The Red Sea Clog
The geographical value of the Red Sea – for being the shortest sea lane that connects the Orient to Europe and the Americas – also made the region it lays in, a vital commodity for imperial contenders in the colonial era and a chessboard for political influence later in the Cold War era.
Today apart from other trade, 4 million barrels of oil pass the Red Sea every day – first crossing the Bab-al-Mandab choke-point and then the narrow Suez Canal.
In the colonial times, Imperial Colonizers made sure that all the land on both sides of the Red Sea was under their influence. So, at the demise of the Ottomans, all land except for the Kingdom of the Saud, from Yemen to Palestine and from Somalia to Egypt was colonized.
When, at the dawn of the 20th Century, the colonials were forced to leave, they made sure that the newly freed states along the Red Sea would not become strong enough to manipulate the Red Sea trade to the disadvantage of their ex-masters.
So tiny Djibouti was carved apart of its parent state Somalia; Somalia’s Ogden region was allotted to Ethiopia and more Somali area was granted to Kenya as the Kenyan North Frontier District. Eritrea was carved in a way as to entirely cut the vast state of Ethiopia from the coast. As a result of these redrawing the region has yet to find peace and stability to this day. Since its independence in 1960, Somalia has pursued its dream of Greater-Somalia – and this genuine aspiration of the ethnic Somali people to unite their people into one land, has been deemed as a threat of invasion by Ethiopia and Kenya, who have in turn partaken in the instability and disunity of Somalia from time to time.
Likewise Ethiopia has been at war-footing with Eretria since its independence from Britain in 1962. In spite constant battles, Eritrea remained as an Ethiopian province until 1993, when it freed itself after decades of guerilla warfare with the Ethiopian forces. As the tug-of-war continues, 90% of Ethiopia’s trade that used to pass through Eritrea’s port 20 years ago, now passes through the Port of Djibouti.
Ethiopia and Somalia have been a theater for influence and proxy in the Cold War. Since their independence Ethiopia was predominantly under US influence, whereas Somalia was in the Soviet camp. By 1972 the Soviets had developed naval support facilities in Somalia and in return the Soviets supplied the Somalis with military equipment and training. Soon the military might of Somalia out-powered that of Ethiopia. Though the Soviets cherished their relations with Somalia but they were also weary of Somalia’s joining the Arab League which was tilted towards the West. This was the reason why, when the US backed off in its support for the Ethiopians, the Soviets immediately filled the gap. The US was weary of Ethiopia’s intent over Eritrea and did not want them to have a decisive victory over Eritrea – as, small, weak states lining the Red Sea would be easier to manage rather than a large Ethiopia, with a long coastline on the Red Sea.
In 1977, the Russians announced a major arms package for the Ethiopians worth 400 million dollars. This brought Somalia at the point where it saw this, as the only time it could retake its lost regions from Ethiopia and Kenya – the only time when it had a military superiority over the other two, because with Russia’s new embrace of Ethiopia, soon Ethiopia would be laced with the same military equipment that had given Somalia the upper hand – hence the Somali-Ethiopian War 1977-78.
The interesting thing was that as the Soviets were turning towards Ethiopia, the US, Britain and France did signal their intent to come to Somalia’s aid but ditched it as the war proceeded. As the Soviets increased heavy airlifts and large-scale sealift of armaments to Ethiopia, the other side declared it would not provide Somalia any weapons at all. After this war, constant UN and US intervention in Somalia have ensured a balkanized and volatile Somalia with no central government having any real power.
Djibouti got independence from France in 1977. The tiny country is located at the tip off the Bab al-Mandab strait – a geo-strategic location – one that every big power wants to secure so that its trade would glide smoothly over the waters. Not to much surprise, America, China, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, and Saudi Arabia each are having a military base in this tiny country or building one. Being resource-scarce, Djibouti is totally reliant on rents acquired by leasing out bases to foreigners; the US pays $63 million annually to lease the base, while the Chinese is paying $20 million a year in addition to the billions they are investing in construction of a railway, a port, an industrial park, and banks – this also puts Djibouti in dangerous balancing act between powers with conflicting interests.
The US built its base Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti after 9/11 in the pretext of combating terrorist threats in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Since then the US has intervened in these states politically and militarily with targeted strikes and missions – the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki via drone strike in Yemen is just one of many infamous examples.
