New naval base boosts Egypt’s presence in the Red Sea

The base will function as a supply centre for Egypt’s southern fleet, the country’s naval force near the southern entrance of the Red Sea.
Sunday 19/01/2020
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) attends a presentation of combat efficiency of the armed forces in Suez, Egypt. (Reuters)
Heightened tension. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) attends a presentation of combat efficiency of the armed forces in Suez, Egypt. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egypt inaugurated a naval base on its south-eastern Red Sea coast. Near the border with Sudan, the new Barnice Base places the Egyptian Navy close to the southern entrance of the Red Sea, the Bab el Mandeb Strait and Yemen.

It also puts the navy close to the Horn of Africa, an important spot for Egypt’s national and Suez Canal security.

“This is a time of high tension in the region and the presence of a base there is a matter of extreme importance,” said Tamer al-Shahawi, a member of the Committee on Defence and National Security in the Egyptian parliament.

The base, which will include a military-civilian airport, will function as a supply centre for Egypt’s southern fleet, the country’s naval force near the southern entrance of the Red Sea. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,  who inaugurated the new base January 15, opened the headquarters of the fleet in January 2017, apparently to protect Egypt’s interests in the Red Sea and support the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Barnice Base strengthens Egypt’s naval presence in the Red Sea, analysts said. It also gives Egypt capabilities to quickly counter threats in the Bab el Mandeb Strait and in the southern entrance of the Red Sea, they added.

The potential opening of the new base comes as the region braces after recent developments. The January 3 killing of Iranian al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in a US drone attack may result in threats to international shipping in the Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb Strait.

Iran threatened to avenge Soleimani’s death and could use regional proxies, including the Houthis, who have attacked vessels, including Saudi oil tankers, in the Red Sea previously.

In April 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi described the Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb Strait as “national security” issues. “Protecting the maritime movement in the Red Sea and the strait is a national security priority for Egypt,” Sisi said.

The security of the Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb Strait directly affects the Suez Canal, a passageway of utmost importance for the Egyptian economy and international trade.

Egypt has grand economic plans for the Suez Canal region, which include turning it into an international logistical, service and industrial centre.

Egypt has granted concessions for three international coalitions to explore for oil and gas off its Red Sea coast with expectations of huge hydrocarbon reserves in the area.

This may explain Egypt’s large deployment of important naval and military equipment to the area as part of the southern fleet. Armament includes the Mistral-class helicopter carrier Gamal Abdel-Nasser, one of two acquired by Egypt from France in 2015.

The Egyptian military and naval presence in the area will shield against Turkish ambitions in the Red Sea, analysts said.

Turkey was hoping to gain a presence in the Red Sea by signing an agreement in December 2017 with former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for administrative control of the Sudanese Red Sea island of Suakin.

The island is a few kilometres away from Egypt’s Red Sea coast. The Turkish presence on the island was feared to be part of a plan to besiege Egypt for ideological, economic and strategic reasons.

Turkey has military presences in Libya and the Horn of Africa. Its control of the Sudanese island would have it near the Egyptian border, analysts said.

“Turkey has been trying to surround our country by all means, including by gaining presence near Egypt’s Red Sea coast,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of the Strategic Studies Centre think-tank. “The construction of a naval base in this area will protect our national security and sabotage this plan.”

Egypt’s intensified naval presence would be instrumental for the success of a Red Sea coalition formed January 6 in Riyadh, analysts said.

The eight-country coalition would be directed to act against piracy, smuggling and other threats with a view towards protecting the international maritime movement in the area.

“The new coalition will help its member states tighten control on the southern entrance of the Red Sea,” said political analyst Abdel Monem Halawa. “With a new base in the area, the Egyptian Navy will be more capable of supporting the operations of the member states of the coalition.”

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