East Africa must fear rallying of world powers, militaries in Red Sea arena

Saturday April 20 2019

Hopefully, some people in East African capitals have their eyes on the goings-on around the Red Sea. FOTOSEARCH

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I am sorry, but we shall get through the painful introduction here quickly. The other week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, there was a meeting of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel, abbreviated as AUHIP.

Now to the fun part. AUHIP is led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, and like all things involving TM (as he’s known by those close to him), at times it got quite wonkish.

There was TM, apologising profusely for a conference brief that was rushed overnight, and which he said had “many errors,” and asking that they be excused.

Those “many errors” were exactly two! And it wasn’t that they were typos. They were down to stylistic preferences, so they were not errors.

The meeting was a consultation on the Horn of Africa, and what in African geopolitical-speak they elegantly call the “Red Sea Arena.”

It was a meeting of a small group of about 20 men, most of them in solemn suits, and four women. Among the men was Ramtane Lamamra.


Mr Lamamra is Algeria’s new foreign minister, and before that he was the AU’s Commissioner for Peace and Security.

Those who encountered him while he was at the AU, will tell you he can be brash, and does not suffer fools gladly. But he is a true foreign policy and national security apparatchik.

Lets hear him: First, Lamamra argued that contrary to what the situation looks like today, the “Red Sea has historically been a bridge rather than a divide, with the peoples on the two shores [Africa and the Arabian Peninsula] sharing culture, trade, and social relations.”

Shift in centre of gravity

He addressed to himself to why every world power is seeking to build or has a built a military base in the Horn of Africa.

It is because, he argued, the Red Sea, specifically the Bab al Mandab and the Gulf of Aden is one of the world’s most critical arteries for shipping.

“All countries have a shared interest in this: It unites Israel, Iran and the Arab countries, China, India, Russia and the US and Europe, etc”

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, he noted, includes the Red Sea as a critical artery. For that reason, it has invested in its naval base in Djibouti.

But perhaps most insightful was his take on the new strategic relationships that are emerging in the Horn and Red Sea arena.

The first development, he argued, is that in that wide strategic area, America’s “security umbrella has been removed, and it has delegated its security strategy to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

The meaning of this being that if you are a US strategic ally in the Horn and Red Sea, the customer care office has moved to Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh. Don’t call Washington.

Second, that a new relationship between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa has emerged.

“The first movers in this were Turkey and Qatar, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE have followed, and (after a long period of relative introversion) Egypt has re-engaged in Africa.”

Significant in this, is what he said was a “shift in the centre of gravity in the Middle East: The dominant role played by the secular states [Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Syria] has been overshadowed by the rapid rise of assertive foreign policies by the Gulf monarchies, whose financial and military power is greater than their expertise.”

Third, that a part of this contest is played out in what is has become known as the “politics of ports.”

The UAE’s assertive strategy of controlling ports that have both commercial and military uses, he said, “has caused concern among the African countries that are reliant on these ports.

This is notably the case for Ethiopia which has no ports of its own and whose economy is reliant on access to the sea.”

The fourth key development, he argued, is that the war in Yemen has made the African shore of the Red Sea a “key military/security asset for the belligerents.”

There are Sudanese troops fighting in Yemen. The UAE has leased the port and airbase of Assab for its operations.

Conflating the various strands, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia/UAE and Qatar/Turkey, he said, has also led to “a rivalrous engagement” in the countries of the Horn.

Far-reaching implications

This is “most prominent in Somalia but can also be seen in the ways that the different Arab states are backing different elements in Sudan, and their different approaches to Djibouti and Eritrea.”

For a long time, all these developments with far-reaching implications happened with indifference from most of Africa.

Now, there is finally a change, and Lamamra noted that “Africa has only belatedly woken up to the need for treating the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden as a ‘shared space’ needing a strategic and multilateral approach.”

There are many approaches evolving, but the one that should perhaps be Africa’s, if not the wider East Africa’s “smell the coffee moment,” is that there are discussions about creating a Red Sea Forum, basically to agree on the rules of the race, and both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have taken actions in that regard.

Mr Lamamra foresaw though, that in the end a Red Sea Arena would probably include all those countries with a significant interest in the region — including for example China, India, Turkey, Russia, the EU and the US, as only that “would offer assurances that all interests would be catered to.”

The Red Sea Arena Forum would be a strange and very powerful creature, potentially the organisation that divides the global spoils for the rest of the 21st Century.

Unfolding at the doorsteps of the East African Community, the Community could be sucked into it, or simply wither away in its shadow.

Hopefully some people in East African capitals have their eyes on the goings-on around the Red Sea.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a researcher and writer on politics and public affairs.