Destabilization in the Red Sea : what impact for Europe ?

, by Allan Malheiro

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Destabilization in the Red Sea : what impact for Europe ?

2023 was a painful year for international peace : war in Ukraine, in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Gaza, civil war in Sudan, territorial disputes between Guyana and Venezuela; despite the efforts to promote peace, 2024 is not seen with optimism by many observers. In the Red Sea region, this phenomenon of multiplication of conflicts is particularly blatant : from shore (Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia) to shore (Yemen), conflicts and tensions are increasing, putting a strategic region at risk, especially for Europe.

Tensions between Ethiopia and its neighbors

Having an Ethiopian Prime Minister with a Nobel peace prize could be seen by some as a calming factor in the East Africa region. However, it is ironically the contrary. Since he took power in 2018, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (who received the Nobel Prize in 2019 for his peace negotiations with Eritrea) arguably multiplicated tensions in the region. First, strong tensions appeared between Ethiopia and Egypt : since the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2011, tensions were already high between these two countries because Egypt feared it could reduce the water availability and thus, threaten its economy and the welfare of its citizens but Abiy Ahmed took them to another level. In fact, he warned Egypt that “no force can stop Ethiopia from building a dam. If there is need to go to war, we could get millions readied,” before adding “that’s not in the best interest of all of us.”

In 2020, a new war took place in this troubled region : the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) tried to secede from the Ethiopian government in 2020. Tigray is a Northern region of Ethiopia and the TPLF was deeply hated by the current administration and by a part of the Ethiopian population because it was the party of the former president Meles Zenawi who ruled Ethiopia from 1995 to 2012 : despite his economic success which made him appreciated by Tigreans, he marginalized the two biggest ethnic groups of the country (the Oromos and the Amaras), creating strong resentment. Thus, the declaration of secession was seen as an unforgivable treason by the government which repressed Tigray, leading the country to a 2 year civil war causing the death of around 600,000 people. Condemned by the EU and by the US for a “pattern of gross violation of human rights”, the response of the central government was criticized for the bombing of schools and hospitals in Tigray.

The current tensions in Eastern Africa result from Ethiopian ambitions to gain an access to the sea : indeed, since the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993, the government in Addis Ababa lost access to the Red Sea. To compensate these losses, an agreement was signed with Djibouti to access to its ports but, because of the heavy cost of this agreement and the strong dependence of Ethiopia on Djibouti for its exportations (which hands over more than 90% of Ethiopian external trade), Addis Ababa wants to find other solutions. In October 2023, Abiy Ahmed threatened its neighbors by saying that the lack of port access could fuel a future armed conflict and saying that the natural boundaries of his countries are the shores of the Red Sea before sending troops to the borders of Eritrea and staging a military parade in the capital. Even if a war did not break out, it worried the three Ethiopian neighbors (Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia). Finally, the current tensions (at the beginning of 2024) took place because of Ethiopian willingness to gain access to Red Sea ports : in order to do so, it made a deal with Somaliland, a secessionist region of Somalia (which is far more stable and democratic than Somalia itself), allowing it access to a port in the territory. Unsurprisingly, this caused a firm contestation of Somalia and Abiy Ahmed told the Economist that “if [the access to Somaliland’s ports] is not achieved by other means, war is the way.”

Houthi attacks in the Red Sea

In addition to the tensions on the African shore of the Red Sea (without even dealing with Sudan suffering from a civil war), the conflict on the Yemenite shore of the sea is the most important. Despite being called the “Arabian Felix” (fertile/happy Arabia), Yemen suffers from an ongoing civil war since 2014 between the government supported by the Saudis and the rebels Houthis supported by Iran. In this country, which, according to the UN, faces the “worst humanitarian crisis” (with 75% of the population in dire need of humanitarian assistance and protection services); Houthis, despite controlling the capital Sana’a, were progressively losing the war against Saudi Arabia and many observers thought they could sign a peace treaty with Riyad. However, the war in Gaza allowed them to focus on an external enemy and gain popularity in Yemen : thus, in October 2023, the Houthis began sending drones and missile strikes to Israel and one month later, they began attacking ships in the Red Sea. Since then, they have damaged 6 ships and captured 2 : one was released but the crew of the second one (25 people) was held hostage.

In the face of these attacks, the United States launched “Prosperity Guardian”, an international coalition of 20 countries including European countries such as the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain Italy or France (these two last countries stated that they will participate but that their vessels will remain on their command) as well as other Western countries. In reaction to the coalition, the Yemenite rebels threatened the marine forces that the “Red Sea would be [their] graveyard.”

A destabilization which could have important consequences for Europe

MSC, Maersk, Cosco, Hapag-Lloyd, Evergreen,... Few days after the first attacks of the Houthis, most of the biggest shipping companies (excepted CMA CGM) of the world announced to avoid the Red Sea, sailing around South Africa instead (but this route is slower and thus more expensive) : almost 150 vessels carrying around 105 billion dollars of ocean freight changed their itineraries, thus putting at risk European trade. Indeed, 15% of the world trade passes by the Red Sea (30% of the maritime trade), 40% of the Europe-Asia trade passes through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait (gate from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean) and it is a key region for the European oil supply. Many analysts are worried that, if the Houthi attacks continue, inflation could increase and shortages could happen in Europe.

Even if some companies like CMA CGM continued to pass through the Red Sea, the reactions of most of the shipping companies show that even a relatively weak group can have a strong power of nuisance in this region, threatening European trade. The recovery now depends on the success of Operation Prosperity Guardian, if it fails or takes too long to succeed, the economic consequences could be problematic to a continent already facing the impact of the war in Ukraine.

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