The Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea Region: Stability Pillars and Threats

EPC | 06 Jul 2021

Many political, security and economic developments have combined to impose an important shift in the geopolitical map of the confluence of the three continents of the ancient world, namely Asia, Africa and Europe. This hastened the emergence of strong indications of the formation of a new strategic circle that constitutes the intersection of many international and regional interests, in the heart of which is the region of the Red Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, i.e., the two circles that were traditionally seen as independent domains before becoming more interrelated in recent years in terms of international interactions along with the geographical connection that already exists through the Suez Canal.

This growing correlation is evidenced by a number of indicators. The first is the significant increase in the value of the various assets around which international and regional powers in the region compete, whether with regard to ports, energy resources or the locations of naval military bases. The second is the multiplicity of the list of international and regional competitors in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, even as it has come to comprise almost all the major international powers and a large number of regional players. The third is the emerging change in the strategies of many competing countries in the region to reflect a deeper understanding of the link between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and the attempt to employ this link to enhance the presence and restrict competitors.

Manifestations of the growing importance of the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region

Three main indicators appear to confirm the growing importance of the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region. These include the increasing importance for international navigation, the significant increase in the region's ability to provide energy resources, and the interest of many countries in securing their military presence in this strategic circle.

1. International navigation

The growing strategic importance of the Red Sea as a major international navigation corridor is reinforced by the rapid population and economic growth of its countries. According to United Nations (UN) estimates, by 2050, the population of the Red Sea countries will exceed one billion people, with the size of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of those countries reaching three times its current estimated size of less than two trillion dollars, given that it is expected to exceed six trillion dollars annually. On the other hand, the volume of trade crossing the Red Sea is expected to rise from 880 billion dollars to nearly 5 trillion dollars. This increase is driven by the efforts of the countries of the region and the countries investing therein to strengthen the infrastructure of economic activity, which is expected to push some Red Sea countries to an advanced position in the Logistics Performance Index (LPI) issued by the World Bank (WB).[1]

Similarly, the Eastern Mediterranean region has gained more importance as a sea corridor linking China with Europe in one of the most important stages of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), after the Chinese and Italian governments signed a memorandum of understanding in March 2019 that made Italy the first western country to join the Chinese initiative.[2]

This great importance for international trade has created a fierce competition for the acquisition of the ports of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, in which China’s role has emerged strongly in recent years after it employed its close political relations with the ruling regime in Djibouti in enabling China to control the port of Doraleh, the country’s largest port, despite the existence of a prior agreement with Dubai Ports World that was abruptly terminated by the government of Djibouti in 2018.[3] In the Mediterranean, China took advantage of the major financial crisis experienced by Greece and managed in 2016 to conclude a deal with the Greek government that enabled the Chinese company COSCO to acquire 67 percent of the shares of the strategic Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) for more than 400 million dollars, turning the port into one of Europe's busiest and most crowded ports.[4]

Russia has also employed its great military and security role in Syria by signing a contract to lease the port of Tartus for forty-nine years, starting in 2019, in order to be used by Russia for transportation and economic transactions, in parallel with the signing of a supportive agreement between the two sides to expand the material and technical supply centre of the Russian war fleet in Tartus.[5] According to what was announced by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, Russia intends to develop the commercial port in Tartus by pumping investments exceeding half a billion dollars in a period not exceeding four years.[6] Likewise, Turkey has sought to exploit its growing military role in western Libya by signing in August of 2020 a trade agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) that granted the Turkish company SCK control of the port of the Libyan capital Tripoli, an agreement that aroused internal discontent even from the Chamber of Shipping in Tripoli, and externally, especially on the part of France.[7]

2. Energy resources

The importance of the recently discovered energy resources has increased in both the Red Sea and  Eastern Mediterranean basins. In the Red Sea, the signing of the maritime border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 2016 attracted great interest by many international companies to explore in the Egyptian territorial waters, after three exploration sectors were awarded in the Red Sea to the US Chevron, the Dutch Shell, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Mubadala companies, at the end of December of 2019. The three companies are exploring for oil and gas in an area of ​​10,000 square kilometres.[8] The new oil discoveries extend on the Red Sea coast to the Gulf of Aden, where the companies Genel and RAK Gas were able to put Somaliland on the map of oil producers in East Africa after confirming the existence of economically feasible reserves in 2019, in addition to the fact that the Somali government held a conference to promote exploration opportunities for oil and gas in its territorial waters in London in early 2019.[9] Apart from oil and gas, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia monitored the emergence of a path of exchange of benefits between Iran and the Islamist al-Shabab (Youth) Organisation, whereby Iran would supply weapons to the terrorist organisation in return for the organisation’s supply of uranium deposits that are found in the mines within the group's control,[10] given that large quantities of uranium were detected at limited depths of the earth's surface in the Somali region of Mudug.[11]

