As geopolitical interest in the Red Sea grows, understanding and applying the lessons learned from other maritime regions will be crucial to ensuring its stability, writes Omar S Mahmood, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Addis Ababa Office in a commentary published in 2019.
The Red Sea and the adjacent Gulf of Aden face many potential threats to free movement, ranging from the presence of non-state armed groups (such as the Houthis in Yemen) and organised crime outfits to ongoing territorial disputes and environmental concerns. Yet maritime traffic has largely gone undisrupted in recent years.
The hitherto safe passageway of the Red Sea should not be taken for granted, though, and the area has attracted significant geopolitical interest. New initiatives concerned with the shared maritime space are being conceived, including a Red Sea Forum championed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The African Union (AU) and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are also taking a greater interest. All these actors aim to address a perceived gap in managing the Red Sea space.
A 2019 ISS report examines the Red Sea area’s developments, threats and unique nature. It also outlines maritime approaches developed in other complex environments to find lessons for the Red Sea.
One of the first lessons [identified by the report] is that for any regional arrangement to succeed, addressing the prevailing mistrust and competition [among key neighbouring countries and other powers] is critical. The inability to overcome tensions can lead to a duplication of efforts or the non-participation of essential states. For example, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (Asia Agreement) has helped reduce these crimes in East Asia. Still, its wider success has been hindered by Malaysia and Indonesia’s refusal to join.
Such dynamics are often linked to questions of national sovereignty. In the Asia agreement example, Indonesia argued that piracy was more of a domestic than international issue and thus limited its involvement.
Measures to offset inevitable sovereignty considerations include consensus-based decision-making and flexible tiers of member-state engagement. The Djibouti Code of Conduct, a 2009 agreement among 20 Indian Ocean nations that tackles piracy, has adhered to the former, ensuring that decisions are not binding on members. The Sea Surveillance Cooperation Baltic Sea (SUCBAS) allows members to participate at three different tiers of engagement according to their comfort levels.
A second lesson is that many successful arrangements have started small and expanded over time. This is both in terms of membership and scope, as confidence is developed and the relevance of activities is shown. Both SUCBAS and the Djibouti Code have followed this approach.
SUCBAS emerged out of an initial bilateral agreement between Finland and Sweden. The Djibouti Code 2017 adopted the Jeddah Amendment, greatly expanding the realm of maritime crimes covered (although three of the original 20 signatories didn’t sign the Jeddah Amendment). Membership of the Asia agreement grew to include nations as far away from East Asia as the United States and Denmark, given their shipping interest in the maritime space and the strategic value of the route.
Two other lessons described in the ISS report are the need to build around a standard set of principles or concerns and to prioritise coordination to avoid the proliferation of initiatives and competition between them. The lack of a standard definition or assessment of the threats can also lead to divergent proposals.
During the development of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct in Central and West Africa, a question over priorities emerged. Some coastal nations downplayed the threat of piracy in favour of the destruction of local fishing livelihoods.
Any organisation requires a certain level of common interest to function. Cooperation among parties tends to increase when threat levels are perceived as high, with interest waning as threats recede. Yet maintaining cooperation consistently is vital to minimise challenges.
The Djibouti Code has done well in this regard, including by developing the Jeddah Amendment – a key outcome considering that while incidents of piracy in the Indian Ocean have dropped, the threat of piracy and other maritime crimes remain. This is particularly relevant for the Red Sea, as concern is high right now due in part to Yemen’s civil war – yet a resolution of the conflict may dampen some actors’ overall enthusiasm for cooperation.
Coordination also helps prevent potential competition or overlap. Some important initiatives have suffered in this regard. Norway, for example, doesn’t participate in SUCBAS but has championed a similar initiative in the BarentsWatch project. [The initiative aimed at developing a unified information and decision support system for the Norwegian coast and waters.] The project aims to provide easy access to high-quality information on various aspects of the region. Malaysia declined to join the Asia agreement as it saw the development duplicating an existing reporting stream.
Given the various approaches emerging for the Red Sea and countries’ involvement in potentially overlapping regional initiatives, coordination will be essential. The Red Sea is a unique maritime environment, but lessons from elsewhere can improve its naval management.
12th Year • December 16 2023 – January 15 2024 • No. 124