Power plays, spurred by Iran’s ambitions, make waves in Red Sea

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are embroiled in the Yemen war, but appear determined to prevent Iranian encroachment in their back yard.
Sunday 24/06/2018
A soldier climbs up a rope ladder attached to the side of a ship during a military exercise off the Red Sea coast city of Aqaba. (AFP)
Ready to counter threats. A soldier climbs up a rope ladder attached to the side of a ship during a military exercise off the Red Sea coast city of Aqaba. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Rivalries between Middle Eastern powers are heightening tensions in the Red Sea, a strategic waterway between the Suez Canal in the north and the choke point Bab el Mandeb Strait in the south, which has been scorched by three years of inter-Arab war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, increasingly pursuing wider geopolitical objectives after decades of relatively passive diplomacy, are embroiled in the Yemen war but appear determined to prevent what they see as Iranian encroachment in their back yard.

The UAE, which arguably has the most effective military in the Gulf region — it’s doing most of the fighting in Yemen — is clearly seeking to establish itself as an economic and military power in the Red Sea.

The UAE has three main protagonists in the region. Iran is seen as an existential threat with Turkey and Qatar considered economic and political rivals that stand in the way of the emirates achieving their regional objectives.

For the UAE and its rivals, the Bab el Mandeb Strait, a narrow choke point that links the southern Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, is a key objective. Some 52 tankers carrying 4.8 million barrels of oil transit the narrow waterway every day along with two-way trade between Europe and the Far East

The Horn of Africa, south of the strait, overlooks the eastern approaches to this strategic apex and is essential for the security of global shipping.

For the Gulf countries, that means the export of oil and gas that is the bedrock of their economies but the upheavals in the Middle East have posed a long-term threat to these trade routes, triggering the militarisation of the Red Sea region and the emergence of the UAE in particular as a contender for regional power projection.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have adopted more aggressive, hard-power policies, especially in the war in Yemen, to block what they see as Iranian encroachment into the Gulf.

To eliminate threats to the strait — and thus to the oil exports on which the Gulf monarchies depend — the UAE, which produces 2 million barrels of oil a day, has intervened militarily to create a secure maritime corridor in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. That is a sharp turnaround in the emirates’ foreign policy.

Regional defence sources say the UAE has deployed special forces to Egypt to support Cairo’s battle against Islamic State jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula.

The UAE established its first foreign military base at Assab in Eritrea on the western shore of the Red Seas, 160km north of Bab el Mandeb. In May 2016, the UAE signed a $442 million agreement with the autonomous Somaliland region in war-torn Somalia to develop commercial ports with the emirates’ Dubai Ports World leading the project.

The UAE also seeks to develop and operate a port at Bosaso to acquire another gateway to East Africa.

In February 2017, the UAE opened a military base in Somaliland, 400km south of the Red Sea. Somalia’s beleaguered central government denounced the UAE intervention in what it considers its sovereign territory.

Mogadishu retaliated by scrapping a military training programme with the UAE and seizing $9.6 million from a private jet that landed in Mogadishu from Abu Dhabi with 47 Emirati military officers aboard.

In February 2017, Somaliland gave the UAE the go-ahead to build a 40 sq.km air and naval base at the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden.

On April 30, Emirati troops with Russia-built armour seized control of the remote but strategic Yemeni island of Socotra, which lies south of Bab el Mandeb in the Arabian Sea astride key shipping lanes.

Turkey is also intruding into the unruly region to consolidate its strategic ambitions and seeks to establish military footholds in the Red Sea.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced during a December visit to turbulent Sudan that Khartoum had ceded the Red Sea island of Suakin and its port, Sudan’s second largest, to Turkey for 99 years.

With a base on Suakin, Erdogan would have new economic and geopolitical leverage in the region and greatly enhance his expansionist policy. Much to the dismay of Cairo and Abu Dhabi, the Turks want to build a naval base on Suakin, which for centuries was a commercial crossroads between Africa, Europe and the Gulf.