Eritrea has a similar story – in 2012, Satellite Imagery showed that both Israel & Iran have set up military bases in Eritrea. By 2017, US, UAE, Egypt & Russia have all acquired bases in Eritrea. These bases are not only the major source of revenue but also blockade Ethiopia’s intention over Eritrea. Being friends of superpowers has also emboldened Eritrea in committing crimes against its own people – UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea has recently reported that the government is committing grave crimes in order to control the population, “crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic campaign against the civilian population” – crimes that the Eritrean authority blatantly deny.
These persecutions have led the masses to seek refuge in neighboring states – in 2015, the UN Refugee Agency counted 474,296 refugees worldwide from Eritrea, 10% of the country’s population of 5 million. Many of these refugees that ended up in Israel, were used there at very low wages and denied refugee status. After a stay of 5 to 7 years, Israel would arrange to traffic them along with illegal weapons in illicit arms deals with governments in Uganda and Rawanda – where again they would stay without any status at all.
Egypt and Sudan are two large states on the Red Sea’s western coast. At the time when Gamal Abdel Nasser came into power, overthrowing the British-backed monarchy, the Arab world was soaked in the fervor of Arab Unity and there were some strong elements in Sudan and Egypt that wanted the two states to combine as one – even more so, Syria, Iraq and Yemen were ready to make a single Arab state under Nasser. This was seen by the West and especially by Israel as grave threat to their interests in the Red Sea Region.
Right from the year 1956, when Sudan found its independence Britain and friends started funding Sudan’s Umma Party for opposition against Nasser and the First Sudan Civil War (1955-72) had unfolded in South Sudan, even before Sudan’s independence. This was led by the AnyaNya rebels. From 1963 to 1972, Israel constantly provided weapons to the AnyaNya, the reason was simple – Israel faced existential threat from the Arab World, who had waged wars against it since the day of its inception – a united Arab world would only mean impending death for Israel. Egypt, under Nasser was already a threat, surely an Egypt plus Sudan would become an unsurmountable power on the Red Sea, making Israel’s survival impossible. Constant insurgency in the South eventuated in the creation of South Sudan in 2011, but this did not end the fighting, rebel groups aided by different foreign friends, are still fighting in South Sudan. Another civil is going on in Darfur, in Sudan, since 2003. All this scenario points to the fact that some unseen forces want to keep Sudan in a continuous war-situation and want to keep on balkanizing Sudan.
After Nasser’s demise Egypt slowly moved into the US camp, thus changing its role from a staunch enemy to a pillar of support. Egypt’s control over the Suez Canal could potentially make it the master over world trade but coming out of colonial legacy and entering 20th century neocolonial hegemonic methods of the US and its allies, has never allowed Egypt to reap the possible profits of being at such a choke point of world trade.
On the eastern coast of the Red Sea lie only two states, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. North Yemen was under the Shite Moutawakel Iman’s Kingdom since the demise of the Ottomans in 1918, but South Yemen, mostly Sunni, stayed under the British till 1967. The Saudi Kingdom was aligned with the Imams, and later when there was a joint government with Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi Shia of the Houthi clan as President and Ali Salim al-Baidh from the south as vice-President, the Saudis were happy with them too.
Troubles began when, after 9/11 Al Qaida swiftly started taking root in south Yemen and Saleh, in compliance with US and the Saudis, allowed Wahabi text to be preached in schools. With Saudis at his back, Saleh started suppressing Houthi elements that believed in the return of Houthi Imamate in the country. In the Arab Spring, the people came out against Saleh, who had to flee the country, resulting in an on-going war between north and south Yemen and chaos and ruins for the already poverty-stricken people of Yemen. All this time, British MI-6 and US CIA have become stronger and stronger in Yemen, making political change via their drones and target assassinations, and via intensifying the north/south divide with the help of Al Qaida elements in the country.
This whole backdrop shows clearly, how the West has made no compromise in the Red Sea region in terms of friends and foes – if you’re not a friend, you have no right to live in peace along the Red Sea Coast. Moreover, the Red Sea, with all its military bases, has become more and more war-ready – clogging the Red Sea chessboard tighter and tighter between contenders.
With the present scenario in place, wherein Sudan, Somalia and Yemen move towards balkanization (these 3 states are among world’s nations most proliferated with illegal small-arms used in rebel-warfare), and friends like Eritrea, Djibouti and Saudi Arabia are increasingly becoming militarized – war impends upon these people of the Red Sea, within an already war-stricken Middle East – and we the global community, in our slumber, slack upon realities of the Red Sea.
Author is geopolitical analyst and tweets at @aneelashahzad.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.