Spring 2020

Formation of a new Arab-African council signals the deepening of regional cooperation over waterways

On 6 January 2020, the Council of Arab and African States Bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (the “Council”) was created as a mechanism for improving the security of regional waterways.  This new Arab-African alliance has eight members: Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Jordan and Yemen.

The Council’s formation is a strategic development with regional and global ramifications.  Much of the world relies upon these key shipping routes to connect East and West and the region’s stability is paramount.

Background

The idea of creating a regional organisation to improve State cooperation around the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden dates back to 16 to 17 July 1972, with the first conference of States bordering the Red Sea in Jeddah.  Those States (namely, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Yemen) issued a joint statement affirming their rights to the deep mineral resources of the Red Sea.

Subsequent regional agreements include: (i) a 1974 agreement between Sudan and Saudi Arabia in relation to their joint exploitation of natural resources of the Red Sea; (ii) the 1976 declaration on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, regarding scientific research cooperation on environmental issues; and (iii) the 1982 Regional Convention for the Conservation of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Environment (between parties such as Sudan, Somalia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Djibouti).

Support for the creation of the Council began growing in earnest in 2018.  During that year, Saudi Arabia hosted the Ministerial Meeting of the Red Sea Countries.  This consultative meeting resulted in an agreement between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia to establish an entity for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden States.  The European Union (the “EU”) also promoted the idea of a regional Red Sea body in June 2018.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development – an African trade bloc with eight member States – established a taskforce on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.  The taskforce’s goal was “to study, review and advise” on a common position and strategy to respond to the challenges and opportunities in those regions.  The taskforce concluded that forming a regional council would be a beneficial development.

The Council’s mandate

The Council’s primary goal is to enhance regional coordination and cooperation, in order to deal effectively with any regional risks and challenges.  The eight member States have issued a 12-point agenda pledging to enhance their political, economic, cultural, environmental and security cooperation.  Their closer cooperation would “reduce the risks to which the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are exposed, thereby enhancing the security and safety of international navigation; preventing everything that threatens or endangers them, especially terrorist crimes, its financing and piracy smuggling, cross-border crime and illegal immigration.”

Regional security is a key priority, yet the Foreign Minister for Saudi Arabia does not envision the creation of a military force for the new Council.  He observes that all member States have their own systems of defence and bilateral coordination, which may develop into collective coordination.

 Strategic Implications

The Red Sea, with its coastline of about 5,500 km and encompassing around 1,150 islands, enjoys unique strategic importance for global trade, regional economic growth and the overall stability of the region.  Major shipping routes that transport billions of dollars of goods every year depending on freedom of navigation from the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.  The proximity of oil-rich States in the Arab peninsula also bears paramount significance for commercial endeavours.  Notably, the Council pledges to enhance security and safety of international navigation.

The Council’s oversight also extends to illegal immigration.  Thousands of African migrants travelling the sea route in the Horn of Africa into Yemen, before moving onto Gulf States and beyond into regions such as the EU.

Furthermore, piracy and cross-border crimes are common concerns for regional security arrangements.  While the incidence of piracy off the Somali coast has decreased in recent years, ship seizures and terrorist attacks are a continuing threat for States in the region.

Looking beyond topics on the Council’s agenda, the prominent role of Saudi Arabia in the Council’s formation bears geopolitical significance in itself.  Saudi Arabia hosted the meeting for signing the Council’s Charter in Riyadh.  The Minister of State for African Countries, Ahmed Kattan, has emphasised the State’s support for “international collective efforts aimed at coordination to protect and secure the safety of the [Red Sea] waterway.”

Some security experts have commented that Saudi Arabia may have “stolen a march” on geopolitical rivals in the region, who are competing for influence in the Horn of Africa.  In June 2018, the EU noted that there is a regional “search for influence and strategic assets, together with the growing militarization of the Red Sea coast”.

Both internal pressures in the region and external forces (such as the involvement of foreign players) reinforce both the reason for and the barriers to regional cooperation.  Regional rivalries and the absence of certain States from the Council’s membership (including landlocked African States) may present challenges for the Council and its members.  Indeed, Somaliland has issued a statement refusing to cooperate with the Council, while claiming sovereign rights over 850 kilometres of coastline and waters in the Gulf of Aden.

Conclusion

The Council’s charter is currently being reviewed by its parties’ heads of state, with a future summit planned at an unknown date.  While it is unclear what specific endeavours the Council will engage in, its creation already marks the strengthening and deepening of regional cooperation for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden neighbourhood.