Opinion| The risks associated with a militarized Red Sea

Hatem Sadek
10 Min Read

The recent “tanker war” in the Red Sea echoes a similar conflict from the mid-1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In that era, President Saddam Hussein’s air forces targeted Iranian assets, leading to Iranian retaliation against Gulf targets and sparking a “tanker war” in those waters. Now, nearly four decades later, history is repeating itself with Iran’s “Houthi” militias attacking tankers in the Red Sea.

The militarization of the Red Sea waters has swiftly become a daunting concern for political and military analysts, given its profound implications for the security of this vital passage, the surrounding nations, and global trade.

Indeed, the Red Sea hosts 19 military bases operated by 16 different countries. Egypt, recognizing its strategic importance, established the Berenice military base. China has also played a role in enhancing and modernizing the Port Sudan Container Terminal.

The ongoing strife in the Gaza Strip influences the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, prompting an increased military presence from the United States and other nations. This deployment aims to thwart Houthi assaults on Israeli and allied vessels. With Houthi attacks now threatening all commercial shipping through the Mediterranean, nations with jeopardized commercial interests are seeking a presence in the area to safeguard their stakes and ensure the safety of this essential maritime route.

The Western military footprint in the Red Sea is longstanding but has recently been legitimized by survival concerns. This augmented presence looms over certain nations. The U.S. decision to bolster its Red Sea operations and establish the “Guardian of Prosperity” naval force on December 19, 2023, with over 20 participating countries, has sparked debate over the scale and intent of this military expansion and whether it is a proportionate response to the Houthi threat.

The American and international military presence in the Red Sea, however, predates the Gaza conflict by decades, initially focusing on halting maritime piracy and countering terrorist threats from Al-Qaeda affiliates.

With the inception of the “Prosperity Guardian” to counter Houthi aggression in the Red Sea, the allied nations have fortified their naval capabilities in the area. The UK dispatched the destroyer Richmond to join the destroyers Diamond and Lancaster, already engaged in Joint Task Force 150 operations, along with three mine-clearing vessels and a support ship from the Royal Fleet. France contributes with two vessels, the multipurpose frigate Langodec and the supply ship Jacques Chevalier.

On 25 January, the French General Staff declared the deployment of a third vessel, the frigate Alsace, to the region. Spain and Italy each have a ship there, while Sri Lanka plans to dispatch a naval vessel, joining three ships under European Union flags supporting the coalition. The EU nations have established the “ASPEDS” force in the Red Sea area, aiming not only to address current security challenges but also to set up a lasting presence, bolster maritime security, and foster wider cooperation with regional countries.

Recently, a contingent of Chinese warships arrived, heightening the crisis’s gravity, given the lack of political or military consensus among the naval fleets. For instance, the American and European forces, including the independent French operation, do not align. Moreover, the Chinese fleet’s arrival, unconcerned with defending U.S. interests, adds to the existing Russian presence in Somalia. This intricate array of fleets navigating the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait hasn’t thwarted Houthi assaults but signifies emerging alliances and spheres of influence.

Furthermore, Iran poses a challenge to the U.S., as Tehran strives to advance its military, technical, and nuclear capabilities, leveraging its network of allied armed factions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen against U.S. and Israeli interests. Iran has exploited the Yemeni conflict to alleviate the pressure of U.S. military presence in the Mediterranean on Lebanese Hezbollah and to dilute U.S. influence in a region far from Lebanon.

The White House’s 2022 strategy recognizes China and Russia as significant threats to U.S. national security and foreign policy, affecting key global influence zones in Europe, East and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, particularly Israel and the Arab Gulf states. While Europe is the primary battleground with Russia, and East and Southeast Asia with China, the Middle East has become a front against both powers. This necessitates bolstering U.S. military strength in strategic locations like the Red Sea, where controlling maritime domains equates to a tightening grip over the international order.

The Western naval presence in the Red Sea could lead to its “militarization,” with complex implications at various levels, extending beyond the region to the global stage. The pronounced Western military activity in the Red Sea also mirrors the Sino-American competition, with Beijing perceiving the conflicts as bolstering U.S. influence to the detriment of China’s growth, which relies on stability and economic factors. Additionally, China is apprehensive about U.S. intentions to escalate Red Sea tensions, aiming to encircle its “Belt and Road” initiative, intersecting the land route with the Maritime Silk Road, and to constrain its sole overseas military base in Djibouti.

The heightened military presence in regional seas and straits could transform these areas into potential conflict zones between the United States and Iran. Such a scenario may arise if the reinforcement of forces and actions against the Houthis provoke Iranian disapproval. Before the Prosperity Alliance was established, Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani cautioned that any international effort to safeguard navigation in the Red Sea would encounter significant challenges. Coupled with Iran’s unveiling of the Basij naval force and the widespread presence of Iranian-supported factions, there is a risk of creating a complex and perilous theater of military operations. This could compromise regional stability and extend unrest to the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas.

Conflicts in the Red Sea could herald a new era marked by regional and global rivalries, affecting the political, economic, and security interests of Arab nations, particularly those bordering the Red Sea.

Stability in the Red Sea is crucial for the economic well-being of Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia, which aims to diversify its economy beyond oil through Vision 2030. This initiative includes strategic projects along the Red Sea, such as the NEOM city and the endeavors of the Red Sea International company, owned by the Public Investment Fund. For Egypt, the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea serve as conduits for the Suez Canal, a vital source of revenue and foreign currency. The situation also impacts Arab locales near the Israeli city of Eilat, including the Jordanian city of Aqaba with its port, and Egyptian cities that are significant cultural and tourist hubs.

Regional stability and maritime security are essential for the success of the economic corridor project initiated in September 2023, connecting India to Europe via the Middle East. As the Red Sea becomes an arena for military tensions and confrontations, there could be adverse effects on the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea, potentially jeopardizing the project.

Considering the fragile security and economic conditions in African nations like Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa region is facing multifaceted and enduring challenges. Some conflicts may even be exploited by international powers with naval forces in the Red Sea.

It is vital to strike a balance between enhancing security and preserving regional stability against the backdrop of the Red Sea’s militarization and its associated risks. Careful decision-making and international collaboration are necessary to mitigate adverse effects and foster cooperation and dialogue among the involved nations.

In conclusion, the growing militarization of the Red Sea and the intensification of conflicts in and around it have widespread and potentially far-reaching consequences. These developments may not only affect regional nations but also have global ramifications, especially concerning the competition among major powers for influence and control over international trade and Red Sea-related projects. With the considerable military capabilities of the various fleets, the absence of direct coordination heightens the risk of conflicts and misunderstandings.

Dr. Hatem Sadek: Professor at Helwan University

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