On Monday, October 28th, Dr. Colonel (Res.) Shaul Shay came to IWP to discuss his most recent book, The Red Sea Region Between War and Reconciliation.
Dr. Shay is a senior research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) and the former Director of Research at the Institute for Strategy and Policy (IPS) at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. He has also served in the IDF as a senior officer in the Military Intelligence and was the Deputy Head of the Israeli National Security Council. Including his most recent published book, Dr. Shay is the author and editor of 20 books.
In the beginning segment of his lecture, Dr. Shay discussed the importance of the Red Sea region. While this region is usually combined into the category of African or Middle Eastern politics, Dr. Shay highlighted the importance of studying the Red Sea region as its own separate political region. He also emphasized the importance of the Red Sea as it pertains to trade: 4% of crude oil and gas supply goes through the Red Sea. Therefore, any disruption in this region will, in some way or another, affect the global economy because of the volume of crude oil and gas that is transported through the Red Sea.
Dr. Shay maintained that the Middle East has tremendous influence on the Red Sea region. “You have to take into consideration that this region is a kind of extension for the Middle East for good and bad,” he stated. He noted that all the current conflicts in the Middle East are reflected in this area.
The Middle East and, by extension, the Red Sea region, are in an inter-Islamic competition. Dr. Shay identified multiple actors in this competition. The first actor is the Iran and Shia alliance that includes militias in Iraq, the Assad Regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen. The next actor is the Saudi-led Sunni Arab coalition, which represents most states in the Middle East. Dr. Shay then identified the Muslim Brotherhood, which is backed by both Turkey and Qatar. The last two actors are the moderate Arab Sunnis represented by Saudi Arabia and the radical jihadist Salafi Islamic movement.
Subsequently, Dr. Shay discussed that countries are not only economically involved in the Red Sea region but militarily involved as well. For example, Djibouti, a small country by the southern entrance of the Red Sea, has U.S., Chinese, Saudi, French, and EU military bases located within its border.
“In this region, it’s not enough just to invest in the economy, you have to be capable to defend your interests,” Dr. Shay explained.
The Red Sea region is also one of the most unstable regions in the world. The countries in the region not only suffer from internal problems but also territorial and inter-state conflicts as well.
Sudan, which occupies a huge portion of the land mass along the coastline of the Red Sea, has suffered under the dictatorship of Omar Basheer for 30 years until he was ousted by a military coup this past April. However, since then, there has been more instability in Sudan. Its history of genocide and the tension that exists between the North and South prohibits Sudan from gaining any sort of regional stability.
Another conflict that Dr. Shay described was the war in Yemen, one of the most sensitive conflicts in the region. However, he explained that the West generally has a narrow perspective on this conflict, because they view the upheaval as solely a conflict between the Shia Muslims, who support the central government, and the separatist movement. He noted that it is critical not only to acknowledge the Saudi involvement in the conflict but also to examine Iran’s involvement in the country. Iran’s strategic goals in Yemen are to export its conflict to the rest of the Arab region and spread Shia Islam. Additionally, Iran has been using Yemen as a “laboratory” to test new strategies and military assets.
The next conflict Dr. Shay discussed was the conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt. While Ethiopia is a landlocked country, Dr. Shay maintained that it still has strategic importance in the Red Sea region. To combat the lack of power and electricity in the country, the Ethiopian government decided to build the biggest dam in Africa on the Blue Nile, one of the Nile River’s two tributary rivers. However, ninety percent of Egypt’s drinking water comes from the Nile river, and in the process of filling the dam, no water will be able to go past the dam. Therefore, Ethiopia and Egypt began negotiations in 2011 to address Egypt’s concerns surrounding the dam.
The last major conflict that plagues the Red Sea region is terrorism. As the war in Yemen continues, Al Qaeda has been able to flourish in the country and fight alongside the Saudis. Additionally, on the other side of the sea, Al Qaeda has a stronghold in Somalia, which is believed to be its largest stronghold in Africa. North of the Red Sea region, Egypt has been in an ongoing conflict with a branch of the Islamic State, the Sinai Province group, since 2014. However, this group’s success has been limited.
Concluding his presentation, Dr. Shay discussed some positive developments in the Red Sea region, such as the new Suez Canal, the King Salem Bridge, the Neom project, and the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. While it may be impossible to predict the future of the region, these projects keep Dr. Shay optimistic for its future.