Red Sea Geopolitics: Mixed Messages From Eritrea

The Red Sea has emerged as one of the world’s geopolitical ‘hot spots’. As a result of the conflict in Gaza, the international shipping route between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean is now a focus of interest in its own right. Although the general situation has been widely reported, this short paper offers a more nuanced view. It is based on the fact that each of the riparian states has its own priorities; what is more, several of these nations are politically unstable and, in some cases, in conflict with each other. All of which means that the Red Sea – and the violence that permeates it – is seen in different ways depending on where one is located. Any talk of commonality is an illusion. To illustrate this point, the example is taken of Eritrea – a state that is consistently maligned by the West but which, through its latest activities, may now encourage thoughts of a new approach to the region. 

Conflict and controversy

Although only becoming a sovereign state in 1993, the modern history of Eritrea has been one of repeated conflict and external domination. For nearly four centuries the territory was part of the Ottoman Empire, until it was claimed by Italy in 1869. Under the leadership of Mussolini, with his grandiose vision of creating a new Roman empire, the European country ventured across the Mediterranean into Libya and other parts of the Horn of Africa, including Eritrea. That episode of colonization was dispelled when the Italians were ousted in the early stages of the Second World War, leaving Britain to keep the peace until an international agreement could be reached to determine the future of the former colony. This duly took the form of a federation under the control of neighboring Ethiopia, until thirty years of civil war led finally, in 1993, to the formation of Eritrea as an independent state. 

After so many years of being beholden to external powers, Eritrea was at last free to exercise its own will and to choose who its newfound friends would be. International hopes that this might lead to a democracy with fair elections, however, were quickly dashed. Ruled despotically from the day of independence by the leader of the former liberation movement, Isaias Afewerki, the new nation soon acquired the tag of ‘the North Korea of Africa’, which it seems to have tacitly accepted as a badge of honor. Under the new regime, the one-party state allowed no room for dissent, there was no prospect of elections (free or otherwise), and the country continues to be accused of endemic human rights abuse. Economic growth has been hampered by a high level of military expenditure and its GDP per capita ranks low in African league tables. Of its estimated 3.75 million people, women and men alike are subject to strictly enforced conscription that has been likened by critics to a form of modern slavery. Risking their lives, large numbers of Eritreans still find ways to escape the country.

In the event, seeing an opportunity to gain a valuable foothold along the coast of a strategic shipping route, China has stepped into the vacuum. Good relations were also established with Russia, helped by Eritrea’s refusal (as one of the very few members of the UN to do so) to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of the two sponsors, though, it is China which has made most progress in asserting itself in the region. In wooing Eritrea, it helped that President Isaias had, in the 1960s, been one of a group of young men invited to undertake military training in China. Bonds formed then survived the intervening years. Meanwhile, Western diplomacy did little to win the hearts and minds of Eritreans, preferring to condemn the country for its human rights record and to further alienate the government in the process. In contrast, China was prepared to set aside these concerns in favor of asserting its presence in Eritrea at large and, especially along its 600 miles of Red Sea coastline (which includes two groups of islands).

Plans for development were put in place, as part of China’s global Belt and Road infrastructure project. Even before an agreement was signed in 2021, work started on the first stage of a 300-mile coastal highway to link the two main ports of Massawa and Assab. Both were already designated as economic free zones. Meanwhile, in the interior, investment was directed to extract more of the area’s valuable minerals. And, in a nod to global sustainability goals, it was recognized that natural conditions are ideal to justify separate investment in solar power. One can reasonably argue that Eritrea will benefit from these forms of development. But it will also run the risk of eroded sovereignty; China’s beneficence has its own price tag. 

For the rest of the world, the bigger question is what it means for the future security and welfare of the region. Undoubtedly, it marks a geopolitical triumph for China which, in addition to its military base in nearby Djibouti, has now slipped through the narrow Bab al-Mendeb to occupy a strategic position within the Red Sea itself. With 12% of global shipping traffic passing through these waters, the implications are hardly insignificant. So how should other nations respond?

Eritrea: an unexpected exemplar

It would be all too easy to direct further diatribe against an already much-maligned dictatorship and to accuse China of crude opportunism. Yet that would be to miss the more important point that the ongoing development of Eritrea is arguably what the rest of the Red Sea region needs too. The sea was in the past a crossing point between Asia and Africa, with Europe just to the north, and this locational advantage is something which could again be exploited. North-south transport routes would need to be improved on both sides of the sea, along which new growth points could be located. And the nascent tourist industry could be sustainably developed. Being so close to the overcrowded Mediterranean, and to cater for new demands from within the region, the Red Sea is ideally placed to accommodate more visitors. The long coastline is blessed with extensive coral reefs and unparalleled biodiversity and could yet emerge as an exemplary venue, avoiding the mistakes of unsustainable schemes and over-use of vulnerable resources that are evident elsewhere. What is missing is a strategic body composed of constituent nations, ideally led from within the region by the only nation with sufficient investment capacity to make a difference, Saudi Arabia.

In these various ways, the Red Sea region could be transformed: high-speed railways along the opposite banks to connect resorts and innovation centres; universities that focus on the special qualities of the sea itself as well as the decarbonization of international shipping; the development of hybrid vegetation to grow in arid conditions; and Jeddah, the second city in Saudi Arabia, a natural hub to coordinate and encourage a variety of exciting new projects. In the interests of sustainability, long stretches of the extensive coastline would be left in a natural state, without the intrusion of fishing and tourist activities. The Red Sea could become a second Mediterranean, spared the blemishes of over-use that have despoiled the first.

The Red Sea is presently in a dire situation but all is not lost. In a region where conflict seems endemic, the above kind of integrated development could yet emerge as an example of human resolve. Conflict becomes less urgent when efforts can be turned to more productive activities. Because of its record, Eritrea might seem an unlikely beacon for the future. Yet in a perverse way, it can at least show that a change of economic direction is not only possible but necessary. To take this lesson is not in any way to condone the country’s questionable past but rather to acknowledge that it is surely in the best interests of the region as a whole to look ahead.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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