By Abdellatif El-Menawy*
The security of the Red Sea has historically been an integral part of Arab national security, because this strategic waterway was the target of all colonial powers. Given the number of Arab states that have coasts on that sea, it is no exaggeration to call it an Arabian lake. The Red Sea has three important waterways: The Suez Canal, the Straits of Tiran and the Strait of Bab El-Mandeb.
Arab coordination in the October 1973 war is a good example of the “Arabian lake” concept, because the blockade of the Strait of Bab El-Mandeb was a painful blow to Israel, turning Eilat — its only Red Sea port — into a ghost town and tightening the siege of the sea.
The blockade was part of a tactical and secret Egyptian plan in which islands controlling the Strait of Bab El-Mandeb were studied, and locations for Egypt’s navy on these islands were carefully chosen to block the strait. The plan was executed in coordination with all other Arab countries bordering the Red Sea. Israel did not know of the plan until Egypt announced the blockade of Bab El-Mandeb to Israeli ships.
The Red Sea remained peaceful until security in Somalia deteriorated as the state could no longer control the warring parties, and for the first time in the region’s history, armed pirates began intercepting international ships crossing Bab El-Mandeb.
Egypt immediately took action along with some European countries and the US, and a joint counterpiracy task force was established. Within a few months, the influence of Somali pirates was curbed and security was relatively restored in Bab El-Mandeb, although surveillance continued in the area to ensure the pirates do not return.
But as the situation deteriorates in Yemen, the Strait of Bab El-Mandeb is exposed again. Yemeni militias were smart enough not to come near Bab El-Mandeb, since they know the international community would have turned against them if they had. The strait will not be secure again until legitimate Yemeni forces take control of the area.
The entry of new parties has begun raising real questions about the Red Sea’s future. I would not be surprised if it turns into a conflict zone in which parties fight over influence or divide influence among countries on its shores.
The latest development is Turkey’s strong and public presence in the Red Sea via its recent bolstering of relations with Sudan. I would not be inclined to accuse the two parties of conspiring against Egypt, but the dispute with Qatar is impacting the sea awfully.
It would be naive to believe what Qatar’s chief of staff said about his visit to Sudan coinciding with that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his chief of staff, so they seized the chance and held a meeting.
The problem does not solely lie in Erdogan’s announcement in Khartoum that Sudan had allocated Suakin Island in the Red Sea to Turkey for rebuilding and administration for an indefinite period of time. Suakin is Sudan’s oldest port, and is mostly used for transporting passengers and goods to the Saudi port of Jeddah. It is also Sudan’s second port after Port Sudan, which is 60 km north of it.
The Ottoman Empire used Suakin Island as a center for its navy in the Red Sea. The port also housed the seat of the Ottoman ruler in the southern Red Sea region between 1821 and 1885. Despite this, Suakin is merely a reference to a more important matter: Erdogan’s statement in Khartoum that there was a secret matter that he did not discuss with Sudan. We must not forget Turkey’s hostility toward the Egyptian regime and its announced aim to overthrow it.
• Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide.
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