International Order & Conflict
Commentary

Red Sea Multilateralism: Power Politics or Unlocked Potential

Changing regional dynamics could lead the Red Sea Council to increase its security focus or to become a more multidimensional platform.

In January 2020, Saudi Arabia launched the Red Sea Council, a multilateral framework of littoral countries, to cooperate on issues of security and enhance stability in the Red Sea region. In light of changing regional dynamics, the Council may remodel either to further serve the interests of its most powerful members, or to unlock its potential as a forum for discussing a multitude of shared interests on both sides of the Red Sea.

Regional Rivalries

Over the past decade, the Red Sea region and its trafficked waterways have become the scene of intense geopolitical rivalries. For Saudi Arabia, this has among others meant developing strong relations with several countries in the Horn of Africa, most prominently Sudan after the 2018 revolution and Egypt under el-Sisi, to counter the influence of its rivals Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. 

In the shadow of these increased geopolitical ties, Saudi Arabia in 2020 launched the Red Sea Council (formally: Council of Arab and African States bordering Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden). Although originally envisioned by Egypt as an informal, multidimensional forum where a broad range of common issues would be discussed, Saudi Arabia has since 2018 led in its establishment and preferred to model it on the basis of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This included a formal structure and a focus mainly on security issues.  

Power politics 

The Red Sea Council, which consists of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia, was welcomed by many, including the EU, as a framework to address regional stability. Yet others worried it would be used as a proxy for Saudi Arabia to counter its regional rivals and criticized its narrow focus on security issues and its exclusion of key countries in the region, such as Ethiopia, Somaliland, Turkey, and the UAE. This exclusion has also hampered the Council’s capacity to address regional stability.

Ethiopia’s exclusion, under pressure from Egypt, for example limits the options for the Red Sea Council to mitigate the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), though Saudi Arabia in February of this year said it would call for a Council summit to discuss the stalled negotiations. Possibilities for the Council to promote stability by bringing adversaries together is further impeded by the exclusion of major players in the Red Sea that contribute to its militarisation and affect the internal politics of the littoral countries, such as the UAE and Turkey. 

Furthermore, issues discussed within the framework are largely limited to security. Lacking are the topics of environment and climate change, which in the case of both sides of the Red Sea are closely interlinked and form a very real threat in the Red Sea as well as in the countries that surround it.

Possibilities for the Council to promote stability by bringing adversaries together is further impeded by the exclusion of major players in the Red Sea..

Also lacking are trade and cultural exchanges, though these were envisioned by the original Egyptian framework which proposed the establishment of ‘economic and cultural commissions’ in different Red Sea capitals. Cultural exchanges are important when it comes to building trust between the member states, something that is currently lacking. 

Potential of the Council

As international and regional dynamics are changing, so might the nature and role of the Red Sea Council. With the election of Biden in the U.S., Saudi Arabia has revised some of its foreign relations by re-engaging with earlier considered rivals. The resolution of the Gulf Crisis and de-escalation with Turkey are two examples of this that could affect the composition of the Red Sea Council.

Some reports contend that the intra-Gulf rivalry could continue to be played out in the context of the Horn of Africa. In this scenario, Saudi Arabia may increase its bilateral and multilateral (maritime) security cooperation with other members of the Council, making the Red Sea and Horn of Africa one of the main arenas of geopolitical and geo-economic competition. This would mean an increased military focus of the Council. Joint Sudanese Saudi naval exercises in the Red Sea in March of this year may point in this direction.

However, the resolution of the Gulf Crisis and potential further de-escalation between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Turkey on the other, is also an opportunity for the slow de-politicization of the Red Sea Council.

The political realignments could permit the Council to become more inclusive in both its participating countries (different formats are possible here) and the scope of the topics it addresses, as other voices that favour a more multidimensional approach and oppose its use as a proxy for regional rivalries, become stronger. 

the resolution of the Gulf Crisis and potential further de-escalation between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Turkey on the other, is also an opportunity for the slow de-politicization of the Red Sea Council.

Conclusion

The exceptional feature of the Red Sea Council is its linking of the Arab and African sides of the Red Sea that have closely intertwined interests. Yet, hindering its capacity to mitigate regional tensions are power politics and its exclusive nature. The Council could become a platform for increased sustainable cooperation across the Red Sea region by including a more diverse set of topics and a wider scope of participating countries.

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