A fierce race is underway in the Red Sea, with various countries gunning for military bases along its shores, while carving out pockets of political and economic influence. Iran presently controls the strategic Al Hodeida port of Yemen, via its proxy Al Houthi militias, posing a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. Last October, Turkey established a military base in Somalia, months after deploying nearly 5,000 troops in Qatar — which, although not on the Red Sea, is being used by Iran to pressurise Saudi Arabia.
This week, Ankara was given full-rights to rehabilitate the port island/town of Suakin in northeastern Sudan, with a naval dock for both civilian and military vessels on the west coast of the Red Sea. In addition to rebuilding the now abandoned inland ghost town of Suakin, the Turkish government will also resurrect the former Ottoman port as a historic transit point for pilgrims crossing the Red Sea to Makkah, given its proximity to the Saudi port city of Jeddah.
The controversial agreement was reached by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al Bashir during a summit in Khartoum earlier this week. Turkish state media said this would be part of a broader agreement between the two countries, worth $650 million — money that Turkey presently does not have. The real source of the funds is probably Qatar. In addition to a military base, Ankara plans to build a new airport in Khartoum, and to invest in cotton production, electricity generation, and grain silos. Bashir and Erdogan promised to boost bilateral trade to reach $10 billion.
The new base is problematic for several countries overlooking the Red Sea. Given its proximity to Suakin, Saudi Arabia is first to worry, mainly because of Erdogan’s open alliance with Iran, cemented at the Black Sea resort of Sochi this December. The Iranians can now use the new Turkish base in Sudan to send more arms and equipment to Al Houthis, while Turkey can use its newfound military presence to send more troops to Qatar, or meddle further in the affairs of Egypt, through the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which remains firmly allied to Ankara and Doha. Along with Egypt, this undoubtedly worries Jordan, too. Egypt has its own territorial disputes with Sudan, over the Halaib Triangle on the Red Sea. Since Sudan’s independence in 1956, both Cairo and Khartoum have claimed sovereignty over this area, with Egypt deploying military units there since the 1990s, aimed at preventing any Sudanese adventurism. With Turkish/Iranian instigation, Sudanese ambitions might get awakened over the Halaib Triangle.
Countering the Iranian/Turkish threat are other bases that are quickly sprouting along the Red Sea. The Saudi-backed forces of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi still control Bab Al Mandeb and Aden, while Egypt and Jordan control the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, serving as a strong deterrent.
Such bases are a novelty on the international arena, given that throughout the Cold War, only the two superpowers had military bases outside their territory across the world.
What makes the Turkish-Iranian presence all the more worrying for Saudi Arabia is the lack of US presence in the Red Sea. True, US ships sail daily through the Red Sea, but there is no permanent presence of the US Navy there, like that of the 5th Fleet in the Gulf or the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. Instead, China recently set up a permanent base, with a military complex, in Djibouti, being the first of its kind in the Horn of Africa.