February 15, 2024


Red Sea Rivalries

Egypt, Ethiopia, and histories of maritime war

Every few years, a crisis in the Red Sea makes global headlines. In 2014, the Yemeni Civil War spilled into the Red Sea after the Houthis captured the capital Sana‘a and dissolved the parliament. As a warning, the Houthis allegedly conducted two missile strikes on US Navy ships, prompting a swift but limited retaliation from a US warship. In 2021, a malfunctioning commercial vessel was left stranded in the Suez Canal for six days, obstructing the trade of an estimated $9 billion in commercial goods passing through the Red Sea each day. The scale of the economic impact was so severe that the Egyptian government, which profits from tolls on Suez transport, initially demanded close to a billion-dollar settlement from the Japanese owner of the vessel.

Since October of 2023, the Houthi organization, the de facto governing authority in Yemen backed by Iran, has launched a barrage of attacks on several commercial ships in response to the war in Gaza and US support for Israel. The goal of these attacks has been to undermine US military presence in the area as well as to restrict the passage of Israeli commercial ships.

In light of the Houthis’ unprecedented military capability, the US has organized a coalition to secure Red Sea trade. The political implications of these naval operations are momentous. India, for example, has taken the opportunity to flex its own naval might, deploying warships east of the Red Sea in response to its rising concerns about its exports, 50 percent of which travel through the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait.

This most recent escalation invites a deeper reflection on the history of a small but profoundly important body of water—a history which traverses several centuries and crucially takes place on both sides of the sea, recounting persistent rivalries of great and middle empires. In particular, we can look to Egypt and Ethiopia’s battle for dominance in the Red Sea to contemplate current crises. Their rivalry embroils powers like the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China, extends to the wars in Palestine and Israel, and implicates past and present national claims in the Horn of Africa. While the actors may have fluctuated over centuries, the singular significance of this water passageway to the global political economy has endured.

Geographies of power

It is difficult to overplay the Red Sea’s economic importance. At the northern edge of the sea, the Egyptian-owned Suez Canal connects it with the Mediterranean. By extension, the Bab-El-Mandeb at its southern edge serves as the gateway between Europe and Asia. In normal times, up to 15 percent of all global trade passes through the Red Sea, though recent conflicts have cut this volume by nearly half. The current crises in the region have disrupted the supply chain of critical commercial goods, including grains, oil, and natural gas. Given these high economic stakes, it is no surprise that established and emerging powers alike have sought to project naval power in the region. 

Well before the latest series of crises, the Red Sea served as a battleground for states seeking a higher position within the global order. Much of the focus of these new power contentions has been on the Horn of Africa, lying at the crossroads of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean. Traditionally, the Horn was dominated by the influence of Egypt, the United Kingdom, and France. Beginning in 1896, the latter utilized Djibouti as a strategic hub for its colonial endeavors along the coast, known as French Somaliland. The Djibouti base enabled France to monitor maritime trade routes from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and facilitated the expansion of its military operations in the 1930s.

Power within the Red Sea has shifted throughout the period of US hegemony and then with the emerging multipolar order of the twenty-first century. In 2001, the United States took ownership of the Camp Lemonnier base under the guise of the War on Terror. With its own pretext of combating piracy, China established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2017. The same year, Turkey established its largest overseas military base in Somalia. The Gulf Powers have also been eager to spread their influence west of the Suez; after failing to garner concessions from Djibouti, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) secured agreements for military installations in Eritrea, another coastal state in the Horn. 

This diplomatic interest has, since 2018, eroded the traditional geopolitical divide between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. The Gulf monarchies were quick to assert their influence west of the Suez, investing billions of dollars and brokering groundbreaking peace agreements between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Beyond economic relations, the UAE and Turkey also provided significant security assistance to Ethiopia and Somalia. In response to the complex political transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia, the United Nations created the role of special envoy to the Horn of Africa in 2018, recognizing the limitations of the regional body previously responsible for fostering peace, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The United States and the European Union, observing this deepening involvement of Gulf states, appointed their own envoys to the Horn of Africa in 2021. This move was largely seen as an effort to counterbalance the growing Gulf influence and to ensure Western interests were adequately represented. China appointed its special envoy to the region in April 2023, underscoring a broader strategy accompanying its infrastructure investments in the region and its reliance on oil imports from Africa and the Middle East. 

While the major powers of the world have been vying for prominence on both sides of the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa itself has played host to new internal struggles among the lesser powers. In January 2024, Ethiopia brokered a deal to gain access to twelve miles of land for a naval base in the coastal city of Berbera, Somalia, on the Gulf of Aden. The agreement, however, was not with Mogadishu but with Somaliland—Somalia’s breakaway semi-autonomous northern region. As part of the bargain, Ethiopia reportedly granted Somaliland shares in Ethiopia Airlines and agreed to table a process toward a future recognition of Somaliland’s independence. Unsurprisingly, Somalia voiced stringent objections, threatening retaliation if Ethiopia moves forward with the deal. With media attention focused on Yemen’s Houthis to the north, little has been said about these pregnant developments along the Gulf of Aden’s southern shore.

