The Red Sea: A New Front In The Great Game

Geopolitical tensions are growing in the Red Sea between a collection of regional players. The construction of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam has raised water security fears in Egypt, and the longstanding dispute between Egypt and Sudan over ownership of the Halaib Border Triangle have already combined to destabilise regional relations, while Turkey’s recent entry into the theatre adds an entirely new dimension to the conflict. These issues compound the ongoing split between Gulf Cooperation Council members and may potentially open a new front in the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry, creating new flash-points in an already fractious region.

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The Red Sea represents one of the world’s most geopolitically important waterways. All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have bases either planned or already built in the region, in addition to other powers such as Italy and Spain. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also maintain forces locally, while Israel and Iran keep a close surveillance of the Sea. Tensions in the region have risen following a visit to Sudan by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in late 2017, where the two nations announced a lease deal to transfer control of the ancient Sudanese port city of Suakin Island to Turkey.

The Suakin Island issue sparked concerns that the Island would provide Ankara with a strategic enclave in close proximity to Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The decision compounds tensions already plaguing Egypt-Sudan relations, strained by several factors including border disputes, water security, alleged Egyptian support of Darfur rebels, and Sudan’s sheltering of exiled Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members. Egypt-Turkey relations remain similarly strained, following repeated diplomatic spats between the two national leaders, reaching a peak in November of last year, when Egypt’s public prosecutor ordered the detention of 29 people suspected of espionage on behalf of Turkey.

Turkey, meanwhile, has unnerved much of the wider region in recent years with an increasingly confident military and foreign policy posture, and its decision to support Qatar in the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dispute has placed it at geopolitical odds with several regional powers. Ankara’s military support is likely a major factor in Qatar’s decision to resist pressure from Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to meet a list of demands in order to lift the 7-month long blockade of the peninsula nation. Accompanying Erdogan on the Sudan visit was Qatari Chief of Staff Lt.-General Ghanim Bin Shaheen al Ghanim. During the visit, a joint meeting between the commanders-in-chief of the three nations took place. It was later announced that a Qatari military attaché would be posted to Khartoum, which follows close on the heels of joint military exercises on the Red Sea between the two nations.

Fears are growing of an ever-closer alliance between Turkey, Iran, and Qatar, based on their opposition to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE’s regional aspirations. Most worrying for Riyadh, Cairo and and Abu Dhabi is the prospect that a Turkish presence at Suakin Island might provide a foothold in the region for a future Iranian deployment. Such a move would essentially complete Tehran’s strategic encirclement of the Arabian Peninsula.

The situation continues to escalate, and in mid-January, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour announced that Khartoum had increased troop deployments to its border with Eritrea due fears of targeting by “other parties”. Sudan had announced earlier in the month that it would close its border with Eritrea after reports emerged that Egypt had deployed troops to UAE-owned outposts in the country’s Asmara region. The Turkish Security Council then appeared to confirm regional fears, issuing plans to expand the deployment of its armed forces abroad to as many as 60,000 soldiers overseas by 2022. The new deployment plan includes expanding and strengthening existing overseas bases, such as those in Somalia and Qatar, but includes preparations for a potential deployment to Suakin island.

Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia have also been elevated due to Cairo’s fears that the construction of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam will reduce the amount of water available to Egypt from the Nile River. Sudan, meanwhile, insists that Egypt enjoys more than its allocated share of the Nile waters, which provides around 95% of Egyptian fresh water. Due to a series of treaties from 1902, 1906, 1929 and 1959, Egypt enjoys a guarantee of 55 billion cubic metres of water from the river, roughly amounting to a 90% share). The treaties also give Egypt veto power over developments by upstream nations seeking to use it as a source. The British, who occupied Egypt, Sudan and large parts of Africa at the time, wanted to ensure enough water was available to support the Egyptian cotton farms that were essential for the British textile industry.

The increasing Red Sea tensions are likely to represent a major factor driving Egypt’s decision to purchase additional assets for its navy and air force. Cairo has purchased two French helicopter carriers and one frigate, alongside three German submarines as well as warplanes from France and Russia. These purchases represent just one part of a region-wide arms procurement spree that has accompanied soaring tensions.

Overall, the Red Sea is now opening up as a new front in the new Great Game playing out between the major powers of the Middle East. Turkey’s entry into the region raises the stakes in the local security environment, but also presents challenges as part of the wider GCC dispute and the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry.

Suggested reading list on this topic:

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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