The Militarization of the Red Sea

by Shehab al-Makahleh and Giorgio Cafiero

The Red Sea has historically connected traders from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Today the strategically valuable body of water is vital to Sino-European trade. In recent years, several countries have established military footholds along the saltwater inlet’s African shore. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, United States, and the United Kingdom—all have bases (or plans for bases) in Djibouti or Sudan. Other Western powers such as Italy and Spain do too. Regional actors, chiefly Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have obtained geostrategic footholds in, and economic agreements with, these African countries to further cement ties. Egypt, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are also military players in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa.

This race to assert greater military might in the body of water separating Africa and the Arabian Peninsula raises important questions about the balance of power in the Red Sea, sometimes referred to as an “Arabian lake.” Tensions between Turkey and various Arab states rose last month after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Sudan and held talks with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The two announced $650 million in deals between Turkey and Sudan, and Khartoum decided to transfer control of the ancient Red Sea port city of Suakin Island to the Turks for rehabilitation and management.

A Turkish military base on Suakin Island would provide Ankara a unique foothold in the Red Sea within close proximity to Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. By offering Turkey such a position so near to Egypt, Bashir has added yet another layer of tension to the Cairo-Khartoum relationship, already strained by an old border dispute, conflicts of interest regarding water issues, Egypt’s alleged support for rebels in Darfur, and Sudan’s hosting of Muslim Brotherhood members who fled Egypt in the aftermath of former President Mohammed Morsi’s 2013 ouster. Another variable that has created more tension between Egypt and Sudan is the Qatar crisis and how the Arabian Peninsula-Horn of Africa nexus impacted African states’ response to the Gulf Cooperation Council dispute.

Egypt, and other Arab states that warily view Turkey’s foreign policy in the region—particularly Ankara’s support for Islamist factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood—understand Turkey’s entry into the Red Sea via Sudan within the context of Turkey’s recently established military presence in Somalia, near the capital of Mogadishu, as well as the Turkish military base in Qatar.

To be sure, Turkey’s role in the Qatar crisis has undermined the interests of Egypt, the UAE, and others who are unsettled by Ankara’s projection of greater hard power regionally and globally. Ankara’s military alliance with Doha gave Qatar sufficient confidence to resist pressure from the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—to capitulate to the 13 demands issued by the bloc after it implemented the blockade over seven months ago. One of those demands was for Doha to close the joint Turkish-Qatari base in Qatar. How a Turkish military presence on the ground in Sudan will influence Khartoum’s foreign policy remains to be seen. Yet Egypt is already concerned that with Ankara’s support the Sudanese may act aggressively on their aspirations to control territory along the two countries’ border at the Red Sea.

A potential realignment is in the offing by which Turkey, Iran, and Qatar overcome their past differences over Syria and form a triangular partnership based on a shared opposition to the regional agendas of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, are unsettled by the potential for either Iran or Qatar to obtain their own footholds in the Red Sea via Turkey’s presence at Suakin Island. Given the military conflict and humanitarian disaster in Yemen, that impoverished and war-torn Arabian country might be one of the first areas where a new balance of power in the Red Sea would play out if Tehran were to make strategic gains from Turkey’s foothold in Sudan. According to the ATQ’s grievances, Qatar has supported the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which will likely lead them to be more concerned about Doha’s closest regional ally, Turkey, projecting its military might via bases not only in the Arabian Peninsula but also in the Red Sea.

Sudan, disappointed that its divorce with Iran in exchange for closer ties with the GCC states has not paid off as expected, is looking to diversify its partnerships. In fact, the month before Erdogan came to Khartoum, Bashir met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi and asked him for Russia to give Sudan “protection” from (what the Sudanese president sees as) threats posed by the United States.

Over time, Turkey and Russia may find themselves as ascendant military actors in the Red Sea thanks to Sudan’s geopolitical balancing and efforts to recover economically from oil-rich South Sudan’s 2011 independence. As Sudan helps Turkey and Russia insert themselves in the Red Sea security environment, the body of water’s western shore is becoming increasingly busy with foreign powers’ militaries. True, these actors might set aside their geopolitical competition and instead promote stability in the area. More likely however, the “Arabian lake” will become more of a hotspot where a growing number of countries flex their military muscles to secure greater bargaining power regionally and globally.

Shehab al-Makahleh (@ShehabMakahleh) is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics with experience as a political advisor in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Photo: Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.