Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan…Conflict or cooperation in the Red Sea?
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.
By Maged Al-Madhaji
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.
This is part 5/9 of a series.
At the heart of these tensions lies the Red Sea, one of the world’s most valuable trade routes, and the Bab al-Mandeb strait, a chokepoint determining entry and exit to the route. Unless the course of the conflict is turned, the ongoing dynamics risk creating waves of instability felt across and beyond the Horn of Africa.
When the Houthi authority seized power over Sana’a and forced President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia in 2015, regional actors were quick to form alliances. Within a year, the Arab Joint Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched an operation to defeat the Houthis and reinstate the government. Since the first attempt of retaliation, the conflict has spiralled into a sequel of defeats, takeovers, and clashes with the country divided into Houthi-held regions in the west and southeast, and the rest under government and external influence.
Like in many conflicts, access to waterways has defined power-balances in Yemen, and once Sana’a fell for the Houthis, the core of the conflict moved to the coastline. In early 2017, Yemeni forces supported with the artillery of the Joint Coalition advanced to the port of Dhubab held by the Houthis. The city sits on Yemen’s southwest coast and overlooks the Bab al-Mandeb, the narrow strait connecting the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. The coalition seized the port city in less than a month and moved its eyes north, towards Mocha.
The battle for Dhubab became a watershed for the conflict. It reinstituted control over the Red Sea for the internationally recognized government and crippled the resource routes of the Houthis. Losing control over the Bab al-Mandeb strait, a longstanding smuggling route for everything from alcohol to weapons and motorbikes, deprived the Houthis of one of their primary supply lines for arms and income.
READ MORE Ports, military bases and treaties: Who’s who in the Red Sea
The strategic coastal wins did not end the battle over the domination of the coastline. The government and coalition forces soon announced their ambitious goal to liberate the entire western coast, with eyes on the largest port city of the country, Hudaydah. Seizing Hudaydah would mean that the joint coalition would be able to deprive the Houthis of a port and with this, set the course of the conflict. Yet, the port did not only have military weight. Since the eruption of the conflict, Yemen had plummeted into a humanitarian disaster and the port was the lifeline for the millions of civilians relying on aid.
By June 2018, the Joint Coalition had control of the coastal roads, imposing a siege on Hudaydah and launching an assault on the Houthi forces. As the Emirati-led and Saudi-backed assault intensified, so did international pressure over the warring parties. Disruption of the port would have direct impact on the lives of the millions on the brink of famine.
A halt was reached in December when warring parties gathered in Stockholm for talks sponsored by the United Nations. Fighting was frozen and both sides remained in place.
The implications of the talks in Stockholm had impact beyond the frontlines and brought fault lines from within the coalition to the surface. As the international outcry over the Hudaydah battles had mounted, so had the scrutiny Saudi Arabia was facing following the murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. These pressures presumably influenced Saudi Arabia’s willingness to back the Stockholm Agreement. The decision bought Saudi Arabia time, yet sacrificed the Emirati efforts in Yemen.
The Southern Transition Council pitted allies against one another, with Saudi-backed government associates often finding themselves on the losing end.
The Stockholm Agreement thus changed the tone of the generally harmonious relationship between the two partners. Leading to the talks, the United Arab Emirates had solidified its influence in the southern governorates of Yemen, and major Emirati allies had secured executive posts in the Yemeni government. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia had focused on the north.
An initial sign of tensions had emerged already prior to the talks when the Yemeni camp followed President Hadi’s decision to sack several Emirati-allies from their posts, including Aden’s governor, Aiderous al-Zubaidi, the governor of Hadramaut, Ahmed bin Breik, and Minister of State Hani bin Breik (no relation).
Following the chain of events, the officials formed the Southern Transition Council, which remains the largest political platform representing southern Yemen and enjoys unfaltering support from the United Arab Emirates.
The Southern Transition Council pitted allies against one another, with Saudi-backed government associates often finding themselves on the losing end. This escalated Saudi sensitivity toward what appeared to be cohesion of the Emirati alliances and influence, versus the weakness and corruption of their own Yemeni partners.