The Ottomans used Suakin as a naval base and as Turkey’s regional seat of power from 1821-85.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia protested the agreement. The Saudi newspaper Okaz ran a headline proclaiming “Sudan in Turkish hands,” with the report saying: “Turkey’s greed for the African continent seems to have no limits.”

Turkey has also established military links with the gas-rich Gulf emirate of Qatar, currently at odds with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The scramble to establish military facilities and economic access to the Red Sea and Horn of Africa regions prompted Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN-Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to observe that the Gulf conflict now affects “the African side of the Strait of Bab el Mandeb.”

Egypt, increasingly at odds with Turkey’s encroachment into the Red Sea, responded to the Suakin deal by sending troops to Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia and took its access to the Red Sea, leaving it landlocked.

This action intersected with another Red Sea standoff: Egypt is at daggers drawn with Ethiopia, which has the third largest army in Africa, over the construction of a $4.8 billion hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. Cairo says that will reduce the flow of water to Egypt, a critical factor because it gets almost all its water from the great river that rises in East Africa.

Addis Ababa seeks to boost its sagging economy and provide electricity to neighbouring countries but in Egypt, where 90% of the population live on or near the Nile, there are fears that the long-isolated regime in Sudan, through which the Nile flows into Egypt, will ally with Ethiopia over the water issue.

Egypt and war-battered Sudan have reported military build-ups on their common border. There were reports in January that Egypt had deployed forces in Eritrea, which borders eastern Sudan, with backing from the UAE. Turkey has reportedly pledged its support for Khartoum if Egypt moves against it over the Nile dispute.

Analysts doubt that these two Nile countries will go to war over water. Both are in poor shape economically and can ill afford military adventures. However, their alliances with opposing regional power blocs are heightening concerns amid the regional unrest.

Turkey’s entry into the region complicates a year-old crisis within the GCC between Saudi Arabia, backed by the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, and neighbouring Qatar, over Doha’s alleged support for terrorism and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood loathed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The Saudi-led coalition imposed an air, land and sea blockade against Qatar. Within 48 hours, Turkey was airlifting food supplies into the emirate, which has investments totalling $20 billion in Turkey. That’s expected to increase by $19 billion this year.

On June 7, 2017, shortly after the GCC-Qatar split emerged, Turkey’s parliament ratified earlier agreements allowing Turkish troops to deploy in Qatar and, in March 2018, Doha signed an agreement with Turkey to establish a naval base in the emirate that lies in the central sector of the Gulf.

The following day, Turkish troops arrived in Doha to bolster Turkish forces deployed there since 2015. In January, the Turks said they would send air and naval units to the emirate.

Turkey’s push into the region stems largely from economic considerations, particularly access to Africa’s vast mineral wealth that Erdogan sees as vital for building up Turkish power.

In August 2017, Turkey established its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu, the battle-scarred capital of Somalia. Officially, it’s for training Somali forces battling jihadist extremists but with the capacity to train 1,500 troops at a time it could also provide a base for Turkish forces in the unruly region — extending Ankara’s military reach there even further.

Qatar has sought to break out of its isolation by expanded links with Shia Iran, which is using this relationship to exploit the turbulence in the overwhelmingly Sunni Gulf and rattle Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The geopolitical stakes in the Gulf and the Red Sea were raised sharply on June 13, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies launched an assault on the strategic Yemeni port of Hodeidah on the Red Sea.

The UAE has its own strategic objectives for being in Yemen. It supports southern secessionists who seek an independent state that includes the key port of Aden, which UAE-led forces recaptured in January.

These included an entire brigade that mounted an amphibious attack from the UAE’s new base at Assab, Eritrea.

“The Red Sea will likely become a theatre for intensified geopolitical competition between regional and global actors with clashing agendas and growing interests in securing leverage vis-a-vis the Middle East’s more geo-strategically vital waterways,” observed analysts Theodore Karasik and Giorgio Cafiero of Gulf States Analytics.

“Turkey’s entry into the body of water raises new questions for Arab states with high stakes in the Red Sea security environment.”