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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After Beirut Blast, What’s Next for Lebanon’s Broken Political System?

After Beirut Blast, What’s Next for Lebanon’s Broken Political System?

Friday, August 7, 2020

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun; Mona Yacoubian

A massive explosion ripped through the Port of Beirut on Tuesday, sending shockwaves through the Lebanese capital, killing over one hundred and injuring thousands. This comes with Lebanon already on the brink of economic collapse, struggling to address a COVID outbreak, and as the trust gap between citizens and the state is wider than ever. Although in the immediate aftermath of the explosion some suggested Lebanon had been attacked, the cause of the explosion is likely much more banal: government negligence resulted in thousands of pounds of explosive chemical material to be improperly stored in the port for years. USIP’s Elie Abouaoun and Mona Yacoubian examine what this demonstrates about the already beleaguered Lebanese government, the long-term implications for the country, and how the international community has responded so far.

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Type: Special Report

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The Dangers of Myanmar’s Ungoverned Casino Cities

Thursday, August 6, 2020

By: Jason Tower; Priscilla A. Clapp

As a struggling, incomplete democracy, Myanmar and its elected leaders face challenges that would confound any country. The best-known involve the military’s uneven loosening of a 50-year dictatorship; ethnic tensions and armed conflicts; the lack of a common national identity; entrenched poverty; and the complications of borders with five nations, including China. Less well known is an emerging threat that touches each of these vital concerns. Over the past three years, transnational networks with links to organized crime have partnered with local armed groups, carving out autonomous enclaves and building so-called “smart cities” to tap into the huge, but illegal, Chinese online gambling market. Myanmar’s leaders at every level and in every sector should pay serious attention to the alarming national implications of these developments.

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Economics & Environment; Democracy & Governance

Coronavirus Throws Another Challenge at Syria’s Doctors

Coronavirus Throws Another Challenge at Syria’s Doctors

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

By: Anthony Navone

As COVID starts to surge in Syria, the pandemic poses extraordinary challenges in one of the world’s most complex conflict zones. Nearly a decade of war has left Syria’s health care system in shambles. With supplies and trained personnel scarce, medical providers have struggled to meet the needs of millions of displaced Syrians. Meanwhile, medical workers have not been spared from the violence—despite international condemnation, health care facilities have been targeted by military strikes over 500 times since 2011.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

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