The states on the western side of the Red Sea to the south of Egypt and the Arab states from the east of Egypt through the Arabian Gulf have long been considered distinct regions. This is increasingly a distinction without a difference, however, as these states now operate more as a common political, security, and economic zone.

As Middle Eastern states are playing an increasingly assertive role in the Horn of Africa, a new geopolitical paradigm is emerging in that long-volatile region: Historic—and fragile—transitions are underway in Ethiopia and Sudan and a nascent rapprochement has taken hold between Ethiopia and Eritrea, among other developments, portending the most significant political shifts in the region in a generation.

The jostling for dominance in the Horn among the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Turkey and Qatar on the other is in some cases, such as Somalia, fueling instability and insecurity in an already fractious region where the United States has a number of core interests, from counter-terrorism to the security of vital trade routes. Competition over the use of the Nile between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, while temporarily dormant, remains unresolved. Significant armed conflicts persist in Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen, in which states on both sides of the Red Sea are engaged. Overlaying these rivalries among Middle Eastern actors is the Trump Administration’s elevation of U.S. strategic competition with China and Russia as the top national security priority as both are deepening their engagement in the Horn of Africa.

One of USIP’s comparative advantages is its ability to see over the horizon in order to anticipate the risks of violent conflict and to explore opportunities for addressing those challenges. To that end, USIP has launched a Red Sea initiative which aims to:

  1. Bridge the gap in analyzing the interconnected trans-regional dynamics between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
  2. Leverage USIP’s convening authority to work with policymakers in the United States, Europe, and Asia to overcome the institutional divides that often impede strategy for a region that traverses traditional geographic divides within bureaucracies and ident
  3. Explore opportunities for new multilateral formats to prevent, mitigate, and resolve conflict in the Red Sea region.

A Fraying Seam of World Order: Political & Security Dynamics in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea Region

January 18, 2018

This panel discussion explored the rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape in the Horn of Africa, including the cross-cutting political and security dynamics among the states of the Horn, the Arabian Gulf and the broader Red Sea region. Understanding of these developments is often obscured by the institutional divisions in government and the policy community between the Middle East and East Africa. The discussion aimed to bridge this divide and to identify opportunities for constructive U.S. diplomatic engagement in a challenging environment where the United States has a number of core interests.

Featured Publications

Throngs of shoppers and traders in the Christian market, outside the Showa Gate of Harar Jugol, Ethiopia, Feb. 10, 2019. (Marcus Westberg/The New York Times)

The Middle East’s Complicated Engagement in the Horn of Africa

Analysis by Omar S. Mahmood

The Gulf states increased assertiveness in the Horn of Africa has garnered substantial attention of late, particularly the proliferation of military installations and ports and the increase in military and economic aid. Less attention has been paid, however, to the role Middle Eastern countries have played in attempting to resolve some of the Horn’s most intractable conflicts, efforts that in some cases pre-date the more recent security and economic engagements.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s during his visit to Washington, DC (Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser via Flickr).

Ethiopia-Eritrea Peace Deal Brings Hope to Horn of Africa

Q&A with Susan Stigant and Payton Knopf

USIP’s Susan Stigant and Payton Knopf discuss what led Ethiopia and Eritrea to sign a peace deal, how it can improve the economic and humanitarian conditions in both countries, and the broader strategic and regional implications for the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.

On Peace Podcast logo

Payton Knopf on the Geopolitical Tensions in the Red Sea

On Peace Podcast

Both the eastern and western shores of the Red Sea increasingly function as a common political and security arena in which the U.S. has significant interests, including the free flow of $700 billion in commerce and competition for influence from external powers like China and Iran. Addressing the region’s interlinked challenges requires a comprehensive U.S. strategy, says Payton Knopf.

South Sudan’s Civil War and Conflict Dynamics in the Red Sea special report cover

South Sudan’s Civil War and Conflict Dynamics in the Red Sea

Special Report

This Special Report surveys the region’s various interstate hostilities and intrastate conflicts and suggests ways the United States can reassert its influence to begin contributing meaningfully to the resolution of South Sudan’s civil war and conflicts in the greater Red Sea region.

Locals walk pass a paused development project in Khartoum, Sudan, Jan. 26, 2012. (Sven Torfinn/The New York Times)

Reforming the U.S.-Sudan Relationship Requires a Regional Strategy

Analysis and Commentary by Aly Verjee and Payton Knopf

On November 7, 2018, the U.S. Department of State announced long-awaited plans outlining a path to better relations with Sudan, “designed to expand our bilateral cooperation, facilitate meaningful reforms to enhance stability in Sudan, and achieve further progress in a number of areas of longstanding concern.” USIP’s Aly Verjee and Payton Knopf discuss the initiative, and identify where broader U.S. regional objectives could cohere, including in the war in Yemen.

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Secretary Tillerson Goes to Africa

Secretary Tillerson Goes to Africa

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

By: USIP Staff; Susan Stigant; Aly Verjee

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on the most extensive visit to Africa by a senior official in the Trump administration. Tillerson will visit the continent’s two most populous countries, Nigeria and Ethiopia, both crucial to U.S. regional security interests but which face increasing fragility at home. He will also travel to U.S. allies Chad, Djibouti and Kenya, countries struggling with domestic political stability, and will meet leadership of the continent’s principal regional organization, the African Union. USIP’s Africa experts preview the landscape and key issues for the East Africa leg of Tillerson’s trip to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, and note that broader U.S security and trade interests can only be served if the national challenges for peace and stability in each country are also addressed.

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The Education and Training Center/International (ETC/I) conducted a series of briefings for 11 U.S. Army Reserve civil affairs service members on August 18 and 26, 2009 deploying to Djibouti with regional responsibilities as part of the U.S. military’s Africa Command. 

Type: In the Field

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Normalizing Sudan-Israel Relations Now is a Dangerous Game

Normalizing Sudan-Israel Relations Now is a Dangerous Game

Thursday, September 24, 2020

By: Payton Knopf; Jeffrey Feltman

With the UAE and Bahrain having joined Egypt and Jordan in declaring peace with Israel, those asking “who’s next?” often look enthusiastically westward, toward Khartoum. Adding new chapters to the Abraham Accords is in the U.S. interest, but so is a successful transition in Sudan. And the sequence of these steps is critical. A unified Sudanese government with a popular mandate will be better able to forge a warm and sustainable peace with Israel, whereas a rushed Israeli-Sudanese agreement has the potential to unravel Sudan’s transition and generate renewed support for Sudan’s Islamists and their foreign backers.

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