The situation in the Eastern Mediterranean has witnessed a major transformation since the US Geological Survey (USGS) published estimates in 2010 that the Eastern Mediterranean contains 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, in addition to 1.7 billion barrels of oil reserves. In the same year, Israel began drilling in the Tamar and Leviathan fields, followed by the rest of the countries in the region which witnessed a great boom in the work of exploration companies, especially since the announcement of the discovery of the Zohr field in Egyptian territorial waters and the Aphrodite field in Cypriot territorial waters.[12]

3. Military bases

The Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea region is extremely important as major international corridors after the military presence of international powers became a usual phenomenon, with the command of the US Sixth Fleet based off the coast of Italian Naples and the command of the US Fifth Fleet stationed in the territorial waters of Bahrain with an increasing spread of US naval units in the Red Sea. However, it is noteworthy that many developments have prompted the intensification of competition between multiple international actors over possession of military bases in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. On the one hand, Russia seeks to obtain centres of stability in the warm seas, and on the other hand, countries such as China, Japan and India have become more eager to ensure their ability to secure their commercial ships in light of the growth of the size of their economies and international trade.

The ongoing conflicts in both Syria and Libya have called for the return of the phenomenon of foreign military bases, which constitutes a major tool in the international competition for the region. There is also an increasing trend of growing competition between multiple international and regional poles in the Red Sea, a trend that has concentrated in the last two decades in specific points of the countries south of the western coast of the Red Sea, so that Djibouti has turned into a major centre for hosting foreign naval bases of multiple countries. However, it is noted that the escalating security challenges at the same time created a new state of competition between international powers to expand their military infrastructure in the Red Sea, as reflected in the relentless Russian attempts to obtain a military base in Eritrea, Somaliland and Sudan.

Pillars of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region

At a time when international competition rages in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, some indicators have emerged that enhance the stability of the region through the establishment of new regional organisations, through the development of the military capabilities of the countries of the region, or the return of the US to intensive engagement in order to ensure security and stability.

1. Development of functional regional organisations

Despite the involvement of the majority of the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea countries in multiple organisational frameworks such as the League of Arab States and the Union for the Mediterranean, the great rise of the strategic importance of this region necessitated the creation of more specialised regional regulatory frameworks that reflect the map of the new interests. It is against this background that the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was established in January 2019 following an Egyptian-Cypriot-Greek summit held in October of 2018 in Crete to establish an international organisation that brings together gas-producing countries from the Eastern Mediterranean and their prominent international partners. The EMGF includes Egypt (the headquarters country), Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and France as members, along with the US, the European Union (EU) and the UAE as observers. In addition to the important contributions provided by the EMGF in terms of coordinating efforts to develop infrastructure for gas extraction, transporting and exporting, and at the level of regulating the economic dimensions and price policies of Eastern Mediterranean gas, the EMGF also contributes to formulating joint regional policies on gas, which is underlined by the great political support provided by the leaders of the EMGF member countries since its inception.[13]

On the other hand, the Council of Arab and African States Bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden was established in January of 2020 as a regional organisation that includes countries from the Asian and African sides of this important sea course, which include Saudi Arabia (the headquarters country), Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. The Council aims to support and maintain stability and security in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as safe shipping lanes by confronting the various risks that threaten them, both those related to security or those related to other specific issues such as pollution.[14]

2. The growing naval military capabilities of some countries in the region

In the last six years, Egypt has witnessed a surge in the capabilities of the naval forces, reinforced by the establishment of two independent commands of the Northern Fleet in the Mediterranean and the Southern Fleet in the Red Sea, in early 2017, in addition to the attention given to developing its naval military capabilities, which was manifested in its acquisition of naval vessels with advanced capabilities, such as helicopter carriers, stealth frigates and submarines. Similarly, the Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) has enhanced the capabilities of the navy by contracting with Spain's Navantia to build five Avante 2200 corvettes[15] as well as purchasing four modified US Freedom-class littoral combat ships (LCS), which are being built at Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin, USA.[16]

It is worth noting that the two countries’ interest in developing naval military capabilities in recent years has been accompanied by an increase in the rate of conducting military manoeuvres and joint exercises, the oldest of which being the annual Morgan manoeuvres, of which sixteen rounds have been conducted so far, in addition to the military training called Red Wave, which began in 2018, with the participation of the special forces and naval forces of a number of Red Sea countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan and Djibouti.

