International competition for influence in the Red Sea region has intensified over the past few years, as concerns about its security and stability have grown dramatically. Great powers and trading nations are elbowing each other to gain a foothold in the region. The US maintains its largest African base in Djibouti (Camp Lemonnier), while France, Italy, Japan and others also have a significant military presence there. Beijing has set up a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti.
However, while many nations are seeking to gain a military foothold in the Red Sea region, cooperation between them has been limited due to a lack of effective platforms to manage their competition and direct it toward achieving the best results. There have, however, been effective international partnerships in fighting piracy, arms smuggling and illicit trade in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and off Somali shores. The Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a coalition of 33 nations, is the best-known and has been quite effective through its task forces CTF-150 (maritime security), CTF-151 (counter-piracy) and CTF-152 (Gulf maritime security). There is also the EU’s Operation Atalanta that fights piracy off the coast of Somalia. These efforts are limited by their mandates and geographical scope and need to be expanded to include the Red Sea and new emerging threats.
The attention given to the May 15 inauguration of Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh for a fifth term was indicative of how much the international community values stability in the region. Heads of state and government from neighboring countries and notable emissaries from great powers and others attended the ceremonies in Djibouti. President Guelleh has been in office since 1999, witnessing the country’s rising strategic significance and international and regional competition over influence.
Djibouti’s stability, in sharp contrast to the turmoil in neighboring Somalia and Ethiopia, has contributed to Red Sea security, as has its relative prosperity compared to its neighbors. With about 1 million inhabitants, Djibouti is the Horn of Africa’s smallest country, but it has the highest per capita income. It has a rather modest per capita gross domestic product of just over $3,400, but that is six to eight times more than Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan.
By contrast, regional conflicts, political instability, poverty and a governance deficit in some of the countries overlooking the Red Sea have left many spaces ungoverned, providing opportunities for terrorists, pirates, organized crime gangs and rogue states to take advantage of those gaps and threaten the region’s security.
The Red Sea stretches between two important narrow passageways: Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Suez Canal, through which about 10 percent of world trade and 4 million barrels of oil a day pass. But they also represent possible chokepoints should they be blocked.
Looked at from the Gulf Cooperation Council perspective, there is great urgency to deal with Red Sea security. The most immediate security threats include attacks by drone boats and anti-shipping missiles, sea mines, piracy, terrorism and arms smuggling. They also include human trafficking, drugs and cyberattacks.
Civil wars, political disputes, poverty, and corruption contribute significantly to the lawless state of parts of the Red Sea region. The breakdown in state authority has magnified the threats by creating ungoverned spaces, as has the limited capacity of security forces in a number of Red Sea states.
While the piracy threat has been degraded off Somalia, former pirates now provide protection for illegal fishing boats, while some cooperate with Daesh and other terror groups. Iran has exploited the instability in the region to smuggle weapons and threaten freedom of navigation. Its boats are also among the main beneficiaries of illegal fishing.
Human trafficking has been a key concern in the Red Sea region. For example, almost all illegals who are apprehended in Saudi Arabia come across the Red Sea or the Yemeni border. Traffickers also smuggle children and teenagers from the poorer countries along the Red Sea to Europe and pay local warlords and terrorists to facilitate their trade. Much of the illicit drug trade, which used to go from Asia through Iraq and Syria, now goes through East Africa, run by organized crime gangs and facilitated by terrorist groups, which get some of their funding from such operations.
In sum, these conditions have created formidable collaboration opportunities for organized crime gangs, terrorists and rogue states. And they are getting more sophisticated in how they take advantage of law and order gaps where they exist.
To deal with these multiple and growing threats, there is an urgent need to provide better coordination at the regional and international levels. Last week, the German Berghof Foundation hosted a timely discussion on Red Sea maritime security. From this excellent virtual discussion, it was clear there is great interest on both shores of the Red Sea, as well as internationally, in bolstering Red Sea security in the widest sense. There is also considerable support for a trilateral cooperative framework that includes countries and regional organizations from both Red Sea shores, together with international players. The three groups do not have to agree or work together on all issues, but they need to coordinate their efforts.
Defense cooperation is probably the most urgent. By its nature, some such cooperation can only take place between like-minded nations and co-operable forces. Joint exercises, training, and capacity building should be enhanced. The CMF coalition partners should look into extending their mandate geographically to include the Red Sea and in scope to include new threats such as cyberattacks and human trafficking. Expanding the mandate of the EU’s Operation Atalanta should also be encouraged.
Greater cooperation and knowledge sharing between security forces is needed to fight terrorism, including the training of coast guards, to disrupt terrorist movement and funding and degrade their ability to recruit and radicalize youths.
Trade and investment cooperation is key to addressing some of the root causes of security threats by providing jobs and legitimate livelihoods.
International and regional organizations could provide useful platforms for greater cooperation between Red Sea littoral states, for dialogue between relevant regional and global players, to manage competition, and to harness their capabilities. They should also work to coordinate and enhance trade, investment and aid flows.