Red Sea Rivalries

The Gulf States Are Playing a Dangerous Game in the Horn of Africa

A crane unloads containers from a ship at the port city of Massawa, Eritrea, July 2018. Tiksa Negeri / REUTERS

Gulf states with deep pockets and big appetites are asserting themselves in the Horn of Africa as never before. The flurry of new economic and military investments is reshaping geopolitical dynamics on both sides of the Red Sea, as two formerly distinct regions are fast becoming one. The emergence of a common political and economic arena—astride one of the world’s most valuable trade routes—offers opportunities for development and integration. But it also poses considerable risks. For the fragile African states on the western shores of the Red Sea, new engagement from outside powers has proved both tonic and toxin. 

As the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey seek to expand their influence in the Horn of Africa, they are exporting Middle Eastern rivalries to a region that has plenty of its own. And they aren’t the only outside powers now paying attention to this once sleepy neighborhood. China recently established its first-ever overseas military installation in Djibouti—just six miles from the only U.S. base in Africa—making the Red Sea an emerging theater for great-power competition. At its center is the Bab el Mandeb strait, a narrow shipping corridor through which hundreds of billions of dollars in oil and other exports pass between Europe, Asia, and the Gulf. Immediately across the strait are the shores of Yemen, where one of the world’s most devastating wars—and most fervent proxy battles—continues to rage. 

Historic changes are meanwhile under way across the Horn: Ethiopia is experiencing double-digit economic growth and undergoing its most sweeping political transition since the early 1990s. Eritrea, long ostracized for its human rights record, has been relieved of a decades-old UN sanctions regime. And the two longtime adversaries surprised citizens and observers alike last year by initiating a rapprochement. Somalia’s federal government, buoyed by new regional cooperation, may finally be turning a corner after decades of insecurity. Whether external engagement will help or hinder long-term change in

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