Why Red Sea security is a global concern

Why Red Sea security is a global concern

A file picture shows a ship carrying food aid docking at the Yemeni Red Sea port of Hodeida. (AFP)

Washington will this month host an international meeting dedicated to Red Sea security and emerging threats. Military and political experts will discuss existing international and regional cooperation to deal with those threats and suggest ways to promote greater cooperation in safeguarding the waterway.

There are key objectives for international and regional cooperation: Safeguarding the Red Sea against threats to its security, and promoting trade and investment across the countries that are overlooking it. Threats include terrorism, piracy, human trafficking, illegal migration, cyberattacks, the smuggling of arms and missiles, and attempts to bust sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. Threats to the livelihood of the region include illegal fishing and environmental degradation.

For example, Houthi rebels in Yemen have frequently attacked or threatened ships in the Red Sea, including Saudi Arabian, Emirati and American vessels. In October 2016, the US carried out Tomahawk missile strikes against Houthi targets after the USS Mason came under anti-ship missile fire. In December 2017, then-US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley provided clear evidence that Iran had provided missiles and advanced weapons to the Houthis, enabling them to target vessels transiting through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait. In January last year, the Houthis threatened to close the Red Sea to international shipping if the Saudi-led coalition continued its advance toward Hodeidah. 

Piracy and terrorism have plagued the security of the Red Sea for a long time. Somalia has been used as a safe haven by pirates and terrorists, including Al-Qaeda and its offshoot Al-Shabaab, while the civilian population suffers the consequences — political disenfranchisement, poverty and economic dislocation.

The Bab Al-Mandab Strait, the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden and the whole of the Red Sea would be vulnerable to attack were it not for the tight security provided by international and local forces. For example, the US base in Djibouti is America’s largest in Africa. The Japanese, French and other Europeans maintain sizable presences there too. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other states overlooking the Red Sea also act to secure freedom of navigation and protect against terrorist attacks, human trafficking and other threats.

Protecting the Red Sea is in the vital interest of all trading nations, including the US, Europe, China, Japan and other Asian countries, who export and import through the waterway. If passage through the Red Sea is interrupted or threatened, the alternatives are costly. One alternative — going around the African continent — would nearly double the distance and time ships have to travel.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Red Sea for international trade, as well as the enormously important economic opportunities it provides for the region. The Suez Canal to the north connects the Red Sea with Europe and the Mediterranean, while the Bab Al-Mandab Strait connects it to Asia and the Indian Ocean. Trade passing through the Suez Canal accounts for about 8 percent of the world’s total, while about 4 million barrels of oil and refined petroleum products pass daily through Bab Al-Mandab. 

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have recognized that maintaining security in the Red Sea requires political as well as economic tools. Most of the countries overlooking the Red Sea are poor and some, such as Somalia, are failed states. Security cooperation and political and economic stability are essential to immunize populations against the scourges of terrorism, piracy, human trafficking and illegal migration.

Saudi Arabia last year took a number of decisive steps to bolster political stability and promote development in the Red Sea region.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Saudi Arabia last year took a number of decisive steps to bolster political stability and promote development in the Red Sea region. In September, it hosted Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and they signed a peace accord to end more than 50 years of animosity and conflict. That agreement was followed by reconciliation between Eritrea and Djibouti. To bolster Djibouti’s development, Saudi Arabia and a number of its Gulf Cooperation Council partners created a five-year, $200 million program of vital economic projects and programs. 

Last December, Saudi Arabia also announced an agreement to establish a new entity for cooperation in the Red Sea. The agreement followed a successful meeting in Riyadh of ministers and senior officials from seven countries bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Jordan. It was announced that subsequent meetings of experts would take place to translate the agreement into practical steps. Adel Al-Jubeir, then-Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, said that the aim of the new organization was to “protect its interests and those of its neighbors and ... to stabilize the region that we live in and to try to create synergies between the various countries.” 

Saudi Arabia has lately begun to develop its own Red Sea coast and explore possibilities for greater transport links with neighboring countries. In addition to the Neom mega-project on the Gulf of Aqaba, it announced the establishment of the Red Sea Development Company — a closed joint stock company owned by the Public Investment Fund — to execute the Red Sea Project, a major development that was announced in 2017. Several other mega-projects along the Red Sea coast, including a $500 billion business zone shared with Egypt and Jordan, have also been proposed. These projects, although located in Saudi Arabia, will create synergies across the Red Sea and revitalize the economies of neighboring countries.

With such enormous investments, Saudi Arabia has realized the need to establish stronger ties with its Red Sea neighbors and cooperate more closely with its international partners to safeguard those investments and ensure their viability and profitability. 

Trade, investment and economic development should be essential parts of the global and regional efforts to safeguard freedom of navigation and the long-term security and stability of the countries overlooking the Red Sea. By contrast, a major military presence is essential in the short run. But, without development, that is not going to be enough in the long term, just as government-to-government financial assistance is transitory and could sometimes be counterproductive to long-term stability and economic development. 

• Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal, and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1

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