The Red Sea Becomes a Center of the Middle East Conflict

June 26, 2018 | Oded Eran and Yoel Guzansky
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In recent years, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have established military bases on the Horn of Africa, while Qatar has gained rights to use the port on the Sudanese island of Suakin. On the other side of the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies are fighting a bloody proxy war with Iran in Yemen. Oded Eran and Yoel Guzansky explain the ramifications of these developments for Israel and the Middle East more broadly:

Israel has a clear interest in ensuring that the Arab coalition in Yemen has the upper hand, as the Iranian Quds Force and Hizballah contingents in Yemen pose a threat to Israeli interests and [even] to maritime traffic to and from Israel. [Iran] could also turn Yemen into an intermediate stop for smuggling to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, [a role now played by] Sudan. According to foreign sources, Israel also has a military presence in Eritrea and intelligence access to the Yemeni arena. In the past, the [Iran-backed] Houthi rebels have threatened to strike at these Israeli installations.

The Horn of Africa and Red Sea region has [also] witnessed increased competition among Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey. All of these countries are striving to consolidate their presence in African states—in some cases failed states—in order to gain access to distant arenas and to project power far beyond their borders. As a result, many actors, some of whom are hostile to Israel, are trying to establish themselves along the southern access route to the Gulf of Eilat and the Suez Canal, which could also result in security threats. . . .

The African countries located on the coast of the Red Sea are leveraging their strategic location with the aim of improving their political and financial situation. Djibouti, for example, hosts French, Spanish, and Italian forces within its borders. World powers have also increased their interest in the region in recent years. The U.S. base in Djibouti, for example, is America’s largest in Africa, and China recently completed the construction of a naval base in Djibouti, which is its first military base outside its borders. . . .

Despite the threats this situation poses to Israel, write Eran and Guzansky, it also provides opportunities for collaboration between Jerusalem and its potential allies in the Persian Gulf.

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