The Red Sea area has always attracted attention due it strategic position and role as one of the world's major sea lanes. The region of which it is at the centre continues to be the setting for international conflicts and challenges, however, as recent developments indicate.
Although landlocked, Ethiopia is generally considered to be within the Red Sea region. At the moment there is armed conflict there between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the Tigray regional administration. It looks as if the conflict is turning into a war of attrition which will have repercussions across the region.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali aims to reduce the ethnic dimension of Ethiopian politics and establish more federalism across the whole country. Ethiopia's regions currently enjoy the right to self-government, which allows them, even in theory, to exercise self-determination. As Ali tries to maximise federalism, his opponents accuse him of seeking to establish a dictatorship.
In neighbouring Sudan, the country is going through a fragile transition phase with an alliance between the military, civilians and armed movements which toppled the regime of former President Omar Al-Bashir. Inherited issues to deal with include the deteriorating economic situation. To this must now be added the decision to allow Russia to build a naval base on Sudan's Red Sea coast.
Moscow announced the details last month, defining the mission as "logistical" for a period of 25 years. This timeframe can be extended for another ten years if both parties agree. The base will provide employment for around 300 people servicing a maximum of four ships at any one time. It represents Moscow's return to the African continent and the Red Sea region as Russia seeks a greater international role. An indications of this return was the summit hosted by Vladimir Putin in Sochi for forty African leaders last year. Among those who attended was Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, Chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council.
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Although Khartoum has not confirmed anything about the Russian base — it has been said that the authorities are still discussing the matter — we know that the subject was raised by Al-Bashir when he visited Putin in 2017. He said at the time that it would help to protect himself and his regime from the Americans.
Al-Burhan's follow up of this issue is based on the legacy of Russia-Sudan military cooperation. Moscow has been one of the largest suppliers of weapons to the Sudanese army and, in exchange for the base, is expected to provide it with more weapons and training.
This development may open the door for Russia to play a political role, either within Sudan or simply in the face of Western influence, especially from the US. A motion has been passed by the US House of Representatives asking the administration to support the civilian wing and democratic transition in Sudan, and work on weakening the power of the military and its control over the economy.
It is interesting in this context to note that both Moscow and Beijing have objected to the appointment of a French diplomat to lead the UN mission which will begin its work in Sudan next month. It was reported that this was in response to a request from the military component of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council.
Thus, the transitional phases that Sudan and Ethiopia are going through appear to be open to various possibilities. If they succeed in establishing pluralistic, inclusive democracies which respect human rights, then this will be reflected on the rest of the region. Otherwise, the civil wars and refugee crises will continue.
In 2018 and 2019, nearly 300,000 people in the region were internally displaced due to local conflicts, especially in Yemen and Eritrea. If there is a collapse of the government in Sudan or Ethiopia, where the populations are 40 million and 110 million respectively, then we can expect many more people to be displaced.
This potentially explosive demographic factor is in a region where the population is expected to double from 280 million to about 530 million by 2050. About 43 per cent of these people are under 15 years of age, which makes the region a youthful one with political and social ambitions, including job opportunities, political participation and governments which respect their citizens. Such hopes and aspirations combine elements of anxiety and instability.
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The Trump administration has a declared strategy to reduce US military presence abroad. It has withdrawn its Special Forces from Somalia despite this being a critical period, as the country heads towards presidential elections and an increasing number of activities by Al-Shabaab terrorists linked to Al Qaeda. Ethiopia was helping to confront Al-Shabaab but is now preoccupied with its own issues.
A study by the American Institute of Peace, published in October, called for the Red Sea region to be declared a priority for the US, with a special envoy operating within an approved strategy supported by Congress. The study recommended that one of the objectives of the strategy would be to reduce the negative effects of competition in the region between the Gulf States in the form of military alliances and, sometimes, bases. There are 430 projects by Gulf Cooperation Council member states in the region, with direct investments since 2003 amounting to $18 billion in Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
The Red Sea region has thus become closely linked to the Gulf. With goods worth more than $700 billion passing through the Red Sea annually, it is of strategic importance for global trade that the region is as stable as possible.
Translated from Thenewkhalij, 21 December 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.