The Indian Ocean is witnessing a surge in naval coalitions, groupings and partnerships. These
have been constituted to address political contestations and respond to balance of power
dynamics. At another level, these grouping have been conducting operations to counter non-
traditional threats and challenge that impact on the safety and security of the international
In a noteworthy development, a regional partnership ‘Council of Arab and African States on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden’ was announced in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in January 2020. This initiative comes in the backdrop of a consensus arrived at the 2019 meeting of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) comprising of Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia where it was decided to implement a common Regional Plan of Action including a proposal to enhance safety and security of international water ways of the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden region. The participants agreed to take decisive steps to counter terrorism, check piracy and smuggling, prevent IUU fishing, stop illegal migration, and respond to other maritime threats and challenges in the key international shipping lane passing through regional waters.
The ‘Council of Arab and African States on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden’ is a welcome development for the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden region and complements a number of similar other structures that are already in operation in the Western Indian Ocean. These emerged after the US launched attacks in Afghanistan in 2001 in support of ‘War on terror’ and 2008 to counter Somali piracy. Some countries had chosen not to join US-led initiatives and preferred to constitute individual task forces such as the Chinese TF 525, EU chose to set up the EUNAVFOR to counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden while India preferring to maintain a warship in the Gulf of Aden on a near continuous basis.
However, some IGAD member states have been at the centre of geopolitical and geostrategic contestation. For instance, Djibouti is home to a variety of military/naval/air facilities of China, France, Japan, UK and the US and these have been set up to support operations in Syria, Yemen, in the Indian Ocean as also against Al Sahbab operating in Horn of Africa.
In Somaliland, the UAE signed a US$ 442 million agreement with the local authorities (Somaliland declared itself independent from Somalia but no country recognizes it) for upgrading the Berbera Port to be run by DP World, a UAE company. It set up a new UAE naval base to facilitate Saudi-led operations in Yemen as also to establish a toehold in Horn of Africa.
Land-locked Ethiopia is also interested in Berbera port and has signed a tripartite agreement with the UAE and Somaliland. Interestingly, both UAE and Ethiopia have signed a 30 years concession for the development and management of the port which has been objected to by Somalia.
After a politico-diplomatic spat with Djibouti which also included cancellation of a port development project by DP World, the UAE concluded a 30-year lease agreement with Eretria in 2018. It obtained rights to ‘ use of the mothballed deep-water port at Assab and the nearby hard- surface Assab airfield, with a 3,500-meter runway capable of landing large transport aircraft including the huge C-17 Globemaster transports flown by the Emirati air force’.
Suakin port in Sudan has been at the centre of political competition involving Qatar and Turkey (deal worth $4bilion) versus Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The latter had supported the military regime in Sudan and provided US$3 billion to Sudan. But Sudan lost favour after it announced neutrality in the ‘Saudi Arabia- UAE- Bahrain-Egypt combine’ against Iran which Riyadh did not appreciate and had imposed a boycott of Qatar in June 2017. Turkey is also engaged in Mogadishu.
The UAE and Qatar are embroiled in contestation after Mogadishu refused to join the Saudi-led blockade’ of Yemen. Qatar has supplied military hardware (68 armored vehicles) to Somalia and the UAE ‘retaliated by shutting down a key hospital it had funded in Somalia’s capital.
Meanwhile, IGAD member states are in the midst of reforms and IGAD Security Sector Program (ISSP) is helping them develop ‘international and regional maritime security related protocols, codes and standards’ to formulate strategies to counter asymmetric threats and challenges, fish piracy and chemical dumping including ‘mutual defense at the sea, and synchronization of policy on mutual defense and security cooperation for the sea and on judicial matters relating to maritime security’. It also involves human resource capacity building through training.
While the above capacity building is a useful approach, the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden is a region where major powers are now “either in possession of a military base or searching for one” and competing to set up build maritime/military infrastructure such as ports and naval bases. These initiatives are sure to add to the insecurities in the region and fuel contestations.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.