Renewed tensions among the lesser powers present difficult questions for the stronger powers. The UAE, with a $3 billion stronghold of investments in Ethiopia, has stayed mostly silent on Addis Ababa becoming a coastal power—likely recognizing the enormous advantage to the federation of a partner in the Horn of Africa. Turkey, like the UAE, has significant economic investments in Ethiopia. But with a far more significant military stake in Somalia, Ankara affirmed its support for the country’s territorial integrity while hinting at the possibility of playing a mediator role. The United States, which has long supported greater autonomy for Somaliland, nevertheless criticized Ethiopia’s deal, perhaps over fears of a seismic regional change in which it plays no part. Egypt has indicated a readiness to intervene militarily if Ethiopia moves forward. Compounding tensions between the US and Iran, then, are renewed tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia. The result may be an all-out regional war. 

A river and a sea

From a historical standpoint, neither Egypt’s threat to Ethiopia nor Ethiopia’s muted attempt at Red Sea relevance is altogether surprising. In fact, this long-standing rivalry extends beyond the Red Sea to another shared body of water: the Nile. Egypt’s national identity has been inextricably linked with the Nile Valley since antiquity. The Nile flows into Egypt from two main tributaries in Uganda and Ethiopia, the latter supplying 85 percent of the river’s total waters. While Ethiopian folklore has long romanticized the beauty and potential of the river, the Egyptian sense of life and identity has characterized the social nature of the Nile through the ages. The age-old motif that “Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt” emphasized the Nile waters’ capacity to convert the “desert to garden.”1 In modernity, the river granted Egypt with numerous competitive advantages in cotton production and agriculture, owing to deposits of rich mineral resources carried downstream from the Ethiopian highlands.2 The construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 cemented Egypt’s sense of ownership over the Nile. The dam created the artificial Lake Nasser, which thereafter was imagined as the origin of the river and the source of its many benefits in sustaining fertile agrarian lands downstream.3 Today, agriculture in the Nile basin accounts for 11.7 percent of Egypt’s total GDP and 26 percent of the employed labor force.4

In antiquity, Ethiopia’s influence stretched not only from the Nile basin to the Red Sea, but across the waters to present-day Yemen. In the sixth century, King Kaleb of Ethiopia’s Axumite Empire sailed across the sea with 120,000 men to depose the Jewish King of Himyar, Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, who had massacred hundreds of Christians in the city of Najran.5 After defeating Yusuf, Kaleb installed a vassal to rule in present-day Yemen, returned to his kingdom, and retired into monastery life. But the conquest of Jewish Himyar weakened the Christian kingdom, which soon confronted the Persian empire in a new war in Himyar—a Persian presence that would persist amid the rise of Islam.6

Ethiopia’s ability to project power across the Red Sea and conquer southern Arabia helped perpetuate its own image as a great power during the Axumite era.7 However, Axum declined after losing the Arabian territories to Persia around 578 AD. Thereafter, the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate in the seventh century dealt an irreversible blow to Ethiopia’s command of the Red Sea. The Arab empire assumed naval control over the Red Sea and established it as a vital artery for commerce and military expansion. Within two centuries, the crux of Red Sea power had transferred from Ethiopia to Persia and finally to the new Arab empire. After the fall of the Umayyad caliphate, control of the region passed to the Abbasids, whose empire stretched from Baghdad to Damascus. The Abbasids were challenged by the Shia Fatimids, who took control of Egypt in the tenth century. Thereafter, control of Egypt emerged as a proxy for Red Sea dominance. By this point, the Red Sea was not just a major waterway for trade but also a major passageway for religious pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. As Egypt passed from the Fatimids to the Mamluks and then to the Ottomans, each of these powers, in turn, asserted their power over the sea. The Ottomans utilized the Red Sea most effectively in the seventeenth century, preventing rival European naval powers such as Portugal from gaining ground in the region. 

Even after Axum’s collapse, future Ethiopian rulers would continue to consider Red Sea power as a projection of strength and prestige.8 However, domination by the Arab and then the Ottoman empires would forestall Ethiopia’s return to the coast. Ottoman-controlled Egypt would finally face off with Ethiopia in the nineteenth century. Egypt was then under the ambitious rule of Khedive Isma‘il Pasha, who envisioned an expansive empire that spanned the entire Nile Valley, reigning over both the river and the Red Sea. After conquering much of Sudan, Isma‘il invaded Ethiopia from the east in 1875, launching his campaign from the Egyptian-controlled port city of Massawa in present-day Eritrea. Contrary to Egyptian expectations, the invasion was met with significant resistance. The overwhelming numbers of the Ethiopian army, led by Emperor Yohannes IV, decisively defeated Isma‘il’s forces, their victory owing in no small part to the rugged terrain of the Ethiopian Highlands. 