In addition, the two countries benefit from the efforts of the US to enhance the capabilities of its allies in the region to secure the Red Sea waters through a number of military manoeuvres and exercises, most notably the Eagle Salute Manoeuvres and the Eagle Response Drill, which are conducted periodically in Egyptian territorial waters with the main participation of the naval forces of the US and Egypt, with a number of allies invited to participate repeatedly, most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

On the other hand, the Egyptian and Saudi navies conduct frequent exercises with third parties. For example, Egypt conducted exercises with France in the Red Sea in February 2018, October 2019, and February 202. Egypt also conducted a one-time naval exercise with Spain in June 2020. In November 2019, the Saudi Navy organised a naval manoeuvre with Chinese forces at the King Faisal Naval Base in Jeddah for training on combating terrorism and piracy.

3. The return of the US to exercise its leadership role in the region

The self-centred policy adopted by the administration of former US President Donald Trump caused the fracture of traditional US alliances. This was negatively reflected in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where tensions between Turkey and France escalated to unprecedented levels, which prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to declare that he considers that NATO is in a state of "brain death". After the new US President Joe Biden took office, he sought to send a strong message of the return of the US to provide its support to its main allies, as he expressed in his speech to the Munich Security Conference by announcing that the "transatlantic alliance is back",[17] which is relied upon by France, Greece and Cyprus in controlling the Turkish behaviour in the region through the return of the US to lead efforts to restore stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, and redirecting NATO to the main danger in the region, which is traditionally represented by the Russian naval expansion. The latter has emerged strongly in recent months through Russia’s transfer of a number of large naval vessels from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.[18]

The US role was also prominent in the Red Sea, as the US exerted great pressure on the transitional authorities in Sudan to back away from granting the Russian Navy a foothold north of the port of Port Sudan.[19] In addition, the US Navy moved the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its accompanying striking force group through the Suez Canal towards the Red Sea on 2 April 2021, at a time of repeated Israeli and Iranian skirmishes and Houthi operations against Saudi targets in the Red Sea.[20]

Threats to stability in the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region

The Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region faces an increase in the factors threatening its stability, which is commensurate with its high strategic importance and its openness to many dangerous circles. These threats are as follows:

1. The expanding rivalry between powers belonging to the Indo-Pacific region

With the increasing strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region, many Asian powers have sought to strengthen their military presence in the Red Sea, which is connected to the Indian Ocean through the Gulf of Aden. Many competing Asian powers have succeeded in finding fixed fulcrums for themselves on the western coast of the Red Sea. Recent years have witnessed a very important transformation, namely a radical change in the level of the tools used by Chinese foreign policy in the Red Sea region, as it is no longer limited to the economic tool after China launched its military base in Djibouti in 2017.[21]

The base in Djibouti set a precedent in the history of the Chinese military, which necessitated in 2015 that the Chinese legislature pass a law to regulate foreign operations to combat terrorism and collect information. The report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that the Chinese base was established under a contract with the government of Djibouti that extends for ten years, whereby China would provide the government of Djibouti with twenty million dollars annually. The Chinese base is equipped for many military uses, such as the landing and taking off of helicopters and drones, as well as receiving large warships.[22]

On the other hand, since 2009, Japan has been able to participate in the existing military arrangements in the Red Sea after it participated in the international efforts to combat piracy off the Somali coast, before announcing in 2011 the establishment of a naval military base in Djibouti, which constitutes the first external military base for Japan since the end of World War II. The state of competition between Asian powers was also reflected in the military situation in the Red Sea, as Japan and India signed in 2018 a multidisciplinary acquisition and training agreement that allows for the joint use of military supplies and equipment between the armies of both countries, including allowing the Indian armed forces to use Japanese military facilities based on the facilities provided by the Japanese base in Djibouti.[23]

