By Ed Blanche
Monday, 20 February 2017
Moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to expand their military reach across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have long-term objectives, most prominent among them blocking Iranian advances in a region that has become increasingly strategic in the struggle between the Arab monarchies and the Islamic Republic.
The drive by the two heavyweights of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to strengthen their regional security roles has picked up steam as the United States' scaling back of its military commitment as protector of the Arab monarchies in the Gulf has encouraged Iran's efforts to assert itself as the dominant regional power.
This is an ambition that predates the 1979 overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and was sharpened after U.S. president George W. Bush crushed Saddam Hussein with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Arab bulwark against Iranian expansion and Iran's arch-enemy.
In recent years, Iran has sought to establish alliances with Eritrea, Sudan and other countries in the Red Sea region to enhance its capabilities against two of its key enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both have naval access to the Red Sea.
The Yemen war, in which Iran supports the Houthi rebels Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fighting, has provided Tehran with a toehold in the Red Sea.
It could also offer potential naval bases from which it could threaten shipping through the Bab el Mandeb strait, the Red Sea's southern gateway to the Indian Ocean, as it has long sought to do with the Strait of Hormuz, the only way in and out of the Arabian Gulf.
The Horn of Africa is particularly important because it has a 2,500-mile coastline that runs from Sudan in the north to Kenya in the south and lies astride the Red Sea and South African cape maritime routes.
GCC fears of Iranian hegemony were sharply heightened in July 2015 with the nuclear agreement between Iran and U.S.-led global powers, which Gulf leaders concluded marked a dangerous shift in the Middle East's balance of power.
Between them, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have either established or are preparing three military bases strategically located around the western shore of the Red Sea and on the Gulf of Aden.
On Feb. 12, the parliament of Somaliland, which broke away from the fractured Somali republic and declared its independence in 1991, overwhelmingly approved allowing the UAE to build a military base at the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden.
The scale of that facility is unclear but the UAE is constructing a major air and naval base in Eritrea at the Red Sea port of Assab under a 2015 agreement, and from it has already mounted operations in Yemen, 37 miles to the east.
Saudi Arabia is finalizing an agreement for a base in Djibouti with the government of the former French territory, with which Riyadh signed a security pact in 2016.
Djibouti has the added advantage of being a member of the Arab League and of the 34-state Saudi-led anti-Iranian "Islamic coalition" announced in December 2015.
The United States operates its main regional counter-terrorism base there at a former French Foreign Legion facility. China is building a base there, too, with an eye on its westward expansion into Africa and securing vital Indian Ocean trade routes.
There are, however, broader purposes behind the military expansion by the Gulf Arab states towards a Saudi-led grand alliance of Sunni countries as the United States withdraws.
One is to isolate the Islamic threat from Somalia, where the al-Shabab movement has close ties with Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which is deemed by the United States to be one of the terror group's most dangerous wings.
Another factor is food. "The GCC is interested in north-eastern Africa for its agriculture," the U.S.-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed in a Jan. 3 analysis.
"From across the Red Sea, Arab states see stretches of arable land that could feed their people as well as the large workforce needed to farm that land. To that end, Saudi Arabia has prioritized agricultural investment in the region."