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 the long-volatile region in which the historic and fragile transitions underway in Ethiopia and Sudan portend 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 fueling instability and insecurity in an already fractious environment where the United States has a number of core interests. Competition over the use of the Nile between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia 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.

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.

Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena 

Between May 2019 and September 2020, the U.S. Institute of Peace convened a bipartisan senior study group to consider the factors that have reshaped the Red Sea arena.

The study group determined that, in recent years, the geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics of the Horn of Africa have become tied to the Middle East and broader Indian Ocean in a manner unprecedented in the last century. However, U.S. strategy in this evolving environment has struggled to keep pace with these interconnected, complex, and transregional dynamics and account for the region’s increased relevance to U.S. interests.

The final report of the senior study group defines U.S. interests within a hierarchy of priorities to assist policymakers in calibrating diplomatic, development, humanitarian, and security interventions and provides recommendations for defending and advancing these interests.

Final Report and Recommendations

Final Report and Recommendations of the Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena cover

Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena

October 29, 2020

The final report of the senior study group defines U.S. interests within a hierarchy of priorities to assist policymakers in calibrating diplomatic, development, humanitarian, and security interventions and provides recommendations for defending and advancing these interests.

Statement on Ethiopia by the Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena

November 5, 2020

As members of the bipartisan senior study group on peace and security in the Red Sea arena, we are watching with grave concern the situation in Ethiopia. While many of the facts remain unclear, the risks of escalation are certain: Intrastate or interstate conflict would be catastrophic for Ethiopia’s people and for the region and would pose a direct threat to international peace and security.

Related Publications

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.