A quick look at the map shows why the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea have been so important historically. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Ottoman, French and British empires understood the geostrategic stakes. The region was critical for global maritime trade even before the Suez Canal made it possible to sail between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.
Today, China and the United States are as interested in gaining a foothold in this region as the imperial powers of the past were. However, this rivalry for supremacy is only part of a more complex picture. To better understand what’s going on requires three distinct layers of analysis – of local, regional and global power politics.
In the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa area, the two big players are Ethiopia and Egypt. Each has a large population of more than 100 million, tremendous governance challenges and diverging economic interests. The main bone of contention between them is the $4.5 billion hydroelectric dam Ethiopia is constructing on the Nile. Cairo fears the project will cut into its already diminishing water supplies and jeopardize the livelihood of tens of millions of Egyptians.
Ethiopia’s young leader, Abiy Ahmed, is a reformer. He is already a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to him last year for resolving his country’s long conflict with Eritrea. But he is in no mood to compromise over the ambitious megaproject on the Nile. With uncharacteristic belligerence, Abiy recently declared he would get millions “ready for war” with Egypt if necessary. Tension between the two countries is escalating. President Donald Trump – a leader not known for his diplomatic skills – has assumed the unlikely role of mediator between Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Abiy, but with no success so far.
Other nations in the region have their own share of problems with governance and security. Sudan is facing not only a difficult transition from military autocracy to civilian rule, but also multiple small-scale local civil wars within its vast territory. Somalia has proved incapable of curbing the growing terrorist threat posed by Al Shabab. The region is also mired in all the additional problems that come with an overwhelmingly youthful population, high unemployment and no clear prospect for economic growth. It all makes the prospect for security, good governance and economic cooperation look very bleak.
At a wider regional level, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea are home to a growing rivalry between Middle East players. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in the last decade used their wealth to significantly increase their investments. Turkey has also been very active in Somalia and Sudan in the last 10 years, playing up its role as the self-declared heir to the Ottoman empire as well as its economic and geostrategic ties to the region. Not surprisingly, this Turkish neo-imperialism has proved irritating to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who both consider the region to be within their sphere of influence.
The regional fault lines deepened considerably in 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt banded together against Qatar and Turkey. In the Horn, the Arabian Gulf crisis had ramifications for Somalia, where the government sought to remain neutral but ended up siding with Qatar and Turkey. As a result, Somalia not only lost financial support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia but also had to watch investment from those two countries flow into the breakaway region of Somaliland.
In Sudan, the new regime could easily find itself caught between several competing interests from the Gulf states and Turkey. What is certain is that the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa are emerging as an arena where competing players in the Middle East battle it out for regional supremacy.
Finally, there is the global competition between the likes of the US and China, all seeking a commercial and military presence in the region. The competition for influence in Djibouti, a country with fewer than one million people, a GDP below $1.8 billion and almost no natural resources is the clearest illustration of this emerging scenario.
China recently established its first-ever overseas military installation in Djibouti, less than 10 kilometers from the only US base in Africa. As a result, the Chinese navy now has a presence in one of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world, the Bab Al Mandab strait, through which an estimated 15 to 20 percent of global trade passes every year. The scene is set for a new version of the “Great Game” between superpowers.
Whether it is the struggle for water between Ethiopia and Egypt, or geopolitical squabbling between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, or China and the United States scrabbling for influence over global maritime trade, the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region is facing a multilayered contest.
For a region with weak institutions, geostrategic importance can be a mixed blessing. Ultimately, however, it will be the countries of that region – Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and Somalia – and the competence or otherwise of their governments that will determine whether becoming relevant is a benefit or a curse.
Omer Taspinar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.