The militarisation of the Red Sea

by Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom

Camels and us ship djibouti

Military vehicles being delivered to the United States' 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Arta Beach, Djibouti, 2013. DVIDSHUB via Flickr.

International news coverage of militaries tends to focus largely on active warzones, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, the past several years have witnessed a quiet yet steady buildup of international military forces along the Red Sea.

This development, most notably on the African coast, has resulted in the establishment of numerous foreign bases by both international and regional actors. In the case of Djibouti, the country has become, to a considerable extent, a quasi-free port for various navies. The small country in the Horn of Africa surprised many when it announced that, in addition to the countries it was already hosting  – the United States, Italy, Japan, and former colonial power France – China was also set to have a base there.

The reasons for this growth in military bases are twofold. One motive is to maintain a presence along international sea routes. However, this necessarily precludes countries outside the US or China that are unable to maintain a global military presence. The emergence of some of the newer bases, particularly those of middle-sized powers, are in part due to regional conflicts. For example, the United Arab Emirates’ airbase in Eritrea is situated just across the Red Sea from Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen. Its physical proximity has not only permitted the UAE  to conduct sorties but also deploy reinforcements quickly.

Turkey’s growing military presence is a reflection of a wider policy of engagement as well as a combination of soft power and hard power. Ankara’s shift towards Africa, mirrored by the expansion of Turkish Airlines’ flight destinations, has resulted in the establishment of a training base in Somalia alongside the leasing of Sudan’s Suakin Island (though the Turkish government has denied that it wishes to build a naval base there). By establishing a military presence along the Red Sea at the same time as Qatar hosts 5,000 troops, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly challenging the Saudi–Egyptian hegemony that has held considerable sway over the region for several decades.

The past few years have seen a pivot towards Africa by various actors.

Bilateral disputes may also explain why some countries either seek to build or host overseas military bases. While landlocked Ethiopia seeks to rebuild a navy with French help, though it remains to be seen where it would be hosted, Addis Ababa is currently at loggerheads with Cairo over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Egypt fears could result in a decline in water levels on the Nile. Following reports that Egypt had sent troops to Eritrea, Sudan closed its border with its eastern neighbour and only reopened it once the embattled president, Omar Bashir, was facing tremendous domestic pressure.

The presence of foreign military bases is likely to grow, though the question of who will build them and when remains unclear. While Russia announced its intention to build a logistics centre in Eritrea back in September 2018, this has yet to materialise. It is possible that the announcement is both a power projection as well as a bargaining chip. Like many other countries, Russia has increasingly focused on strengthening its ties with African states, such as the Central African Republic and Mozambique.

Somalia is the country with the most potential but also the most to lose from the current wave of buildups. Having Africa’s longest coastline as well as shores along both the Gulf Aden and the Somali Sea alongside access to the Red Sea’s Bab-el-Mandeb strait, the war-torn state risks being ripped apart by rival powers’ desire to build their own bases. The breakaway region and self-declared state of Somaliland was previously the intended site for an Emirati base while neighbouring Ethiopia, which owns 19 percent of the Port of Berbera, has been seeking to suspend its harbour construction. Although neither project has been fulfilled, they remain of interest with neither country fully pulling out of Somaliland. Future unilateral involvement has the potential of fracturing Somalia further and weakening its territorial integrity.

The Horn of Africa is increasingly becoming the crossroads where economic development, geopolitical tensions and capacity meet. Between 2010 and 2019, Ethiopia’s economy grew by 320 percent reaching $94 billion. Such growth enables a further military buildup by local forces. Simultaneously, the rise of new markets is likely to encourage exporting states, such as those in East Asia, to maintain a presence. With increased Afro-Eurasian economic integration, this relationship is increasingly becoming a two-way street in which emerging economies rely on the region for natural resources, as a transport hub and as a destination for goods. Militarisation is thus a by-product of geography and economics.

The existence of numerous fragile states in the surrounding area, such as Sudan and South Sudan, creates a risk of further spillover effects.

The past few years have seen a pivot towards Africa by various actors. To some extent, this is a partial geographic relocation of existing great-power competition, particularly between Washington on the one hand and Moscow and Beijing on the other. For example, since 2015 the Russian Federation has signed more than 20 military cooperation agreements with various African states, and a physical foothold in the Red Sea could help. Such actions, in addition to China’s economic investments throughout the continent, have already caused consternation in the US with the Trump Administration announcing a ‘new Africa Strategy’ in December 2018 where the changing balance of power in the Horn of Africa was highlighted as motivation.

Should any party see its strategic position as being undermined, the current military presence in the Red Sea could be used to augment support for any particular side of a dispute. At the same time, the presence of countervailing forces prevents the Horn of Africa from becoming the sphere of influence of just one country or its allies. While this may temper the urge to act unilaterally, it does risk any such action becoming more deadly should a state not wish to back down from a threat that it may perceive as a bluff.

Due to the proximity of the Red Sea region to both advanced economies, such as those in the Persian Gulf, as well as to active conflict zones, e.g. Yemen, it is possible that economic and military concerns are likely to encourage a greater foreign military presence in the area. Increasing crowding could contribute to a heightened risk of confrontations, similar to the way in which American and Russian aircraft have been sharing Syrian airspace. The existence of numerous fragile states in the surrounding area, such as Sudan and South Sudan, creates a risk of further spillover effects. The region is already home to some of the biggest refugee populations in the world, which has led to neighbouring states becoming increasingly averse to hosting refugees and Kenya trying to close the Dadaab refugee camp, the largest in the world.

Overlapping and, at times, contradictory alliances will further complicate the political relations of the region. At the same time, growing interest in Africa could mean that the Red Sea is simply a stepping stone towards the continent. However, the financial and political requirements for such commitments will likely entail years of engagement.

About the author

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Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom is an MPhil student at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. He is Senior Vice President of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum.

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