After defeating Isma‘il, the Ethiopian Empire attempted to reestablish a presence on the Eritrean coast. This ambition, however, was short lived, as the Italian colonial mission which landed in East Africa in 1885 would effectively push the empire away from the sea. Still, the southern port of Assab continued to present immense economic potential for Ethiopia, since it was far closer to Ethiopia’s major cities than to Eritrea’s. In recognition of this, Italy had even offered 30,000 square meters of Assab land for Ethiopia to use for 130 years in 1917.9 In 1935, however, Italy sought to expand its colonial empire into Ethiopia. This second attempt was initially more successful than the first, but Italy was once again expelled from Ethiopia at the heels of an allied victory in the Second World War. 

National ambitions

The twentieth century forced the modern states of Egypt and Ethiopia to renegotiate their own national identities vis-à-vis the two major water bodies upon which their preceding empires were established. Egypt’s contemporary assertion over the Red Sea came with its independence from Great Britain and the assumption of ownership over the Suez Canal. The Suez presented tremendous economic opportunities for easing trade; prior to the Canal, most goods traveling from countries along the Mediterranean to those along the Indian Ocean were transported either on camels or through circumnavigating the southern tip of the African continent.10 Although the Suez was constructed by a French company, Britain acquired a 44 percent stake in the passageway in 1875 amidst the economic woes of Isma‘il Pasha. Britain expanded its control through the course of the First World War, and gradually completed a treaty with Egypt that granted full control to Britain. 

The Suez, incidentally, became crucial during the Second World War. Upon gaining independence in 1956, Egypt nationalized the canal, which at the time was jointly owned by French and British companies. Although Egypt temporarily lost control of the canal amid military confrontations with Israel, Britain, and France, its ownership of the Suez was formally recognized by the UN in 1957. Later, Egypt’s blockade of Israeli ships passing through the Suez became a main point of contention during the Six Day War. It was not until the end of the Cold War and the global acceleration of trade that Egypt was able to fully exploit the Suez and, by extension, its influence over the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, with the defeat of the Italians and the Ethiopian Crown restored, the empire finally regained its presence on the Red Sea. By 1970, Ethiopia had the third largest Red Sea coastline, after Egypt and Saudi Arabia.11 This coastline, however, was far from secure. Eritrea, then a coastal province of Ethiopia, had constructed a distinct political identity through the course of Italian administration. With the departure of the Italians and the weakening of the modern Ethiopian empire, Eritrea began articulating nationalist aspirations of its own in the 1970s, with strong support from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.12

As these patrons of Eritrean independence show, it was the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict that shaped the Red Sea politics of the 1970s. The Arab League states were keen to emphasize the Red Sea as an Arab sphere of influence—accusing Ethiopia of leasing Red Sea islands to the Israeli military, the presidents of both Egypt and Syria stated unequivocally that the Red Sea is an “Arab lake.”13 In the leadup to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, blockading Israeli shipments required a near-complete Arabization of the Red Sea and coordination of policy among members of the Arab League.14 Fearing that Eritrean nationalism was driven by Arab instigators, who historically used the Red Sea as a base to invade the Abyssinian hinterland, the Ethiopian Crown balked at conceding any autonomy to the coastal province.15

Given these tensions, the Ethiopian empire was intent on maintaining its sole access to the sea via Eritrea. A United Nations communiqué highlights Ethiopia’s self-perception during this period as a “proud, powerful nation” by virtue of its control of the seas.16 Nevertheless, Ethiopia lost its coastline in 1993 with the independence of Eritrea after a decades-long civil war. Egypt and Saudi Arabia emerged as the main beneficiaries of Eritrean independence, now able to assert their influence unhindered as the two countries with the largest Red Sea coastlines.

Back to the present

The histories of Red Sea rivalry form an essential backdrop to contemporary tensions. For the past decade, Ethiopia’s construction on its portion of the Nile river of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant, has provoked a war of words with Egypt. Breaking ground amid Egypt’s 2011 revolution, the GERD challenged Egypt’s longstanding hegemony in the Nile. The GERD threatens to drastically reduce Egypt’s 85 percent allotment of Nile waters—set by UK-brokered agreements in which Ethiopia took no part—placing Egypt’s water security at the mercy of Ethiopia.17

This recent rebalancing of power relations with Ethiopia is, for Egypt, unacceptable. A major escalation came with the leaked recording of a secret meeting in which members of the Morsi-led government discussed military action against the GERD. Another was the result of Egyptian air force drills responding to Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam.18 With the GERD now nearing completion, however, an Egyptian-led military strike over the issue is unlikely. In the absence of even a minimal agreement for coordinating joint water use, it is expected that Egypt will continue to seek other opportunities to undermine or weaken Ethiopia’s position. 

