Trading bases: The Red Sea tinderbox and the maritime economy

Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes expose how actors beyond the great powers can weaponise an interdependent global economy. To help overcome this threat, Europeans should advocate cooperation between the US and China

The liquefied petroleum gas tanker GAZ INTERCEPTOR, flying the Panama flag, is moored off the coast of Cyprus. Limassol, Cyprus, Friday, January 26, 2024. Qatar, one of the largest exporters of liquefied natural gas (LNG), is pushing back delivery dates to Europe due to attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, Bloomberg reported, citing sources. (Photo by Danil Shamkin/NurPhoto)
The liquefied petroleum gas tanker GAZ INTERCEPTOR, flying the Panama flag, is moored off the coast of Cyprus. Limassol, Cyprus, Friday, January 26, 2024
Image by picture alliance / NurPhoto | Danil Shamkin

In 2020, the covid-19 pandemic laid bare the vulnerability of global sea trade to external shocks. A year later, the Suez Canal blockage sounded the alarm on the Red Sea’s role as a crucial chokepoint for that trade. Now, Houthi attacks on the Red Sea chokepoint show how a new form of security threat can wield an outsize impact on the global economy. Debates around the weaponisation of an interdependent economy tend to focus on great power competition. But the Red Sea demonstrates the massive disruptive potential of some geopolitical minnows when it comes to maritime trade.

Diminutive yet disruptive

In 2008 the Red Sea saw a spike in piracy, the most common maritime security threat. Somali seafarers had created a new economy, using small gun boats to commandeer and ransom much larger vessels. The international counter-piracy response was remarkable, in that it garnered support across geopolitical fault lines: Western and Red Sea states coordinated their efforts, and – more surprisingly still – China and Russia worked alongside them in a complimentary fashion. By 2017, Somali piracy had practically vanished. Western naval experts debated whether China’s cooperation might open the door to greater West-China cooperation in the management of the global sea trade – or, conversely, whether the motive was intelligence gathering operation for China.

The Houthis today share the Somali pirates’ use of asymmetric tactics. But the Houthis represent a fundamental shift in the form and gravity of security threat. This is due to the political dimension that informs the Houthis’ aggression: their as yet unstated demands in Yemen and for Israel to end the war in Gaza, but also their deployment as an armed non-state proxy – in this case by Iran.

The Houthis are just one security threat in a Red Sea region that overflows with inter-state and non-state group tensions

More importantly still, Somali piracy and Houthi harassment are symptoms of a Red Sea region that overflows with inter-state tensions and willing proxies. The Houthis’ current campaign thus could presage further disruptions in the region. Understandably, European policymakers are grappling with mounting a military response to the Houthi threat via the new Aspides Mission. But while burden sharing with the US and demonstrating EU military agency constitute laudable motives, real value addition lies elsewhere: addressing the multilayered inter-state rivalry that provides the kindling for the Red Sea geopolitical flashpoint.

Middle powers and the Red Sea tinderbox

Firstly, there is the recurring pattern of rivalries between various Gulf actors (including Egypt and Turkey) that project into an instrumentalisation of Horn of Africa states for strategic purposes. This plays out through competition for naval bases, listening posts, and commercial ports all along the African side of the Red Sea. The 2014 war in Yemen between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government set this dynamic in motion. Saudi Arabia and its allies, principally the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sought staging grounds for sorties into Yemen along the African side of the Red Sea coast. They acquired basing rights in Eritrea, for example, and eyed islands such as Yemen’s Perim for drone and air-based forays.

But Qatar’s (and Turkey’s) conflict with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – the intra-GCC conflict of 2014 – introduced another competitive driver to naval base acquisition. Turkey established a significant military presence in Somalia, gaining Mogadishu port rights in 2014 and completing its largest overseas military base in the country by 2017. That same year, Turkey and Qatar sought to expand their naval presence by developing the port of Suakin in Sudan. The rest of the Gulf states interpreted these moves as escalations in the GCC conflict. At the same time, the UAE’s appetite for naval real estate was not just militarily, but also commercially inspired. Qatar and Turkey, in turn, could be forgiven for misreading commercial Emirati expansion via its para-statal port authority – DP World – into Berbera, Somaliland, as another round of escalation. And, while the intra-GCC conflict resolved in 2017, a new Gulf rivalry soon sprung up between the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Secondly, as political scientist Christopher Clapham has set out, political fragmentation, shifting alliances, and ready recourse to proxy conflict characterises relations between Horn of Africa states. These states’ leaders and non-state groups are apt in first encouraging, and then arbitraging, external engagement to benefit them in their own conflicts. Ethiopia, for instance, relied on Emirati and Turkish weapons to quell its internal war with non-state groups in Tigray. While the Gulf states involve themselves in these dynamics with the greatest vigour, the strategic import of the Red Sea also attracts players from further afield – Russia and China, but also France and the United States, all of which operate naval bases in the Horn of Africa; or in Russia’s case, have designs on a naval base.

Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and most recently the unrecognised independent Somaliland, court the duelling Gulf and other powers du jour,including – in the case of Sudan – Russia. Eritrea, for example, lent its coast to the UAE for the latter’s purposes in Yemen from 2015, but had also long hosted a “listening post” for Iran, then from 2016, for Israel. Its alliance has since pivoted from the UAE to Saudi Arabia. In Sudan, the Bashir regime facilitated illegal Iranian arms transfers to Hamas via Port Sudan, and by 2017 was entertaining Russia’s bid for a naval base at the port while encouraging Turkey’s development of the port at Suakin. Saudi pressure led to Sudan breaking ties with Iran. But these have been revived by one of Sudan’s warring factions in the current civil war, the Sudanese Armed Forces. Iranian drones have since appeared in Sudan.

In short, the pattern of recurring tensions between the Gulf States (including Turkey) that plays out in the Horn of Africa establishes one Red Sea conflict driver. The Iran-Sudan connection illustrates the second: the way external rivalries interact with Horn of Africa states’ fragmented politics. Neither regional mediators nor those from further afield will likely find much joy arresting these conflict dynamics at their source. The critical point for European policymakers to register is their potential to spill over and asphyxiate global trade through the Red Sea.

Great power cooperation

Russia’s interest in a naval base at Port Sudan focused European and US policymakers’ attention on the deeper threat the Red Sea posed. That, combined with China’s base in Djibouti, contributed to Western consensus that a combustible mix was brewing.

The US and European countries may have looked like ideal mediators – able to claim legitimate interests but also demonstrate equidistance. But a rejection of outside powers managing Red Sea affairs proved to be the only unifying driver among the regional hegemons. So, while the EU, member states, and the US explored ways to multilateralise Red Sea management, Saudi Arabia stole a march on them by setting up the Red Sea Council: a forum comprising coastal states aimed at deconflicting potential flash points. That council neatly occupied the mediation space – thwarting any European or US-led efforts – but it also failed to secure participation of all the Red Sea coastal states, underlining the region’s inability to mediate itself.

The role of ‘Red Sea grand administrator’ thus cannot fall to Saudi Arabia; nor can it fall to any other regional power that is involved in the dizzying array of conflicts in the region. This responsibility needs to be taken up by a greater, further removed, but still legitimately interested power – or powers.

In the unipolar era, the US may have been the natural option. But China’s ascendence means the role needs to be shared across Beijing’s and Washington’s shoulders.

The geopolitical landscape, however, has changed since the days of Somali piracy. And China’s cooperation-shy approach to joining US and European efforts to combat the Houthi threat seems to nix the Washington-Beijing option. Here, China’s calculus seems twofold: leaders in Beijing likely assume that the Houthi’s stated motive of targeting Israel’s supporters in solidarity with Gaza will spare its own ships; and China’s support for Gaza in that context plays into its overarching campaign for leadership in the global south.

Nevertheless, the specifics of the Houthi case should not invalidate the potential of cooperation in principle. The real question is whether fraught relations between the two great powers would prevent cooperation on common maritime threats writ large. If the Red Sea can be framed as a global commons, the powers may be able to make an exception.

The EU and its member states have legitimate interests and a role to play in encouraging and supporting such an approach. The EU cannot mediate in the Red Sea alone, but it could make the case to the US and China to join forces in the interest of their, and the world’s, interests. This could act as microcosm for a ‘European third way’ to managing global order, one that seeks accommodation between the US and China and stops Europeans having to make zero-sum choices between one or the other. Investing in a common Red Sea approach would thus serve a dual European purpose: maintaining the critical freedom of global trade in the Red Sea and advancing an alternative model for global order.    

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Africa programme

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