The Council of African Studies (CAS) at the MacMillan Center invited Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, to speak about the significance of the Red Sea in current African and Middle East politics, on October 10, as part of the CAS Lecture Series.
De Waal kicked off the event by stating the prime purpose of his talk: that the “Red Sea is a salient, but overlooked issue” that has major security implications, especially for the Middle East and Africa.
Geographically, the Red Sea serves as a barrier separating Africa from the Middle East. Because of this, inhabitants on different sides of the sea “don’t even tend to understand one another.” Moreover, according to De Waal, this division “has allowed Africa to develop norms, security mechanisms, and peace strategies that the Middle East does not have.” With the more recent entrance of the United Arab Emirates into the politics of the Red Sea, this body of water has become a source of quiet tension among the neighboring countries.
An expert on African issues, De Waal next turned to the history behind the Red Sea. Following the construction and opening of the Suez Canal in the latter half of the nineteenth century, trade between nations separated by water became immensely easier. De Waal offered one prime example: the canal cut “forty-percent of the sailing time between London and Bombay.” In the earliest years of the Suez Canal, the world was experiencing the “Pax Britannica,” and the unparalleled power of the British Empire “guaranteed the safety of the Red Sea.” Later on, however, while the canal remained secure under Britain’s protection, the stability of the countries bordering it began deteriorating and many slid into turmoil.
In the 1990s, conversations about whether there should be a “Red Sea security arrangement” emerged. These considerations, according to De Waal, arose due in large part to the involvement of the Middle East and Africa in each other’s businesses and affairs, along with increasing “rivalry among the Middle Eastern countries.”
De Waal then returned to the present state of African and Middle Eastern affairs. The United States, which had begun intervening in Middle Eastern politics with the Gulf War and the Iraq War, is now “withdrawing its security umbrella” over the Red Sea. If conflicts erupt in the region, then oil transit will be threatened, as they very well might be due to the increase in military bases being constructed around the Red Sea. While this strikes an ominous note in the fate of global politics, De Waal left us with a message of hope. “The current formula is fundamentally unstable,” he stated. “What the Middle East needs is a Versailles or San Francisco conference, which Africa is able to do a lot of.”
Written by Sophia Zhao