The Brewing Conflict along the Red Sea

, February 1, 2018

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

While international observers are rightfully looking at serious questions in the Middle East like the future of Syria and Iran’s interests in taking over that country, there is a crisis brewing to Israel’s south that has not gotten sufficient attention. I’m speaking about the Red Sea where at least a half a dozen countries are scrambling for influence, seeking bases throughout the area, and positioning themselves for perhaps even a future conflict.

There are four flash points that should be the focus of our attention in the area of the Red Sea. First, the struggle between Egypt and its neighbors over the sources of the Nile River, particularly the sources of the Blue Nile, which runs through Ethiopia.

Second, we have a consistent Iranian effort to gain entry to the Red Sea after having dominated the Persian Gulf.

The third flashpoint which we should look at is what does it mean to have a Turkish entry into the entire area? The Turks have been busy in Somalia and in obtaining access to an island off of Sudan.

And finally, the whole area is part of a great power rivalry we are now seeing in Djibouti virtually every major naval power with a base, all posed to be involved in the Red Sea including China with its first major overseas port.

Sometimes we forget if we look back 50 years that the spark which really ignited the Six-Day War came also from Israel’s south, when Egypt imposed a naval blockade at the Straits of Tiran, closing off Israeli shipping through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. The Red Sea still has the potential of generating conflict in the future. It requires that we be very aware of what is going on there.

The first development that is causing a vast increase in tensions throughout this area is the struggle over the sources of the Nile River. For most of recent history, Egypt was the dominant actor over the Nile and, through various treaties negotiated by the British, the Egyptians also dominated the tributaries of the Nile. But now several things have happened. First, the countries along the White Nile, which goes deep into Africa up to Lake Victoria, in the past were underdeveloped and their water needs were very limited. Now they are insisting on a greater share of water, which will affect the ultimate flow of water to the Nile River and to Egypt.

But far more serious is what’s going on with the other tributary of the Nile known as the Blue Nile. It flows through Ethiopia. There, Ethiopia is planning what is called the “Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, and by damming the Blue Nile, despite all the guarantees that Ethiopia can offer, Egypt is very concerned that its principal source of water for the Nile River may be denied.

While the struggle over the sources of the Nile is transpiring, Iran is seeking positions of strength along the entire Red Sea, from the Suez Canal in the north down to Bab-el-Mandeb, the outlet of the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. Back in the 1990s, the Iranians, in fact, deployed their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Port Sudan, the most important of the Sudanese ports in the Red Sea. Sudan became a conduit for moving Iranian weapons up into Egypt, to the Sinai Peninsula, and ultimately to the Gaza Strip, where they were used by Hamas and other pro-Iranian organizations.

As a result of the Yemen war, which placed Iran and its proxies in conflict with Saudi Arabia and the forces that it supported, Sudan was given a choice – to stay with Iran and continue the supply of weapons to Hamas, or to enter the pro-Saudi camp in the Yemen conflict. Sudan chose Saudi Arabia. It cut diplomatic relations with Iran and kicked the Iranians out of Port Sudan. An unintended side effect of this shift in Sudanese policy was that Israel benefited since the supply line of Hamas from the south was clearly cut.

Was this a permanent change in the policy of Sudan towards Iran and towards various militant organizations exploiting Sudanese territory? Unfortunately, there are indications that Sudan is siding with some other problematic players in the Middle East, including Qatar and Turkey and this might lead to a return to some of the more problematic Sudanese behavior that we saw a number of years ago.

Since that time, Iran has been seeking alternatives to its Sudanese supply line, and one of the countries the Iranians have been active in is Eritrea. But in Eritrea as well, the Saudis have been active, seeking to limit the Iranian presence.

In the critical Bab-el-Mandeb straights, the naval choke point at the bottom of the Red Sea, Iran has been using the Houthi militias, which are its proxies in the Yemen war. And it may get to a point where the Iranians will seek to block the flow of naval traffic through this sensitive point.

While all this has been going on, Turkey has imposed itself as a new factor in the Red Sea and in the Horn of Africa. The Turks have been active in Somalia, where they’ve built a north-south highway and a major military base. More recently, the Turks have leased Suakin Island from Sudan and they intend to build a naval base right in the Red Sea. This was, of course, once an Ottoman fort which allowed Ottoman navies to dominate the Red Sea a long time ago. But, nonetheless, perhaps Turkey is seeking to recover its glories from its Ottoman past.

Of all the nations that are positioning themselves in the Horn of Africa, like Iran, the U.S., Turkey, France, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, careful attention should be given to the presence of China in Djibouti where China has constructed one of its first naval bases at the gateway to the Middle East. Given the interests of all the actors appearing now in the Red Sea, the whole region has become far more combustible than it was in the past. With all the focus on Syria and Iraq in recent years, it may be necessary to give greater attention to the theater of the Red Sea which in the next decade could become a serious source of international conflict.  

Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.