The diplomatic fallout from the Somaliland deal presents Egypt with an opportunity to assert itself over its regional rival. In this sense, Egypt’s threat of military intervention is credible. Unlike a military escalation over the GERD, in which Egypt would be seen as the clear aggressor, an intervention in defense of Somaliland, a weaker independence movement, presents a more feasible opportunity for Egypt to restore its power balance with Ethiopia. As the putative loser of the Nile conflict, Egypt will go to great lengths to prevent its historic rival from re-establishing a presence on the Red Sea. In this respect, both the Nile and the Red Sea have been instrumental to the foreign policies of these regional powers.

Today’s Red Sea trade exclusively passes through the Suez Canal, accounting for 14 percent of Egyptian government revenue.19 For Egypt, then, the economic implications of Red Sea instability are critical, placing it once again in a vulnerable position before larger geopolitical forces. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s diplomatic triumph in the Nile dispute and its efforts to reassert a Red Sea presence signify a profound strategic dilemma for Egypt, a country intrinsically tied to the Nile and the Suez Canal. The UAE’s gamble on Ethiopia’s resurgence contrasts with its more measured positioning in the Gulf and the broader Middle East. Turkey’s influence in the region is nowhere near that of its Ottoman predecessor, but its security and economic commitments in the Horn have rivaled those of the UAE.

Iran’s backing of the Houthis is a strategic move to unsettle the status quo, weakening Israel while challenging the dominance of Saudi Arabia and the US in the Red Sea. This maneuver carries echoes of the past: Persia’s challenge against Ethiopian influence in Arabia through the sixth century conquest of Yemen; the tenth-century Shia-Sunni contention between the Fatimids and the Abbasids; as well as the post-World War II Arab blockades of Israel via the Red Sea. The current turmoil has reengaged the United States in Middle Eastern politics and drawn naval interest from China and India. But rivalries to the west of the Suez are now more volatile than those in the Gulf. In the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, the roots of present-day statecraft run deep. 

  1. Gemmill, Paul F. “Egypt Is the Nile.” Economic Geography 4, no. 3 (1928): 295–312. https://doi.org/10.2307/140298

  2.  Demerew, K. “From Red Sea to the Nile: Water, Power, and Politics in Northeast Africa.” Third World Quarterly 42(12) (2021): 2883-2901. https://ideas.repec.org/a/taf/ctwqxx/v42y2021i12p2883-2901.html.

  3. Erlich, Haggai. “Identity and Church: Ethiopian—Egyptian Dialogue, 1924–59.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 32, no. 1 (2000): 23–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/259534.

  4. Soffer, A. “The Impact of the Suez Canal on Egypt’s Geography and Economy, 1867–2019 (150 Years Since Its Opening).” In The Suez Canal: Past Lessons and Future Challenges, edited by Lutmar, C., Rubinovitz, Z., (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023).

  5. Bowersock, G.W. The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam. Oxford University Press, 2013.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Woubshet, Dagmawi, Salamishah Tillet, and Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis. “The Romance of Ethiopia: A Critical Introduction.” Callaloo 33, no. 1 (2010): 8–14. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/stable/40732783.

  8. Demerew, “From Red Sea to the Nile,” 2883-2901.

  9. Ahmad, Abdussamad H. “Trade Relations of Northern Ethiopia with Italian Eritrea 1903–1935,” Africa: Rivista Trimestrale Di Studi E Documentazione Dell’Istituto Italiano per L’Africa E L’Oriente 52, no. 3 (1997): 416–30. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/stable/40761155.

  10. Kendie, Daniel. “An Aspect of the Geo-Politics of the Red Sea,” Northeast African Studies 12, no. 2/3 (1990): 117–31.http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/stable/43660318.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15.  Sherman, Richard. “The Rise of Eritrean Nationalism”. Northeast African Studies 2/3, no. 3/1 (1981): 121–29. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/stable/43660060.

  16. Lewis, Paul. “End Fighting, U.N. Council Tells Ethiopia and Eritrea.”New York Times Archives (February 28, 1999).

  17. Demerew, K. “Realist Perspectives on Nile Politics: Conflict and Cooperation Between Ethiopia and Egypt.” African Security 15(3) (2022): (213-236).

  18.  Ibid.

  19. Soffer, A. “The Impact of the Suez Canal on Egypt’s Geography and Economy.”

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