to change this course.

*Dr. Abdeta Dribssa Beyene is the Executive Director of the Centre for Dialogue, Research, and Cooperation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

For part 1: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan…Conflict or cooperation in the Red Sea?

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 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

For part 9: The Red Sea: A magnet for outside powers vying for its control

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