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The Role of the Horn of Africa States in The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden

Dr. Suleiman Walhad
April 23rd, 2022

The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are extremely important for the Horn of Africa States yet, discussion on the peace and security of these maritime waters are only considered with reference to the Arabian region, without due consideration to the importance of these waters and its marine life to the Horn of Africa States.

Generally, the Horn of Africa States have not themselves taken a lead role in matters related to these waters and if there was any involvement, it was mostly reactive to what others were already doing in the region and its waters. We know the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have strategic and economic significance unparalleled anywhere. Many countries that are from beyond the Horn of Africa States covet the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and protect their interests through direct military presence. Djibouti currently hosts so many navies and other forces from different countries. The Saudis and the Emiratis also dominate the other side of the waters and have military presence in Yemen.

The Turks and Qataris are also involved through their presence in Somalia today. Yet the region, despite the individual reactive involvement does not have a homegrown strategic attention to these important waters. Perhaps the last time there was such an interest from the Horn of Africa States, was during the now defunct Somali government before the nineties when the country enjoyed a decent naval force to protect its rights to these waters.

The complexities of the Arabian Gulf involvement in these waters and presence of much more powerful navies from afar complicates matters more for the Horn of Africa States, which does not have a common plan or  common mechanisms to address the competitions coming from near regions and from afar. It is high time the Horn of Africa states outlined and defined a common approach to the side effects coming from the competitions from beyond. It is also perhaps high time that the region outlined new platforms to define and defend their interests in the waters together.  The complex competition over the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is evidenced by the presence of the first Chinese naval base outside China proper in Djibouti and this is further complicated by the presence of the United States Africom in Djibouti as well. The European Union is not far behind as European naval presence date back to the nineteenth century, when France set up base in Djibouti. The Gulf countries of Arabia have also been using their new found wealth to make their presence felt. They now dominate the waters of the Rred Sea and the Gulf of Aden from the Arabian side of these waters through their presence in ports like Mukalla, Aden, Mocha and others. The Horn of Africa States would need to reposition their priorities towards the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden waters so as not to be sidelined like, what has been going on over the past three decades, when much has changed in the region. This would be helpful in the regional peace and security dynamics of the members of the Horn of Africa States.

The Horn of Africa States would need to weigh its own priorities in the face of the misaligned priorities of naval powers from beyond the region. Lately there were disputes among the Arabian Gulf states and this posed a dangerous sense of insecurity to the Horn of Africa countries, which were almost forced to choose among the competing Arabian Gulf countries. This was an unpleasant experience, which should never be repeated. What they have done to Yemen should be clear evidence of their malevolent intentions towards the waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

In 2019, the Red Sea Cooperation Council, an alliance between Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan was created, under the auspices of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Horn of Africa States should not individually be a member of such an alliance, where the weight of members is highly tilted towards one or two  of the bigger members. The members of the Horn of Africa States should go together in any alliance in the form of a block and not as individual members, which would help them, underscore their weight as a region.

The economic zones of the Horn of Africa States in these waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are equally an important element to consider. They would, therefore, need to protect their exclusive economic zones and their sovereign territories against outside interference and working together would appear to be the best and most viable way to defend against non-regional actors exploiting the rich marine life of the region.

It is why consultations among the Horn of Africa States would always be necessary to articulate the priorities, concerns and challenges of the region in relation to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden waters and from thereon develop ways to protecting together the rights of the region. In the past, the members of the Horn of Africa States were wrongly in competition where all members were losers in that wild competition created by the politicians of the time. Now that, that is being replaced by closer co-operation among the members, the dynamics of inter-country competition should not hamper the development of a common approach to addressing the regional peace, security and development needs.

The Arabian Gulf States have recetly been showing a more aggressive approach to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden waters on entering the Horn of Africa States side of the waterway. The UAE has already destroyed the port of Aden and is sitting on other ports on the Yemeni side to ensure that they do not pose an economic burden on the Jebel Ali Free Zone Port of Dubai. They already crossed to Djibouti, which after realizing their malintent, rebuffed them early on. Court cases are underway between the two countries. The UAE has turned its eyes on weak Somalia, where they have signed contracts with regional states under the new federal system of the country. This includes DP World involvement in Berbera port in breakaway Somaliland and Bossaso port in Puntland State. The latter has more problems than the Berbera port.

The competition for the region from other powers are not limited to the US and China or the European Union. The Indians are said to be discussing to have naval presence in Djibouti and so are the Russians. We already mentioned the Turks and the Qataris and the Emiratis and the Saudis. Sometimes, though a sword may have two sharp edges and opportunities may emanate from this presence, but such opportunities can only seriously be achieved, should all the members of the Horn of Africa be working together to protect their collective security and development. Swimming together they would survive in this new scramble for the waters of the region, divided they will all sink!

*DrWalhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at