Security

New strategic focus places Red Sea corridor as rival to Arabian Gulf

By Hassan al-Obeidi

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A picture taken August 10, 2018, shows Yemeni fishing boats along the Yemeni side of the strategic strait of Bab al-Mandab, which separates the Arabian Peninsula from east Africa. [Karim Sahib/AFP]

The recent evolution and development of the Red Sea corridor have propelled the waterway -- a key transportation and communications node that links the region to the world -- into a formidable rival to the Arabian Gulf, analysts say.

The region has become increasingly important from a commercial, military and political standpoint, in part because it is the main route through which the oil of Iraq and the Arabian Gulf region passes to reach global markets.

In addition to cargo vessels transporting all types of goods, the Red Sea has in more recent years become a corridor for fibre-optic cables, serving as a vital subterranean pathway for the global information highway.

The area also is rich in natural resources, including recently discovered natural gas reserves that are yet to be exploited.

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This picture taken last June 18 shows an aerial view of the Islands of Giftun and Abu Minqar off Egypt's Red Sea coast. [Khaled Desouki/AFP]

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A policeman stands on the pier at the seaport of Egypt's southern Red Sea city of Hurghada last June 19 near the ferry connecting Hurghada to the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula. [Khaled Desouki/AFP]

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This picture taken March 28 shows the Gibraltar-flagged container ship Indian Express and the Panama-flagged container ship Elegant, behind it, near the entrance of the Suez Canal, by Egypt's Red Sea port city of Suez. [Ahmed Hasan/AFP]

Eight countries -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea and Israel -- are connected via the waters of the Red Sea.

These littoral states have engaged in various forms of co-operation, including the Red Sea Forum, and some -- notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- have launched joint development, commercial and sustainable energy projects.

According to the news agency Reuters, as many as 30,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year, heading to and from the Suez Canal via the Red Sea.

Nearly 19,000 ships passed through the canal during 2020, for an average of 51.5 per day, according to the Suez Canal Authority.

New interest in Red Sea

"Apart from the Red Sea's commercial and economic importance, there is another, greater dimension to its importance ... its geopolitical and military significance," said strategic affairs expert Ayman Salama of Cairo University.

Regional and global powers such as Iran and China have been working and planning "to expand their presence and activities" in the Red Sea corridor, Salama said.

China is doing this "through the implementation of commercial projects", he said, while Iran is doing it "through political hegemony and military interference" -- specifically via the Houthis in Yemen.

"Iran recently tried to play a negative role in the Bab al-Mandeb region, and through the Houthis in Yemen," he said.

Iran's proxies, the Houthis, have staged a series of attacks on vessels in the Red Sea using explosives-laden boats and have attacked oil facilities and a civilian airport in Saudi Arabia, in addition to targeting military facilities in the kingdom.

"But to date, [Iran] continues to face problems in achieving its goals in the Red Sea," Salama said.

The Gulf states, particularly the UAE and Qatar, also have a growing strategic interest in securing a foothold in the Red Sea region.

The UAE has been establishing a military presence in southern Yemen, where it has been training the Security Belt Forces, and on the Socotra archipelago.

Qatar has plans to develop a large container port in Sudan, according to a June 2019 report by the Brookings Doha Centre titled "Red Sea rivalries: The Gulf, the Horn and the new geopolitics of the Red Sea".

This fresh international interest in the Red Sea region is a sign of its sharply growing significance, Salama said, noting "the vital role that Red Sea countries have in drawing up the policies and decisions of the region as a whole".

In light of this reality, he added, "there is a need to prevent regional countries, as well as countries from outside the region such as Iran, China and Russia, from extending their influence to this region".

Preserving regional security

The United States could play a part in preserving the regional balance of power and protecting the Red Sea region from tensions or threats, said an official in the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He pointed to the kingdom's successful and ongoing joint military training exercises and co-operation with the United States, as well as with Egypt and the Gulf states.

The Red Sea serves as a major conduit for commercial vessels and for warships taking part in the battle against the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) or implementing a policy of deterrence against Iran's destabilising activities.

It is important that the Red Sea corridor remain free of any political or military vassalage or influence, be it from a regional powers, or a more distant country, such as China or Russia, he said.

One of the reasons for Iran's interference in Yemen, in support of the Houthis, is its ambitions regarding access to the Red Sea, said Al-Rafidain Centre for Strategic Studies researcher Ahmed al-Hamdani.

"Having influence in the Red Sea means having negotiation tools and additional military and commercial options, which is an Iranian aspiration," he said.

He noted that most of the Red Sea littoral states have good relations with the United States, which enables it to play the role of a guarantor, as it has been doing in the Arabian Gulf.

Were it not for the US Navy's 5th fleet, Iran would have wrought havoc in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, disrupting trade and transportation, he said.

Going forward, he said, it will be vital to turn attention to the Red Sea before Iran or others establish a foothold by exploiting the security and economic conditions in littoral states such as Yemen, Eritrea and Sudan.

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