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 dynamics in the strategic Red Sea arena and offer options for U.S. policy. The resulting final report concluded that the Red Sea region sat at a moment of great peril and opportunity, owing to historic political transitions in Ethiopia and Sudan; the merging of security systems of the Horn of Africa and the Middle East; and shifting demographic and environmental forces. 

In their report, the study group argued that these circumstances demanded a new U.S. strategic framework for the Red Sea that would seek to:

  • Contain the spillover of Middle Eastern conflicts into the Horn.
  • Overcome bureaucratic seams between Africa and Middle East bureaus within the US government.
  • Realign U.S. assistance throughout the region for the purposes of supporting legitimate, inclusive governance.
  • Leverage active congressional engagement.

Unfortunately, regional dynamics have deteriorated considerably since the study group released its report in October 2020. The descent of once-promising transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia into large-scale violence and state fragmentation — in combination with the long-standing fragility of Somalia and Yemen — is driving unprecedented instability along the Red Sea littoral. The costs to the peoples of the region have been immense, with hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced and driven into food insecurity, entire societies traumatized, and once-in-a generation opportunities for democracy and development squandered. Worryingly, this already bleak situation could get worse, with several intra-state and inter-state fault-lines at risk of escalating in the near term.

Metastasizing instability on the Red Sea littoral has also produced serious global consequences of profound import to the United States. Like the war in Somalia before it, conflict in Yemen has enabled a set of actors willing and able to disrupt the flow of maritime traffic through the Bab el Mandeb, a vital chokepoint through which 10 percent of global trade flows and is essential to global food and energy markets. The strategic stakes of this development became apparent in January 2024 amid escalating regional tensions over the war in Gaza, when Houthi drone and missile assaults on Red Sea shipping prompted the United States and allies to launch coordinated strikes on Houthi targets across Yemen.

The merging of the security systems of the Horn of Africa and the Middle East remains a major backdrop to accelerating instability in the Red Sea. The continuing political, financial and military intervention of powerful Middle Eastern states — the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia — on the western side of the Red Sea and in Yemen, has deepened local conflicts and rendered them more difficult to resolve. At the same time, efforts to grapple with this new reality through the construction of a peace and security architecture that bridges the Red Sea’s western and eastern shores have fallen short.

U.S. foreign policy is likely to remain focused on the challenges of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific and Europe for the foreseeable future. But recent events demonstrate it cannot afford to ignore the growing crisis in the Red Sea. In this context, USIP has reconvened its Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena with the goal of taking stock of deteriorating regional conditions, clarifying core U.S. interests and providing renewed options for U.S. policy.

The Study Group will release its findings and recommendations — in report form — in spring 2024.

October 2020 Report and Recommendations

October 2020 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 October 2020 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.