In Red Sea, GCC’s military power blocks Iranian expansion

Horn of Africa is particularly important because it has a 4,000km coastline that runs from Sudan to Kenya.

Saudi warships are seen during military exercise by members of Royal Navy

2017/02/19 Issue: 94 Page: 2

The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche

Beirut - Moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to expand their military reach across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have long-term objectives, most prominent among them blocking Iranian ad­vances in a region that has become increasingly strategic in the strug­gle between the Arab monarchies and the Islamic Republic.

The drive by the two heavy­weights of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to strengthen their regional security roles has picked up steam as the United States’ scal­ing back of its military commitment as protector of the Arab monarchies in the Gulf has encouraged Iran’s efforts to assert itself as the domi­nant regional power.

This is an ambition that predates the 1979 overthrow of Shah Moham­mad Reza Pahlavi and was sharp­ened after US president George W. Bush crushed Saddam Hussein with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Arab bulwark against Iranian ex­pansion and Iran’s arch-enemy.

In recent years, Iran has sought to establish alliances with Eritrea, Su­dan and other countries in the Red Sea region to enhance its capabili­ties against two of its key enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both have naval access to the Red Sea.

The Yemen war, in which Iran supports the Houthi rebels Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fighting, has provided Tehran with a toehold in the Red Sea.

It could also offer potential naval bases from which it could threaten shipping through the Bab el Man­deb strait, the Red Sea’s southern gateway to the Indian Ocean, as it has long sought to do with the Strait of Hormuz, the only way in and out of the Arabian Gulf.

The Horn of Africa is particularly important because it has a 4,000km coastline that runs from Sudan in the north to Kenya in the south and lies astride the Red Sea and South African cape maritime routes.

GCC fears of Iranian hegemony were sharply heightened in July 2015 with the nuclear agreement between Iran and US-led global powers, which Gulf leaders con­cluded marked a dangerous shift in the Middle East’s balance of power.

Between them, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have either established or are preparing three military bases strategically located around the western shore of the Red Sea and on the Gulf of Aden.

On February 12th, the parliament of Somaliland, which broke away from the fractured Somali republic and declared its independence in 1991, overwhelmingly approved al­lowing the UAE to build a military base at the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden.

The scale of that facility is unclear but the UAE is constructing a major air and naval base in Eritrea at the Red Sea port of Assab under a 2015 agreement, and from which it has already mounted operations in the Yemen, 60km to the east.

Saudi Arabia is finalising an agree­ment for a base in Djibouti with the government of the former French territory, with which Riyadh signed a security pact in 2016.

Djibouti has the added advan­tage of being a member of the Arab League and of the 34-state Saudi-led anti-Iranian “Islamic coalition” announced in December 2015.

The United States operates its main regional counterterrorism base there at a former French For­eign Legion facility. China is build­ing a base there, too, with an eye on its westward expansion into Af­rica and securing vital Indian Ocean trade routes.

There are, however, broader pur­poses behind the military expan­sion by the Gulf Arab states towards a Saudi-led grand alliance of Sunni countries as the United States with­draws.

One is to isolate the Islamic threat from Somalia, where the al-Shabab movement has close ties with Yem­en-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which is deemed by the United States to be one of the terror group’s most dangerous wings.

Another factor is food. “The GCC is interested in north-eastern Africa for its agriculture,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed in a January 3rd analysis.

“From across the Red Sea, Arab states see stretches of arable land that could feed their people as well as the large workforce needed to farm that land. To that end, Saudi Arabia has prioritised agricultural investment in the region.”

Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

As Printed
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar


Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi


Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor

Subscription & Advertising:

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved