Analysis - Security Studies

Red Sea Alliance

Containing Threats in a Turbulent Regional Order

Writer : Dr. Shady Abdelwhab

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Red Sea Alliance

Saudi Arabia declared the inauguration of an alliance including six countries on the coast of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Those six countries are Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Jordan, along with Saudi Arabia. The first meeting in Riyadh did not reach a final agreement; therefore, a subsequent meeting in Cairo for technical talks will be held soon. [i]

Despite that, the nature of the new alliance is unclear yet, and whether it is a military or a political grouping, Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, implied that it might include a degree of security cooperation. Al-Jubeir considered the main objective of the alliance is to “stabilize the region,” and to decrease the negative influence of outside powers. [ii] Some analysts even considered this alliance is directed primarily to deter regional rivals namely Iran, Turkey and Qatar.[iii]

Alternative Security Framework!

It appears that the main objective of the “Red Sea alliance” is to establish a political framework among the member countries to reach a consensus on the imminent security threats facing the Red Sea basin.

As mentioned previously, Al-Jubeir did not clarify whether the newly proposed alliance will focus on military cooperation or not. However, this alliance could draw on the existing military alliance, especially the Arab coalition in Yemen, after the prospects of reviving the Yemeni crisis revived during the Stockholm negotiations in December.

Furthermore, November 2018 witnessed military drills among some Arab countries, as UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait took part in a joint training exercise in Egypt. These efforts were considered by analysts as providing the basis of establishing a regional military alliance to counter Iran.[iv] Accordingly, the declaration of the Red sea alliance in the next month may be considered a step in this direction, and an opportunity to enhance the security cooperation among the countries of the Gulf and the red sea countries.

In addition, it is not clear what will be the relationship between the Red Sea alliance and the “Middle East Strategic Alliance” (MESA), commonly known as the Arab NATO, which is suggested by the American administration to counter the Iranian influence. Trump has been pushing for establishing such a military alliance that will include all of the six Arab Gulf States, in addition to US, Egypt and Jordan.

It is evident that the Arab NATO face several challenges to materialize. Such challenges include the ongoing Qatar crisis, as well as Qatar and Oman’s relations with Iran. It could be argued that failure of the Arab NATO alliance could further enhance the prospects of the Red Sea Alliance to be the main security umbrella for the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Three Rival Alliances

The red sea alliance could be perceived from the prism of the existing regional rivalry in the Middle East. Power struggle between rival alliances has been a systematic feature of the Arab regional security system since its inception in 1945. During the fifties and sixties of the 20th century, the Middle East witnessed a power struggle between two camps: conservative monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and socialist republics led by Egypt.[v] The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 began a new era in alliance politics in the Middle East, as the majority of Arab countries supported Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran, whereas Syria was the only country to side with Iran.

Furthermore, the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel opened the way to a new realignment in the Middle East between Moderate bloc led by pro-Western status quo powers– mainly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan– and an anti-Western resistance camp made up of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas camp.[vi]

The unfolding of the “Arab Spring” in several Arab countries in 2011 presented another phase of the regional alliances that marked an increasing role of non-Arab regional powers, notably Iran and Turkey. Both countries attempt to influence the future trajectories of Arab countries that witnessed internal turmoil. Such attempts resulted in the formation of three main alliances across the region as per the following:

1- The Iranian-led alliance: Iran tried to enhance its regional influence in Syria, Yemen and Iraq in the aftermath of the Arab spring through assisting the Assad regime,[vii] in addition to supporting the Iraqi government in its war against ISIS.

Furthermore, Tehran supported armed non-state actors, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen. On September 2014, Ali Reza Zakani, Iranian MP who is close to the Iranian supreme guide Ali Khamenei, said: “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution.” He noted that Sana’a has now become the fourth Arab capital that is on its way to join the Iranian revolution.[viii]

Iran continued its support to the Houthis in Yemen since 2015 and until now by smuggling weapons to the militia through small boats that crosses the Somali coast to the Yemeni coast under the influence of the Houthis.

2- The Qatari – Turkish alliance: This alliance is partially ideological in nature, as both Turkey’s AKP-led regime and Qatar supported Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab Spring.[ix] This is evident in conflict-ridden countries such as Libya and Syria. They also share the same hostile position towards the rule of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, after ousting the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt in 2013.

