International players finally acting on Red Sea security

International players finally acting on Red Sea security

 A lookout aboard the Queen Mary 2 scans the horizon for pirates in the Southern Red Sea. (Reuters)

Several important events have been held in 2019 to discuss Red Sea security. With tensions rising in the Gulf and threats to international shipping growing in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, it became apparent that there are serious security gaps in the Red Sea. This emerging interest in the Red Sea is long past due, replacing a sense of complacency on the part of regional and global players.

About 300 million people live on the Red Sea’s shores and in its immediate region, sharing a meager $1.5 trillion of gross domestic product. Saudi Arabia and Israel account for 73 percent of that total. The rest, with a population of 260 million, share the remainder, making it one of the poorest regions in the world, with an average per capita income of $1,530. With such low levels of development, security threats are magnified.

Regional conflicts, political instability, poverty and a governance deficit in some of the countries overlooking the Red Sea have left many spaces ungoverned, providing opportunities for terrorists, pirates, organized crime and rogue states to take advantage of those gaps and threaten the security of the Red Sea. Economic development has also been affected by those challenges.

The two shores of the Red Sea have been trading for millennia, but trade between them has shrunk. Investment flows are also limited. Luckily, however, future potential is great, but that potential is difficult to realize without addressing the security threats.

The Red Sea stretches between two important narrow passageways, the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Suez Canal, where about 10 percent of world trade and 4 million barrels of oil pass every day, but they also represent possible chokepoints should they be blocked.

Looked at it from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) perspective, there is great urgency to deal with the alarming security threats, some of which are old, while some are new and growing.

Old conflicts between states, such as that between Ethiopia and Eritrea and between the latter and Djibouti, kept that region tense for decades. The breakthrough achieved by Saudi Arabia’s mediation in 2018 needs to be followed expeditiously by concrete steps by the three countries to translate that historical reconciliation into tangible economic benefits.

There is now a brewing conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt about the Nile waters, which needs to be addressed. Instability and the breakdown of state authority in Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan are other threats contributing to the security deterioration in the region.

Terrorism and crime thrive on the availability of ungoverned spaces in that region, in addition to corrupt officials who condone their activities. Terrorist threats are growing as Daesh tries to consolidate its presence in the Horn of Africa, where Al-Qaeda long ago put down deep roots.

Organized crime gangs smuggle children and teenagers to Europe and pay local warlords and terrorists to facilitate their trade. They also smuggle hundreds of thousands of young people to the GCC states and Yemen. Every year, Saudi Arabia apprehends hundreds of thousands of them.

Pirates, organized criminals and terrorists work hand in hand to ensure that no effective governance exists. They also work jointly to reap the benefits. For example, in Somalia, pirates and former pirates provide protection for illegal fishing boats, and some now cooperate with Daesh and other terror groups.

Iran exploits the instability in the region to smuggle weapons to the Houthis, threaten freedom of navigation in the Bab Al-Mandab, sell fuel and get around sanctions. Iranian boats are also the main beneficiaries of illegal fishing in Somali waters.

The war in Yemen has brought new threats to the region, including cyberattacks and the smuggling of missiles and missile parts, drones and improvised explosive devices. The use of new guided missiles and remotely controlled boats by Iran-allied Houthi militias has increased the threats to international shipping in the Red Sea. Iran also uses Red Sea islands to get around a UN Security Council-imposed arms embargo and for the training of terrorists.

With the war in Syria raging, the old drug routes from Asia to Europe have been rerouted via the Red Sea. Drugs from Afghanistan now go to Europe through East Africa. Terrorists in turn get funding from protecting the drug trade.

The limited capacity of security forces on the west coast makes it difficult to patrol territorial waters, let alone any area beyond that. The fact is that, other than Egypt, there is no local coast policing to speak of along the western coast of the Red Sea.

Poverty is a major contributing factor to the security threats. Per capita income in Eritrea is about $500 annually and in Ethiopia it is less than $800. Without employment or a social security net, many young people are driven to criminal activity. Weak governance in some countries has enabled formidable transnational illegal activity, making the Red Sea region and the Horn of Africa hubs for international organized crime and terrorism.

There is great urgency to deal with the alarming security threats, some of which are old, while some are new and growing.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The GCC has adopted a comprehensive strategy to deal with these security threats. Its approach relies on two main pillars. Firstly, it suggests a triangular engagement between the two sides of the Red Sea and the international community. This could be achieved by establishing a Red Sea security forum for participants from the three sides. The second pillar is to combine immediate security cooperation with longer-term economic engagement.

Fortunately, proposals discussed in recent meetings are coalescing around the idea of an informal trilateral framework that encourages cooperation between Red Sea littoral states and regional organizations such as the GCC and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. It also encourages the involvement and cooperation of like-minded international players. This framework should provide a forum for donor coordination and investor coordination. At the same time, it should seek to manage competition between global players by encouraging informal engagement between relevant parties.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC’s 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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