By agreeing to cease hostilities over Hudaydah in Stockholm, Saudi Arabia was able to ensure that forces loyal to the Emirates would not win the strategic port and expand their authority over the coast. The fall of Mocha and the expansion of Emirati influence on the Red Sea during the months leading up to the Hudaydah clashes were all signs of the Emirates positioning themselves as the number one actor in Yemen. But not only that. Privately, the Saudis worried about the Emiratis becoming the primary power in the entire southern Red Sea region.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite bilateral grievances, the two allies shared the fear of the growing influence of the rivalling Qatari, Turkish, and Omani axis. The southern inland governorate of Taiz remains at the core of these dynamics, with the local militias led by Qatari-funded Sheikh Hamoud al-Mekhalfi also backed by Oman and Turkey.
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To add to this, Qatari and Omani influence has traditionally extended to the Al-Mahra governorate bordering Oman. Yet, the war has redefined traditions with Saudi Arabia gaining ground through local proxies and government officials appointed by President Hadi.
READ MORE Riyadh and Doha continue war for influence on the pitch
Oman has sought to re-establish influence in Yemen by presenting itself as an interlocutor with the Houthis. This is in line with the sultanate’s balanced approach to foreign policy, not only in Yemen, but across the region. These efforts have not been in vain and Muscat has become the most important public political platform for the Houthis outside of Yemen.
However, it is not only regional actors at play. The international significance of the Red Sea was put under a global spotlight early in the conflict when the US military vessel USS Mason was targeted by missiles launched from Yemen. Fingers were quickly pointed at the Iran-backed Houthis. The clash deepened the concern over Iran’s ability to disrupt international shipping lanes on the Red Sea.
Instability in Yemen has undoubtedly exacerbated the unstable situation on the opposing African continent. This has manifested itself in the ongoing arms trade via the Yemeni coasts, and weapons from Yemen are sold in a number of African countries, ranging from Djibouti, South Sudan, and Kenya all the way to the Central African Republic. The flow of weapons from Yemen keeps smugglers in business as they face little risk for their significant profits.
READ MORE Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War
Complications do not end in illicit naval trade. Regional players have vested interests in Yemen with, for example, Sudan participating in military operations against the Houthis since the very first military campaign of the Saudi-led Joint Coalition half-a-decade ago.
Sudan has also come to rely on Saudi and Emirate largesse ever since the popular uprising toppled the regime of President Omar al-Bashir a year ago. Support from the two Gulf States has equipped Sudanese troops in Yemen and helped maintain a status quo domestically.
READ MORE Why protesters are fed up with Sudan’s tricky transition
The Sudanese uprising thus failed to turn the table for Sudan’s involvement in Yemen. The uprising brought Commander Mohammed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo to the forefront and underscored his role as the commander of the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces from which most Sudanese troops present in Yemen are drafted from.
Knowing Hemeti’s alliances with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, it is no surprise that the priority of Sudan’s military leadership has not been in the demands of freedom, peace, and justice rallied by the revolution. Priorities lie in maintaining strategic relations with the Gulf.
READ MORE Sudan’s transition overlord Hemeti still wreaking havoc in Darfur
Sudan is no exception in the region. The complexities in Yemen have had ripple effects in the escalation of conflict in Somalia and between the United Arab Emirates and the Qatar-Turkey duo.
The war continues with no end and no credible resolution in sight.
Qatar and Turkey look at the Emirati influence in Yemen, its military bases in Assab, Eritrea and Berbera, Somalia, and increasing leverage in Sudan with concern. The days when the two enjoyed influence in Sudan are gone. In response, the allies are vying for Somalia’s attention. Their minds are on the Red Sea too.
Many international and regional powers regard the growth of the Houthi movement as a threat. This expansion has come at the expense of most of the other parties involved and has been amplified by the movement’s membership in Iran’s regional axis. The fear of a strengthened Iran is the smallest common denominator for all Gulf actors.
There is no guarantee that the balance of power set in Stockholm will hold. The possibility of renewed battles over Hudaydah is there, especially if there is a mounting drive to topple the Houthis and counter Iranian influence over the Bab al-Mandeb strait. The war continues with no end and no credible resolution in sight.
As regional and international powers navigate these dynamics, four variables need to be kept in mind.
The need to engage in a political process seeking a resolution is clear. Yet, to pave way for a resolution, the political process must meet practical demands and address concrete grievances, such as access to ports and trade. There is no reason to believe that this man-made disaster will remain at the borders of Yemen. Nothing less than the stability of the Red Sea region is at stake.
*Maged Al-Madhaji is the Executive Director and a co-founder of the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region.
For part 2: Ports, military bases and treaties: Who’s who in the Red Sea
For part 4: The Horn of Africa and the Gulf: Shifting power plays in 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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