BAGHDAD – Saudi Arabia stumbled to the finish line in 2018. Its war in Yemen has become more chaotic. His reputation has been severely damaged by the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His regional rival Iran has consolidated its power in Syria.
But while the old year gave way to the new, the kingdom of the desert could count at least one success: the joint naval maneuvers known as Red Wave 1.
These exercises, conducted in the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and six other countries, were the first tangible product of a new Saudi-led alliance designed to encourage regional cooperation around the sea and to project Saudi power. in the Horn of Africa.
Although they attracted little attention, military maneuvers were the last offer of the kingdom to establish its rule in a region – and a mirror of water – increasingly fractured by regional rivalries.
The killing of Khashoggi, which was widely accused by the leaders of the kingdom and triggered its worst diplomatic crisis since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, has severely strained relations with its ally , a reliable time, in Washington.
This prompted Saudi Arabia to turn to the Horn of Africa to protect its western flank and develop its own security doctrine.
Working in concert with the United Arab Emirates, he joined the struggle for influence in Africa, where the two partners of the Persian Gulf have built multiple military bases, portraying how they intend to project power in the future.
These considerations have become more urgent as the rivals of Saudi Arabia – Iran, Turkey and Qatar, not to mention global powers such as China – have created their bases in the countries surrounding the Red Sea and in particular in the region of the Horn of Africa.
The then Saudi Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel Jubeir, said so much during the initial announcement of last month's Red Sea alliance with Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and Yemen.
"The greater the cooperation and coordination among the countries in this region, the less negative external influence will be on this region," said Jubeir, without naming the source of this external influence.
"This is part of the kingdom's efforts to protect its interests and those of its neighbors and … to stabilize the region in which we live and to try to create synergies between the various countries".
At present, the alliance does not include Eritrea, with its approximately 715 miles of Red Sea coast, or Ethiopia, which, although landlocked, is the maximum economic weight of the Horn of Africa. (Both should join future exercises).
Israel, apparently the most powerful actor in the Red Sea, was not invited to take part, despite evidence of its growing connection with Saudi Arabia. It remains a polarizing presence in the region.
For decades, the nations of the Red Sea coast hardly needed a common security mechanism for the simple reason that the great world powers considered it too essential to be subject to upheaval.
The navigable channel handles about 13% of world trade.
It is bounded from the south by the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a 18-mile wide bottleneck between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, which estimated around 4.8 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products a day refined to Europe, the United States and Asia in 2016, according to US government figures.
To the north is the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and in 2016 managed 3.9 million barrels of crude and refined products per day, according to data published by the Suez Canal authorities.
Threats to this trade have pushed countries to work together to ensure that the Red Sea remains open for navigation, despite conflicts and instability.
One example was the problem of Somali pirates, whose activity on the Red Sea (which peaked between 2007 and 2012 but is in decline) led NATO and 17 non-NATO nations in a joint operation to end the threat.
But in recent years, the Red Sea, and in particular the coast off the Corno, has become a chessboard for the new assertiveness of the Gulf states.
Their "ATM diplomacy", supported by billions of petrodollars, has only intensified in the face of tensions in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fear that turbulence from opponents Iran, Qatar and Turkey could obstruct the Strait of Hormuz, their main channel for most of their exports.
Another concern is the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition fights – with US support – against Houthi rebels supported by Iran.
These growing threats come at a time when US involvement in the region is decreasing, forcing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to focus on their security needs, said Elana Delozier, an expert in the Gulf of Washington. Institute for Near East Policy.
"The Yemen crisis, the problems of Somalia, Turkey coming to Sudan, piracy … all of these things are worrying for the Emirates and Saudi Arabia," said Delozier.
"And while they could previously count on the fifth fleet (of the US Navy) and a presence in the United States, they might not feel able to do so."
Meanwhile, both blocs – the alliance Emirati and Saudi Arabia and its opponents – have played a game of geopolitical pawns with the Red Sea ports of the Horn of Africa.
Last year, Qatar signed a $ 4 billion deal for the development of Suakin's Sudanese port, just 200 miles southwest of the Saudi port of Jidda.
There is also Turkey, with a 99-year lease to restore the Ottoman port of Suakin, relaunch the area as a tourist destination for pilgrims to Mecca and build a dock that could constitute the basis for military cooperation in the future, according to Sudan's Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour.
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have also been active in the area, with the former having forged its way into Africa for almost a decade.
The Emirates were the driving force behind a peace agreement that ended a long dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia. After the Emirati forces were evicted by Djibouti in 2015, he transferred his military operations to a base in Eritrea.
In Somalia, the Emirates took over the management of the Bosaso port in October 2017, a few months after signing a 30-year lease contract for the port of Berbera in Somaliland.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has agreed with Djibouti to establish a base in the small African state, the first foreign military outpost of the kingdom.
Both blocs have also made millions of dollars of aid hang on African countries in an attempt to win their loyalty and expel the forces of the other side. Saudi Arabia is now the fifth largest investor in Africa and more than 20 African heads of state have traveled to Riyadh to meet the Saudi leader, King Salman.
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The creation of the Red Sea alliance comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is pursuing mega-scale development plans on its 1,120-mile sea coast, part of its Vision 2030 plan aimed at weaning addiction from oil and diversify its economy.
One of these initiatives, the Red Sea Project, seeks to turn about 13,000 square miles of land near the west coast of the kingdom into a luxury tourist destination.
Another is Neom, a $ 500 billion mega-city that will include land within the borders of Jordan and Egypt.
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