Saudi Arabia’s move to pool countries in the Horn of Africa into a co-operation council for the Red Sea and Gulf Aden suggests officials in Riyadh are desperate to pull the region from other Middle Eastern powers.
On January 6, Riyadh hosted several foreign ministers from the Horn countries to a meeting addressed by Saudi King Salman, where it was resolved that they will form the Council of Arab and African States on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The council will initially include Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia and is meant to increase co-operation with the objective of tackling piracy, smuggling and other threats in the key international shipping lane.
The eight countries issued a 12-point agenda pledging to enhance political, economic, cultural, environmental and security co-operation.
This would “reduce the risks to which the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are exposed, thereby enhancing the security and safety of international navigation; preventing everything that threatens or endangers them, especially terrorist crimes, its financing and piracy smuggling, cross-border crime and illegal immigration.”
The Riyadh-led meeting comes after the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) proposed a similar position on the protection of the region’s water ways.
Last year, an eight-member Igad established a taskforce on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden “to study, review and advise” on a common position and strategy to respond to the challenges and opportunities in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden arena.
Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti are active members of Igad while Eritrea, though a founding member suspended itself.
A statement from the meeting in Riyadh, said the countries had agreed to take a decisive step to “deal with any risks and challenges facing the region, and work to protect the security of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.”
But security experts say Saudi Arabia may have stolen a march on rivals in the region, especially Turkey and Qatar—who are competing with Riyadh for influence in the Horn of Africa.
Retired major-general in the Sudanese army Al-Moez Atabani said the move by Saudi Arabia was meant to cement a relationship with allies and change strategy in the war in Yemen, where Riyadh is far from pacifying the Iran-supported Houthi rebels.
“If Saudi Arabia gets more allies, it could lead to rapprochement of parties, which will help end the war,” he added referring to Iran’s co-operation with Saudi’s rivals.
Maj-Gen (Rtd) Atabani argued that by including Somalia, Saudi Arabia was also seeking co-operation against any possible deals with the Houthis or their sponsors, and thus protecting the regional waterways. In exchange, Somalia would manage to dissipate piracy or illegal fishing.
Somalia's entry into this alliance will contribute to better security in the Red Sea and protecting it from any threats that may come through Bab Al-Mandab,” he said referring to a region near Yemen.
Considered one of the busiest shipping waterways in the world, the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and western Indian ocean face threats from pirates as well as effects of the war in Yemen.
A coalition of surveillance maritime force— drawn from the US, UK, South Korea, Japan, the EU, Kenya, Somalia, Seychelles, Mauritius, Djibouti and other countries sharing the western Indian Ocean waters — have in the past five years managed to tame piracy.
Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), a coalition of 60 countries and international organisations, working to end piracy off the Somali coast said the menace cost regional economies some $7 billion by 2010 when 485 vessels were targeted.
In 2018, only two attacks were reported and dropped to a single attack in 2019 according to the EU Naval Forces, which helps patrol the waters off Somali coast as part of CGPS.