Blowing the Horn: How the United States Can Reclaim the Strategic Initiative in the Bab al Mandeb
You may never have heard of the Bab el Mandeb. But the obscure strait at the southern end of the Red Sea serves as the main conduit between the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Suez Canal. And it is the center of the world’s hottest geostrategic real estate. The United States already has a sizeable share of the market with its military site at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Yet the often-overlooked projection of American power at the intersection of Africa and Southwest Asia, relied on by at least four combatant commands, seems stuck in the past. Used to focusing on narrow counterterrorism objectives in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. national security leaders recently have noticed the explosion of Chinese, Saudi, Emirati, Qatari, and Turkish commercial and defense activities in the formerly sleepy neighborhood. The U.S. approach to this region is clearly due for an update. Yet how should the United States even begin to think about this region strategically?
First, international presence—including a mix of cooperation and competition—in the Horn is not new. But it is evolving in ways the United States is not well-positioned to shape or manage. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar have had modest security assistance and peacekeeping efforts there for almost a decade. Multinational naval forces have conducted counter-piracy deployments there, with a large boost from the United States. The multilateral African Union Mission in Somalia has more than a decade of operations under its belt, supported by Washington. Yet the explosion of commercial and basing competition is a new dynamic, and almost entirely the creature of two developments that Washington has struggled to influence: geostrategic competition among the Gulf states and the internationalization of the civil wars in Yemen and Somalia.
Several East African countries have warmed to overtures from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Sudan has distanced itself from its prior alliance with Iran, accepting financial incentives from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and contributing troops to the coalition effort against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion in Yemen. Meanwhile, UAE investments in breakaway Somaliland, combined with Qatar and Turkey’s inroads in Somalia, strained UAE relations with Somalia. This is a reflection of intra-Gulf competition, as UAE and Saudi Arabia have been sparring with Qatar since 2017, and Qatar remains allied with Turkey. As the Saudis and others scramble to counter Iranian proxies in Yemen, governments on the Horn stand to profit, but also to import the Gulf’s larger competitive dynamics across the Red Sea. Yet the longer-term interests expressed in basing competition on the Horn will not fade if and when contemporary conflicts are resolved.
Meanwhile, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. But the Chinese are not in the region because of the fight in Yemen or the competition among Gulf states. Building upon its decade of soft-power investments throughout sub-Saharan Africa, China is pursuing a more expansive influence over global politics and testing the boundaries of competition with the United States in this process.
Second, the overlap in security and commercial interests further complicates matters. Trade through the Bab el Mandeb strait has increased since 2013, with oil trade increasing 20 percent between 2013 and 2014 alone. Seeing the possibilities of port and base construction, Sudan and Eritrea, previously sympathetic to Iran, now align with the Gulf states. Ethiopia and the UAE have also penned military basing agreements with Somaliland and Eritrea, respectively, diversifying from their reliance on Djibouti—whose only commodity is its strategic location. Ethiopia, by itself, is changing political-military realities on the Horn. The new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is on a diplomatic charm offensive, most notably negotiating an end to the impasse with Eritrea but also securing relief from the foreign exchange crisis as part of a new deal with the UAE. Meanwhile, those two countries’ joint sponsorship of port construction in Berbera could give Somaliland’s de facto but not de jure independence the fuel it needs to escape Mogadishu’s gravity. This could precipitate domestic realignments in Somalia, an eventuality that would change calculations for the United States and for all of Somalia’s neighbors.
So, how should the United States proceed? It must think of the environment in at least three interdependent and overlapping dimensions: the Gulf crisis, regional relations in the Horn of Africa, and Chinese interests and objectives. In terms of the Gulf, the United States should update its policy to include considerations of Horn dynamics, leveraging the growing constraints on Iran in the region and seeking ways to bolster a common approach to a common challenge. The United States also should review its military and economic interests in the region to ensure it is not taking vital access for granted or ignoring burgeoning markets where the United States could be competitive. Paying careful attention to Ethiopia’s position is especially important. In the course of diversifying its port access, Ethiopia risks overreliance on China or the UAE. The United States should offer Ethiopians a meaningful insurance policy, perhaps by offering incentives in the booming aviation and air cargo sector.
Finally, the United States must take the Chinese presence in the region seriously and identify ways to compete, deter, and cooperate. As China deepens its activities in Africa, the United States cannot allow itself to be priced or boxed out of the market. There is no need to be confrontational, but there is no reason to be naïve, either. From a defense perspective, the evolving challenges in the Bab al-Mandeb region may create new risks, opportunities, and constraints for U.S. freedom of navigation and posture that will be important to account for as the Department of Defense seeks to increase U.S. strategic competitiveness globally.
In each case, the U.S. location in Djibouti can be a source of strength. The United States enjoys access to the southern end of the Red Sea that will prove useful for a range of strategic goals. Yet the United States must also take care to diversify beyond a narrow defense-centric approach. Washington should do so by boosting its relationship portfolio in the region, focusing first on Ethiopia by offering opportunities for mutually beneficial commercial cooperation. Washington should also get more involved in Mogadishu’s discussions with Somaliland, acting as a more-neutral broker than its Gulf partners and seeking to stem the destabilizing internationalization of their disputes. All the while, the United States should hold a firm line of deterrence against competitors, making a sequenced combination of targeted investments to strengthen diplomatic ties and innovate operational access. Otherwise, the United States may quickly find itself outpaced and outbid in an increasingly competitive region.
Alice Friend is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Melissa Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS International Security Program and director of the CSIS Cooperative Defense Project.
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