The Horn Of Africa States: The Troubled Western Rim Of The Indian Ocean And Red Sea – OpEd


The Horn of Africa States region lies on the western rim of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Both seas were always a center of commerce for thousands of years and even handled spiritual and human travel and transfers as well. Currently this expansive theater encompasses countries of South Asia, Eastern Africa, the Arabian Gulf and many islands from Sri Lanka in the East to Madagascar in the West. It accommodates and houses a population of not less than 3 billion people, of which probably half is from India alone.

It is, indeed, huge and diverse and connects resource-rich Africa to energy rich Arabia and South Asia’s dense population with markets, labor and manufacturing facilities. This highlights its geostrategic importance, which always attracted the powers that be in the world. It is currently a theater of competition between the US-led West and the BRICS Plus economic actors with resource-rich Africa remaining the target of the competition.

There was a time when the Muslim world held sway in the region and the ocean, which was followed by Europeans, mostly the British, the French and the Portuguese, and currently many countries including the United States, European, and Asian countries have pushed it back into the spotlight. The competition on trade and commerce and maritime security are key issues which place the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea on the spotlight and in particular with respect to their connection to the Suez Canal.

India and China which prior to the eighteenth century held sway in international trade but which almost vanished from international commerce for some two centuries are rising again and is probably the main cause of the current unease in many quarters with respect to world affairs. 

Chinese naval presence was probably last seen in the region in the Middle Ages (between 1403 to 1433) when Chinese Naval vessels, under the command of Admiral Zheng He, are reported to have visited the Eastern Coast of Africa only to come back recently to set up base in the Horn of Africa States region, Djibouti, in particular, with presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea as well.

And because of the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea theaters, India is waking up to a new call to build its maritime power. They see the Indian Ocean and the Red sea as its backyard and a great highway through which flows its commerce as well as military.

The Red Sea and the Indian Ocean connect resource-rich Africa to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Europe, and eventually the Americas through the Suez Canal. It is a vital link whose disruption would put the economies and security of many countries at risk including those of China, Japan, South Korea, three large manufacturing countries who depend on the Middle East for their energy, Africa for mineral resources, and Europe and the Americas as markets for their products.

There are two major chokepoints adjacent to the region, namely the Suez Canal and the Bab El Mandab, with the Strait of Hormuz not too far from the region. Any blockage of these chokepoints can cause serious damage to commerce and security of the region, and of course to the major trading parties of the world.

There are other non-commerce activities that also highlight the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea as vitally important and which draws the attention of not only regional parties but also the international community. These involve illegal fishing as the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea are both fish resource rich waters. There are also piracy, human trafficking and drug smuggling that are putting these waters into focus as well.

The Indian Ocean with its offshoot seas, the Red Sea to Europe via the Suez Canal and the Persian/Arabian Gulf is becoming more the Ocean of the center in the place of the Ocean of the South as it was known in the past. 

The key issues of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea are manyfold but can be looked at for the Horn of Africa States region as involving:

  • The region is one of the poorest in the world, which allows others to interfere in its affairs, including terror groups, mercenaries and of course other countries. They all take advantage of the long coast of the region including its major ports and those that are to be built. This also plays a factor in the calculations of many aspiring players in the region. 
  • The strategic location of the region puts it in the map, where military rivalries involving countries like the United States, Russia, China and even regional countries like the UAE and Türkiye are confronting each other.
  • The traditional European presence in the region is not going away either as France, the United Kingdom and Italy continue to play vital roles using their in-depth knowledge of the region.
  • The terror groups, pirates, human traffickers and drug smugglers take advantage of the weak security infrastructures of the region. The region does not, however, seem to be cooperating and on the contrary, appears to be drifting apart as old rivalries seem to being used by interfering foreigners to seed suspicions and political instability in the region.

The Indian Ocean Rim and the Red Sea both represent a complex geostrategic maze for the Horn of Africa States region. On the one side, it is important for world trade and could offer the region the space to connect with the rest of the world. On the other, it brings all the unnecessary attentions of those it should not have attracted in the first place in the form of mercenaries, traffickers of humans, drugs, weapons, and religious terror groups.

It is why and where the region needs to sit back and take stock of its situation, its geo-strategic location and it economic challenges, which it could have handled together as a region instead of the individual countries. The opportunities available but which the region is wasting are enormous and could have enabled the population of the region to live comfortably instead of running away from it as is currently the case.

Dr. Suleiman Walhad

Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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