2. Russian expansion attempts towards the warm seas

Russia has been seeking for years to gain a foothold in the "warm waters". Despite the importance offered by the Syrian port of Tartus, both military and civil, in meeting this demand, Russia faces challenges in expanding further, especially in the Red Sea, where the US refusal has prevented Russia from obtaining a base in Djibouti in 2014.[24] Russian arrangements with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh have also failed due to reasons related to the internal conflict in Yemen and its shifts.[25]

During the important visit of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to Sochi in November 2017, the two countries agreed to establish the Russian naval base, which was gradually announced, by the announcement in May 2019 that Russian ships would start using the Port Sudan facilities, before the announcement in December 2020 of the establishment of a base for logistical support for Russian warships in the north of Port Sudan, according to an agreement published by the Russian Official Gazette on 9 December 2020 after it was signed by President Putin.[26] However, in light of the internal changes in Sudan and parallel changes at the level of the Horn of Africa region as a whole, many doubts appear about the possibility of the Sudanese side’s commitment to the arrangements previously organised by President Bashir with his Russian counterpart, especially with the growing US influence in Sudan, which is expected to increase after the name of Sudan is lifted from the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism, as reflected in reports released in April 2020 regarding the cancellation by Sudan of its military agreement with Russia.[27]

3. The Turkish aggressive expansionist behaviour

In light of its long-running dispute with Greece and Cyprus over maritime borders, Turkey has faced the development of the relationship between the Eastern Mediterranean countries in the field of energy since the establishment of the EMGF with a great deal of hostility, which was manifested in more than one form, most notably the repeated dispatch of the exploration ship Oruc Reis, accompanied by warships, to search for gas in the disputed area with Greece. This raised the level of tension in the region after France took the initiative to send two warships and fighters to the Eastern Mediterranean in support of Greece and Cyprus.[28] Turkey also took the initiative to provide military support to the Libyan GNA in Tripoli in exchange for the signing of the agreement on the demarcation of the maritime borders between the two countries in 2019, which cuts off areas of the territorial waters of Greece and Cyprus.[29]

Despite the limitations of the geographical location, Turkish policy has reflected a deep understanding of the organic link between the Eastern Mediterranean to which it belongs and the Red Sea. In recent years, Turkey has sought to find a point of settlement on the Red Sea coast that is located in the middle between Turkey’s region in the Eastern Mediterranean and its military base in the Somali capital Mogadishu near the coast of the Indian Ocean, where it was agreed in November of 2018 on arrangements for a stable Turkish presence in the Sudanese Suakin (also Sawakin) Peninsula under the umbrella of a comprehensive development project whose military dimensions were not revealed precisely due to the fall of Bashir six months after the signing of the agreement that was suspended in light of the radical internal transformations in Sudan, which were severely reflected on the orientations of the Sudanese foreign policy.[30] However, the change in Sudan that has hampered Turkey's efforts to establish a permanent point of presence in the Red Sea does not mean that Turkey has abandoned this orientation, but rather the search for new, more appropriate entrances.

4. Mutual escalation between Iran and Israel

Iranian military activity in the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean began to increase significantly since February 2011 when Iranian warships crossed the Suez Canal towards Syria, which was repeated in 2013. In 2014, Iran gained an additional advantage through its Houthi allies who controlled an area of the western coast of Yemen overlooking the Red Sea, extending from Hodeidah to the Saudi border. In January 2021, the Chief of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Bagheri announced that Iran would include the Red Sea in the areas of its maritime patrols on the pretext of securing Iranian oil tankers and merchant ships.[31]

In the face of the steady escalation of Iranian activity and other security threats in the Red Sea, Israel has paid more attention to strengthening its military presence in this vital region. In March 2016, the Israeli Navy conducted extensive military exercises in the Red Sea.[32] In August 2020, the Israeli army conducted manoeuvres near the city of Eilat on the Red Sea. It is noteworthy that Israeli manoeuvres in the Red Sea or on its coasts have become a frequent phenomenon with an increasing frequency in recent years.[33]

With the growing Iranian threats to the Red Sea in early 2021, and with the arrival of US President Joe Biden to power, on 19 January 2021, Israel raised the alert status in the Red Sea region to the highest level for a number of military units, including submarines, after monitoring the departure of a big shipment of weapons from Iran to Yemen.[34] The Israeli measures included directing multiple naval units to the Red Sea, including submarines, warships, and special forces.[35] Over time, the mutual attacks between Iran and Israel against commercial ships were repeated, reaching their climax in April 2021 when the Iranian ship Saviz was attacked in the Red Sea, followed by an attack on the Israeli ship Hyperion Ray near the port of Fujairah. The new Israeli response in the Eastern Mediterranean came through the attack on an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Banias, Syria.[36]

