The Brewing Red Sea Storm – OpEd

In the centuries and thousands of years before the advent of European civilization, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and its chokepoints always played pivotal roles in linking the civilizations of the East to that of Africa, (mostly the Horn of Africa States and Egypt) and the in-between Arabian and Mesopotamian civilizations.

The significance of the waterway never diminished and remains today an important link  in the network of waterways between the Mediterranean, Indian and the Pacific oceans. It is, indeed, a geostrategic waterway, whose impact on neighboring countries is enormous and cannot be ignored, especially the Horn of Africa States region which is home to over some 160 million impoverished population tired and roughed up by continuous civil wars, imported terrorism, and outside interferences emanating from this waterway.

Recorded history indicate that world conquerors like Alexander the Great and Napolean and even the Mongols of China, Kublai Khan and many others have understood well the strategic importance of this waterway. Ever since those long-ago days, it has been a location of geostrategic interest. Currently, there is now brewing a new storm as manifested by what is termed Operation Prosperity Guardian (“OPG”), where the militaries of many nations are gathering to protect the shipping route from the Houthis of Yemen, who have started to threaten and, indeed, disrupted shipping in one of the most important chokepoints of the region, the Bab El Mandeb Straits, a body of water that is about 28 km wide between Djibouti on the Horn of Africa States region and Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula.

Rivalries of unprecedented proportions are now rising in this waterway, and this involves major powers like the USA and its follower nations in Europe and elsewhere (together the West) and China and Russia and their follower nations (together the East). The Indians, and as usual, are trying to play the middle ground but do not please neither the West nor the East. In between the Arabian Peninsula, which just started to feel its strength in these politically charged and upside-down world, through its wealth, have also been making their presence in the waterway felt and particularly at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden, in Socotra and the surrounding waters, Oman and, of course the northern Red Sea in the vicinity of Saudi Arabia. Even states like the Kingdom of Bahrain, Egypt, and Qatar are active in the region along with whoever they support in this deadly game that only threatens the impoverished Horn of Africa States region which is the poorest among all the countries with interest in the waterway. Sudan, another potential Horn of Africa States country suffers like the other four Horn of African States countries the same ills of terrorism (mostly foreign financed) and weakened governance.

The leaders of the region and their governments have not been kind to their populations either for they keep drifting apart instead of facing together these devilish forces that have kept the region underdeveloped, poor and always under the threat of wars both inter-state and intra-state. The Horn of Africa States region being poor, is deeply impacted by the wealthy Gulf States who seem to have overwhelmed the leaders of the region with their riches and made them forget that their forefathers, despite being poor, always stood their ground and defended their assets and populations, including the waterway on their side well. Today the youth of the region seem to being used as fodder and fuel for the fireworks of all those involved in the waterway in the form of ethnic based civil wars raging with great intensity in the region from north to south and from east to west.

The Gulf states have been projecting their powers beyond their enclaves to have influence on major locations in the Horn of Africa States – Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea. A significant portion of the population of the region live within a hundred kilometers of the coasts of the region and the gathering naval ships of many nations and their activities are disrupting the livelihoods of those populations, adding to their miseries. Soon, we would probably be hearing of piracy raising its head in the waterway, as these populations have to survive and a clash with them is soon expected to occur. The winner is obvious, for the poor always lose. Might is right, as they say and the poor Horn African living in his/her precarious situation would be blamed for some of the disasters brewing in the region.

The geoeconomics of the region is again another important factor which is attracting all kinds of unexpected and unwanted interested parties. In addition to the waterway, the region owns a large youthful population of some 160 million people, soon to rise to over 200 million, which represents a large consumer market, even if they are poor. They must survive and buy things with their meager resources. The Chinese, like in many other parts of Africa, are present in the region, looking at it as a market and as a source of minerals including oil and gas, which the region is reported to contain significant reserves of both. The region is reported to contain also a third of the world’s reserves of uranium and many other sub-soil minerals, necessary for the technologies of the 21st century. The region additionally owns several deep ports such as those of Kismayo, Mogadishu, Berbera, Djibouti, Assab and Massawa, and many others could be built in the long coast of the region which stretches for some 4,700 km – representing a significant potential of a large blue economy. These resources and the Chinese presence must be not letting many in the West sleep.

The brewing storm in the waterway presents the following hazards for the Horn of Africa States region. The first hazard represents a possible expansion of the Houthi war on shipping in the region, which no doubt would trigger avoidance of the route in general and hence disruption of the business of the ports of the region. The most affected would be the busiest  and the largest among all the ports of the region, the Ports of Djibouti, which service over 90% of Ethiopia’s exports and imports. This would not only be painful for Djibouti but for Ethiopia as well. The other countries of the region would also be affected and mostly Somalia, whose fishermen and fishing boats would be probably annihilated by the largest naval forces from other regions of the world. They would at best be grounded and hence impoverished more through subsequent of unemployment. The same would occur to the fishing industry of Eritrea which would be disrupted.

The second hazard represent in the political landscape of the region worsening as foreign interferences deepen in the region. There should be an expectation of Egypt moving to weaken Ethiopia through intensification of the ethnic-based wars in the country. Egypt is reported to be working on bringing together the Tigray and Amhara fronts against the Federal Government of Ethiopia. Egypt, in this respect, is reasoning that it is defending its rights to the Blue Nile waters, over which Ethiopia recently completed a major dam (the GERD) to produce hydropower for some 66% of its population. Egypt fears that Ethiopia would disrupt the flow of the river and especially in hard times in these times of climatic changes. The confusion arising from the brewing storm over the Red Sea would be a cover for the actions of Egypt in this respect.

The third hazard  arises from the now expanding EAC influences on the Horn of Africa States region, which will have a setback and especially Somalia that only joined it in November 2023 (last month). The Federal Parliament of Somalia will not ratify the admission of Somalia and most Somalis see that the President of the country has erred in this venture. Somalia does not belong to the EAC organization and its future East African Federation. Somalia’s weakened state allows more foreign interferences in the country and especially those from the Arabian Peninsula, who will be using their newly found wealth to disrupt any of the moves of any Somali government, as has been the case over the past three decades. The rejection of most Somalis of the EAC venture will no doubt attract many such foreign interferences which will be exploited to the full in these difficult times brewing over the Red Sea. None of the foreign competitors including the Arabian Peninsula would let the opportunities in place go to waste. These interventions would not help the Somali Federal Government as most Somalis dislike foreign interferences in their affairs and a rise of a strong political opposition to the current leadership should be expected over the horizon. Currently  such political storms are gathering in the country. 

The Horn of Africa States region which was mostly in disarray and drifting apart in 2023 would slowly wake up to the call of consulting each other at first to face off the difficulties ahead, which are common to all the four countries of the region. This should give rise to re-invigorating the establishment of an economically integrated region to have common approaches to the common problems of the region This may give rise, in due course, to the establishment of a more formal organization, which will fend off all unwanted foreign interferences into the region and welcome mutually beneficial relationships with parties who have no ill will for the region.

The Brewing Red Sea Storm is thus likely to be a blessing in disguise for the region, which should know that it is the weakest in all those competing for the Red Sea passageway connecting the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean through the chokepoints of the Suez Canal and Bab El Mandab. The region would have to protect its regional interests together instead of acting on individual single state basis, which has only helped other countries and powers to forage in their midst for their interests.