In the aftermath of the Qatari crisis, Turkey tried unsuccessfully to mediate between Doha and Riyadh. Later on, it started to pursue more aggressive policies towards Saudi Arabia, calling for UN investigation into the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,[x] and even tried to utilize the incident to disrupt the American – Saudi relations.[xi]  

Moreover, Turkey attempted in late 2017 and early 2018 to establish a foothold in the Sudanese Suakin Island, which was perceived negatively by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, according to some analysts.[xii]

3- The Quartet alliance: This alliance include Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt that severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, over its sponsorship of terrorism, and adopting an interventionist foreign policy that deemed threatening to national security of the four countries. The Quartet countries adopts a relatively close foreign policy orientation, especially their skepticism of Muslim Brotherhood, their aim to restore stability and order, and curtail the Iranian – Turkish influence in the region. In this context, the recent “Red Sea alliance” could be regarded as one of the tools utilized by the Arab Quartet to counter the Iranian and Turkish influence in the region.

Countering Terrorist Threats

The Red Sea retains a geostrategic importance to the Saudi Arabia, as an estimated 3.2 million barrels of oil per day pass through it towards Europe, the United States and Asia. Thus, the Red Sea alliance could be seen as a mean to counter the Iranian sponsored terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

The Iranian-backed Houthis tried to disrupt the maritime security near Bab al-Mandab strait, by attempting to attack commercial ships, oil tankers, and warships through the course of war in Yemen.[xiii] On August 6, 2018, Iranian news agency Fars published statements by General Naser Sha'bani, a top official of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in which he noted that Tehran had ordered the Houthi militia in Yemen to attack two Saudi Very Large Crude Carriers, and that it had carried out those orders.[xiv] Despite Iran’s later denial, the fact that this attack came only few hours after Iran’s Major General, Qassem Soleimani, said the Red Sea was no longer safe for US vessels, reveals that Iran is complicit in this attack.[xv]

In addition, Iran has been involved in sponsoring Al-Shabab terrorist organization, affiliated to Al Qaeda, according to a UN report.[xvi] Various analysts argued that Al-Shabab has been a strong ally of “Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP) in Yemen, and both organizations planned joint operations outside Somalia.[xvii]

Finally, it could be argued that the Red Sea alliance is a clear indication that the Arab countries of the Red Sea are actively developing their political cooperation. It may further pave the way, in a later stage, for security and military cooperation to curtail the threats emanating from terrorist organizations, the Iranian influence over Bab al Mandeb strait, along with the Turkish active role in the region.


[i]) Saudi Arabia Announces New Political Bloc for Red Sea, Gulf of Aden States, Asharq Al-Awsat, December 12, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2QZu8ho

[ii]) Ibid.

[iii]) Stephen Kalin, Saudi Arabia seeks new political bloc in strategic Red Sea region, Reuters, December 12, 2018, accessible at: https://reut.rs/2PD18Yp

[iv]) UAE and Saudi join major Arab military drills in Egypt, The National, November 4, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2Qk0pMS

[v]) Nabeel A. Khoury, The Arab Cold War revisited: The regional impact of the Arab Uprising, Middle East Policy, Vol. XX, no. 2, summer 2013, p. 73.

[vi]) Erik Mohns and André Bank, Syrian Revolt Fallout: End of the Resistance Axis?, Middle East Policy Council, accessible at: https://goo.gl/mSJckZ

[vii]) Edward Wastnidge, Iran and Syria: An Enduring Axis, Middle East Policy, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Summer 2017, p. 148.

[viii]) Saudi Arabia and the Yemen conflict, April 2017, accessible at: https://goo.gl/Sv4y3M  

[ix]) Curtis R. Ryan, Regime security and shifting alliances in the Middle East, Project on Middle East political science, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2Pmi05Q

[x]) Turkey says in talks with U.N. about Khashoggi investigation, Reuters, December 11, 2018, accessible at: https://reut.rs/2zZaw3A

[xi]) Parikshit Khatana, Khashoggi Affair: An Opportunity at Erdogan’s Door?, International Policy Digest, November 30, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2BoBxNF

[xii]) Theodore Karasik and Giorgio Cafiero, Turkey's move into the Red Sea unsettles Egypt, Middle East Institute, January 17, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2rM6p6t

[xiii]) Rania El Gamal, Saudi Arabia halts oil exports in Red Sea lane after Houthi attacks, Reuters, July 25, 2018, accessible at: https://reut.rs/2SNkoUN

[xiv]) Statements by Top IRGC Official Gen. Sha'bani Published By Fars News Agency: 'We Told The Yemenis To Attack The Two Saudi Tankers, And They Attacked', Memri, Special Dispatch No.7612, August 7, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2Mdxg7V

[xv]) Panic in Iran over Attack on Two Saudi Oil Carriers, Asharq Al-Awsat, August 8, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2MFc4Us

[xvi]) Michelle Nichols, Iran is new illicit transit point for Somali charcoal, Reuters, October 9, 2018, accessible at: https://reut.rs/2yqTklR

[xvii]) Maseh Zarif, Terror Partnership: AQAP and Shabaab, Critical Threats, July 02, 2011, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2zTSJL1



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