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The double-edged sword of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Council for the Horn


EDITORIAL - Saudi Arabia this week cemented its idea of having an African-Arabian bloc meant to secure the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, providing a corridor for the safe movement of goods.

Known as the Council of Arab and African States for the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, eight countries bordering this region published the formative charter for a bloc that could work for or against the Horn of Africa.

But the meeting called by Saudi King Salman indicated the countries were joining forces to cooperate against common challenges and enhance economic integration.

According to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah, the idea was to prevent challenges affecting the Middle East and the Horn of Africa from affecting the needed transportation in the seas.

"It's certainly a very dangerous moment and we have to be conscious of the risks and dangers not just to the region but to wider global security,” he told reporters in Riyadh, referring to the tensions in the Middle East.

“We hope that all actors take all the steps necessary to prevent any further escalation and any provocation," he added.

The Minister was talking about the dangers in the Red Sea and the Gulf but was directly referring to the escalating tensions between Iran and the US, following Washington’s assassination of top Iranian Commander Qasem Soleimani.

Iran had threatened revenge, but the actual threat was such that it often worked through proxies such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Could the issue rise beyond the two countries? Everyone from Saudi Arabia to Turkey to Iraq was calling for de-escalation.

So how important is this Council, formed amid the chaos in the Middle East?

Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia all agreed to tackle what they called key threats in the region such as piracy, smuggling and other threats in the seas that are key international shipping routes that include attacks on vessels to settle regional scores.

The waters of the Red Sea as considered the world’s most important shipping route for goods between Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Covering some 178,000 square miles in area, the waters are linked to the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and hence connecting hundreds of shipping lines meant to deliver goods in time.

“It is of high strategic and geopolitical importance to global shipping and commerce,” said Nuur Mohamud Sheekh, a Political advisor at regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). IGAD members include Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea.

“That is why it is necessary to provide an economic strategy for investment and development cooperation between countries that share and use the waterway and other countries which share an economic interest,” he added referring to South Sudan and Ethiopia who are landlocked.

With Saudi’s financial muscle and geopolitical clout, observers say it could help poorer nations like Somalia and Eritrea protect their sea resources against illegal fishing for example.

Supporters of the collaboration cite fruits from another coalition that started in 2010 to fight sea piracy off the coast of Somalia when Mogadishu’s government was nascent and had no security institutions.

Bringing together some 60 countries from Western, Horn of Africa and Western Asian nations have, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), have worked to arrest, prosecute and deter pirates, bringing down the cost of piracy to regional economies from the initial $7 billion to $1.4 billion, according to CGPCS.

The pirate incidents are almost nil today, dropping by as many as 450 per year ten years ago, according to figures from the EU Naval Forces that participate in an anti-piracy war.

But piracy thrived because of the absence of institutions in Somalia, not the presence of them. In fact, one study showed that pirates ventured into the sea to fight illegal fishing boats and that ransom demands were an accidental fruit for them. Yet now that Somalia’s government is stronger, the threats in the waters of the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden are different, albeit urgent.

When Saudi Arabia announced the idea of the coalition in December 2018, IGAD was also establishing a task force to help determine a common position for members in the Red Sea. Some experts think Riyadh could be determined to win allies, as it competes against regional rivals Iran and Turkey.

“The Saudi-led coalition wants to control the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean routes as there is tension between Iran and the US. If that conflict continues, then the Middle East, or to some extent the Persian Gulf will become unsafe,” Dr. Abdiwahab Shiekh Abdisamad, a Horn of Africa commentator in Nairobi said.

“It will help Saudis, no the Horn of Africa region,” he argued referring to the coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemeni which includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE and often ropes in Horn of Africa countries.

The Houthis are supported by Iranians and though the conflict is currently paused on ceasefire, observers fear it could erupt again depending on how the Iranian-US tiff goes.

Somali Senator Ilyas Hassan saw his country’s entry into the Council as beneficial to Saudi Arabia, which has always rivaled Qatar for influence in Mogadishu. “Somalia may be working to become an ally of Saudis. And I don’t think it will help Somalia,” he said.

“Because there is a competition between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for allies in the region.” Somali President Mohamed Farmaajo was on Friday expected in Asmara Ethiopia at the invitation of his host Isaias Afwerki.

As his first trip to Asmara since 2018, the two leaders were expected to discuss the impact of the Council’s formation this week, with some commentators saying Eritrea may be Saudi Arabia’s emissary to win over Mogadishu.

That, on the overall, could suggest external control on regional issues, experts said.

Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru, an Ethiopian scholar of peace and security, and governance, strategy, and management said the Council signaled another actor coming to dominate the Horn of Africa scene.

“Extra-regional actors with strategically adversarial aims have competed and gained upper hand in the Red Sea,” he tweeted on Wednesday.

“Rivalry among regional players around transboundary resources have increased, significantly undermining the sovereignty of countries.”

The Council’s formation came as IGAD was expected to publicize its position on the Red Sea later this year. But Sheikh said the Saudi initiative does not contradict IGAD.

“The IGAD members of the Saudi initiative (also called the Red Sea Council) will act as a bridge to help harmoniSe a common position in the best interest of both,” he argued.

“In actual fact, there are only two initiatives/platforms. The IGAD region Task Force & the Saudi-led initiative. Three of the Saudi members are also IGAD member states. The Heads of State Summit of 29 Nov 2019 directed the Task Force to work closely with the Saudi initiative.”

Meanwhile, the Foreign Minister of Somalia's northern breakaway region of Somalia Yasin Haji Mohamud was this week rubbishing the Council, saying his region will not accept external controls.

Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991, but has yet to be recognized internationally as a sovereign state. As such, it is still seen as part of Somalia, even though it runs own government, the judicial system, central bank, and currency.


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