Africa’s role in the scramble for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden

The first ministerial-level meeting of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) on the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region, planned for February 2020, was cancelled for undisclosed reasons. The meeting was expected to define Africa’s priorities and interests in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region, and chart the way forward for its engagement.

The AU is the only regional organisation that can bring together all African countries with a stake in this region to address the trans-regional peace and security dynamics that directly affect them.

The AU’s responses to these political and security dynamics have thus far been reactive

Despite this unique position, the AU’s responses to these political and security dynamics have thus far been reactive. Meanwhile, non-African powers have developed foreign policies specific to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region, coveted for its unparalleled geopolitical, strategic and economic significance. These countries, moreover, protect their political and economic interests through their military presence in the area.

As regional competition for influence continues, Africa will remain entangled in the trans-regional security complex of the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. The AU has the potential to provide a mechanism that enables African countries to withstand the destabilising effects of such competition. It can also provide a platform for Africans to define their priorities and set the agenda for trans-regional cooperation.

If the AU is to become a viable multilateral platform in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region, however, it has to reposition itself so as not to be sidelined in the response to the regional peace and security dynamics that affect its member states.

Articulating African interests

The contest over leadership and dominance among global powers has resulted in competing visions and misaligned priorities for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region.

While the interests of the United States (US), European Union (EU) and China, as well as competition among Gulf countries, have been well documented, the interests of relevant African states tend to be divergent and less articulated, at best.

The interests of relevant African states tend to be divergent and less articulated, at best

African countries bordering the Red Sea (including Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti) are deeply involved in the Gulf dispute. Most of them have sided with the Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates (UAE) alliance in one way or another. As a result they have banned Iran, Qatar and Turkey from using their airspace, as well as sea routes and ports in their territorial waters.

The nuance in the priorities of African littoral states is also worth noting, beyond Gulf dynamics. They are increasingly driven by a sense of insecurity created by the growing presence of extra-regional powers, and the resultant competition.

African littoral states are trying to protect their exclusive economic zones and their sovereign territories against outside interference. This is one of the reasons they formed the Red Sea Cooperation Council – an alliance between Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan – in 2019.

Littoral states emphasise that they are the guarantors of the safety and protection of vessels passing through the Red Sea

The council has defined these littoral states as the ‘primary stakeholders in the Red Sea region’, highlighting the need for a distinction between the right of passage and their sovereignty over their coastal regions. Littoral states further emphasise that they are the guarantors of the safety and protection of vessels passing through the Red Sea. They reject arguments made by other actors such as the EU, which considers its role in combating piracy as a justification for having a military presence in the region.

Landlocked African countries also concerned

Meanwhile the primary interest of landlocked countries in the region such as Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda is to secure access to the sea through littoral states for international trade.

These countries would like to be involved in any initiative regarding the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region, as they see themselves as primary stakeholders that would be directly affected by any such collective initiatives. 

Somalia’s priorities in the Gulf of Aden, meanwhile, include halting illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste in its waters, as well as preventing the illegal trade in weapons. This is hampered by the tension between the central government and the de facto state of Somaliland.

A trans-regional cooperation framework

So far there is no multilateral cooperation framework for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region that balances trans-regional competing priorities and addresses common challenges.

In lieu of a multilateral forum, organisations such as the United Nations (UN), EU, AU and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), as well as several countries, have appointed special envoys for the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region.

The AU is spearheading an initiative under the auspices of the AU High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan, South Sudan and the Horn of Africa

The AU is spearheading an initiative under the auspices of the AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) for Sudan, South Sudan and the Horn of Africa, which could bring together ‘the states of the Red Sea area, the Arabian Peninsula and other concerned international stakeholders’ to reach a consensus on ‘a holistic approach to the challenges facing the region’.

Since 2019 the AUHIP, alongside IGAD and the UN, has held consultations with stakeholders in Somalia, Uganda, the UAE, Qatar and Egypt. The consultations are expected to help stakeholders articulate their priorities, concerns and challenges in relation to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region, and develop the principles of engagement. A number of research findings are also expected to complement the consultations, which will be presented to the PSC.

Challenges facing an AU-led forum

While the opportunities that stem from the creation of such a forum are evident, the AU’s Red Sea and Gulf of Aden initiative faces a number of challenges.  

The major challenge will be achieving consensus among trans-regional actors that have competing visions for the region, as well as African countries that are themselves embroiled in complex intra-regional political dynamics.

Another challenge is defining the membership of such a forum. While the AUHIP’s mandate has called for it to engage stakeholders in the ‘Red Sea area, the Arabian Peninsula and other concerned international stakeholders’, most littoral states, including those on the African coast, are already members of the Red Sea Cooperation Council. They have been sceptical about the involvement of non-littoral states in defining priorities for the Red Sea region, which they consider to be under their jurisdiction.

Most littoral states, including those on the African coast, are already members of the Red Sea Cooperation Council

The third challenge is convincing African states, especially in the Horn of Africa, of the relevance of a multilateral forum organised by the AU. Increasingly these states have sidelined the AU, as well as the UN and IGAD, instead opting for bilateral and trilateral cooperation frameworks. Examples are the Ethiopia–Eritrea rapprochement and associated agreements between Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Other countries have also opted to engage non-regional actors in resolving disputes, such as the Somalia–Kenya dispute over their maritime border, and the Ethiopia–Egypt dispute over the use of Nile waters.

If the AU is to successfully form a holistic multilateral cooperation framework for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in collaboration with IGAD and the UN, it will have to overcome these political challenges and develop a consensus-based action plan that amplifies African interests and address common concerns.

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