Haffiya Abdalla – Khartoum
Regional Cooperation Initiatives
For decades, regional powers and international alliances have sought to govern and coordinate what goes on in the Red Sea.
In 1974, the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) launched the Regional Program for the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to address the protection of the marine environment.
The programme paved the way for the signing of the Regional Convention for the Conservation of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden Environment in 1982. The convention has since become known as the Jeddah convention and features signatories from all Red Sea coastal states.
Another example of regional cooperation among coastal states is their adherence to the Djibouti Code of Conduct established in 2009. The Code of Conduct concerns the repression of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.
In 2020, the Council of Arab and African Littoral States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden was established in Riyadh. This was preceded by several meetings convened by Egypt and Saudi Arabia since December 2017.
To date, limited information has been publicly disclosed on the organization’s mandate, structure and working procedures.
The African Union and IGAD have also intensified their multilateral efforts in the Horn of Africa in recent years. The AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) for Sudan, South Sudan, and the Horn of Africa was mandated in December 2018 to liaise with regional organizations from both sides of the Red Sea.
The Red Sea became one of the main routes for oil and trade between Europe and the East especially after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia decided to export its oil via that sea for security and safety reasons. It serves as a major trade outlet for its coastal states, especially Sudan, Ethiopia, Jordan and Israel.
Agenda in the Region
The Red Sea has been attracting an increasing amount of attention from Gulf states in recent years. Saudi Arabia and the UAE offered $3 billion in aid to Sudan following the ouster of former dictator Omar Al Bashir, and some states have intervened as part of the Combined Task Force off the coast of Somalia to help combat piracy in the area.
This trend culminated in the creation of a special council for Arab and African nations bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden at a conference held in Riyadh in 2020.
The Red Sea is also the Arabian Peninsula’s last line of defense against a host of threats across and within the sea.
In the early 2000s, piracy had plagued the coast of Somalia, where criminals preyed on commercial and fishing vessels.
Somalia is also prone to violent outbreaks and terror attacks, as well as a separatist movement in the north.
Yemen shares many of the same problems with its neighbour on the Arabian side of Bab El Mandab.
The nation has witnessed decades of conflict and since 2014, it has been torn apart by a Houthi insurgency against the internationally-recognized government in Aden.
This push for safety is being challenged by malevolent states and dangerous militias. The Iran-backed Houthis have allowed Tehran to establish a foothold in the Red Sea, pushing the Saudi-led Arab coalition to defend its interests and that of its allies.
The group aims to defend Yemen’s internationally-recognised government and curb Iran’s malign influence.
Another impediment to fruitful collaboration in the region is the ambition of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has also worked to establish a toehold on the Red Sea.
In 2017, Ankara approached Al Bashir’s defunct regime to ask for a temporary lease on Suakin Island on the Red Sea. It is still unclear whether this agreement will hold after Al Bashir’s ousting. Turkey has also signed a military co-operation agreement with Mogadishu, giving the Turks a concession to manage the Arab capital’s seaport for 20 years.
At a time when the countries located on Bab El Mandab were either being wooed by faraway countries with an agenda in the region, or falling prey to Iranian-sponsored violence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are concerned about the protection of vital mutual interests.
These concerns are at the core of the launch of a separate council for Red Sea and Gulf of Aden nations, so that these states can discuss and resolve issues that concern them directly, with limited outside interference.
Co-operation among those states is a must if they are to safeguard their security and interests in the Red Sea. The organization launched on January 6 is a step in the right direction.
Persistent co-ordination among the littoral states will optimize co-operation to fend off extra-regional powers meddling in the strategic region of the Red Sea.
Four ways to make or break stability
According to the series of the Red Sea basin, 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 series, we explore how Sudan’s peace determines the stability in the Red Sea basin.
Sudan has sought to redefine its internal power balances to maintain fragile, peaceful, regional relations to increase political leverage, and international affairs to bring it on the path of development.
What happens next is a delicate balancing act with four key variables: regional positioning, economic development, power-sharing, and the role of the Islamist elites in the political structures of the country.
How much weight each variable gets is defined by the fragmented security landscape of the Red Sea region. With this in mind, Sudan’s political cornerstones are currently being laid on volatile ground.
During his rule, al-Bashir was known for pulling the strings of allies for his benefit, at the cost of regional stability.
For example, Sudan is known to have hosted Iranian naval fleets on its coasts, a move that Gulf players have not forgotten to this day.
The act of building relations with unsavoury allies has been the unfortunate outcome of Sudan’s attempt to use all means available to keep it from a financial and political collapse. This approach has tainted Sudan’s role in the region to this day.
Another concrete example of Sudan’s legacy of pitting adversaries against each other was seen a year prior to its revolution in 2018, when the historical Suakin Island was leased to Turkey.
The decision gave Turkey increased influence in the region, yet angered rivalling Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With the move, Sudan hoped to bid favours from the two to help its ailing economy.
Red Sea Alliance
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman praised the formation of a new council aimed at securing the waterways of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
The council, which includes Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia, will increase cooperation between the countries and aims to tackle piracy, smuggling and other threats in the seas that are key international shipping routes.
King Salman met the Foreign Ministers of the countries involved in the Riyadh conference. They discussed a number of issues related to developing joint cooperation in order to enhance security and stability in the region.
The Ministers signed a founding charter for the Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
“The meeting came at a sensitive time when cooperation needs to be increased capabilities so that we can deal with any risks or challenges facing our region, and work to protect the security of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden”, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, said.
The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are two of the world’s busiest shipping routes connecting Europe to Asia and the Middle East.
The Red Sea will still be a very important strategic waterway because of all the different reasons that stated previously, so the security and stability of this area of the world is essential and this requires the Red Sea Arab coastal states to adopt a new strategy. This strategy will not achieve its goals until these states overcome their problems.