The future of conflict/competition in the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region

Based on the above, two main variables that determine the future of the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region appear: the first is the level of involvement of the actors holding the initiative who wish to reformulate the region in a way that advances their interests, which may vary greatly between the regional and international powers playing this role. The second variable is related to the predominant trend of interactions and whether they are conflict-producing or consensus-making interactions. Four scenarios can be identified, in descending order in terms of their chances of realisation, as follows:

The first scenario: the escalation of regional conflict

This perception is based mainly on the transformation of the ability to determine the future of the region into the interactions between regional players rather than the interactions of international and external forces. The high strategic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region could contribute to a significant increase in the aspirations of the regional actors regarding the promotion of their interests in this important region, in a way that each actor prefers to avoid any participatory formula for benefit-sharing and strives to maintain the greatest advantages for itself. In addition, there has been a state of stalking in the region in recent years, almost reaching the point of direct confrontations between Turkey and the Libyan GNA on the one hand, and Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on the other, in addition to the already ongoing conflicts between Israel and Iran, and between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.

This situation, if exacerbated, would flood the region with a large number of conflicts that may start small in the form of attacks on ships and ports, but carry a great opportunity for rapid escalation. However, the international powers would still have a decisive role in ensuring that the conflict in the region does not cross its red lines, which may have dangerous repercussions at the global level. This scenario is the most plausible in terms of chances of realisation according to the current facts.

The second Scenario: regional consensus

This scenario depends on the countries of the region reaching a state of exhaustion, with which they may prefer to avoid continuing competition and start seriously considering the establishment of a regional system for benefit-sharing in a way that benefits all parties. This scenario has received a strong impetus with the recent development in the sub-regional organisations, as well as the relative calm witnessed in the Eastern Mediterranean through Turkey's recent endeavour to reduce the intensity of its differences with Greece and Egypt.

However, the realisation of this scenario remains dependent on the position of the international powers regarding those consensuses, as the conflicts of interests between the international powers could impose themselves anew, creating a state of dissonance between the regional parties. This scenario holds medium chances of realisation under the existing conditions.

Third scenario: an international conflict

This situation arises through the initiative of the main international parties, represented by the US, Russia and China, to impose a state of raging competition over the various interests of importance in the region. This would not leave the countries of the region with any choice but to line up in the form of opposite axes similar to the turbulent situation witnessed by the region in the last two decades of the Cold War.

This scenario, if it does occur, would ravage any chance of regional stability or even the internal stability of the countries in the region, in light of the three international parties possessing multiple tools for negative influence. However, this scenario remains among the unlikely scenarios at the current stage.

Fourth scenario: international consensus

This scenario is considered the least likely to be realised, with the administration of President Joe Biden continuing to consider the Chinese and Russian roles in various regions of the world as the first threat to US interests, and with China reaching a turning point in its strategy so that its presence in important regions of the world is no longer limited to the economic dimension, especially since it opened its military base in Djibouti in 2017, and after Russia has taken quick steps that have already enabled it to have a military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Red Sea.

But if the three countries were able to reach a consensual formula in the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region, they could work to impose radical settlements on regional conflicts, in addition to their ability to consolidate their gains, even at the expense of the countries of the region.

Conclusions

Regardless of which scenarios the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region would follow, there are three main directions in which future interactions in the region are expected, as follows:

  • At the level of players, the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region is expected to continue to attract the attention of regional and international actors in the next phase as a result of the steady increase in its strategic importance, taking into consideration that regional and international interest is not limited to the traditional players in the region, although it is expected to include new players who have already begun to explore their interests in the region recently.
  • At the level of interactions, the turbulent security and political situations in many points (Yemen, Sudan, Syria, and Libya) pose a major challenge to the future of the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea region, but at the same time, they present an opportunity to rearrange the situation in the region by creating new balances that achieve the minimum interests of the parties most involved in its interactions.
  • At the level of issues, new issues are expected to emerge and rank high on the list of priorities of regional and international powers interested in the region alongside traditional issues. At the forefront of the new issues stand out the establishment of sustainable arrangements for maritime security, addressing the threats posed by environmental degradation and climate change, and promoting economic integration among the countries of the region.

Sources

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