Since 2013, Egypt has been strengthening its naval power: this particularly regards the strategic direction of the Red Sea. In fact, the military declared “strategic zones of military importance”, areas where infrastructural, mining and tourism-related projects are flourishing. Moreover, the governor of the Red Sea governorate is a military general, as most of the provincial governors. As the Egyptian navy intensifies joint naval exercises in the Red Sea with Arab and European partners, the Berenice (Ras Banas) interforce military base, expanded and then opened in January 2020, reflects bold goals. In fact, Cairo is mostly investing in blue-water capabilities (deep sea) to support national prestige with the modernization of its Soviet-era fleet, and less on brown-water capabilities (littoral areas), despite asymmetric threats are on the rise.
The Berenice outpost, geographically placed between Egyptian and Saudi mega-projects, should support Egypt’s maritime projection amidst the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb choke-points. It is still unclear whether or not Cairo will be able to balance its national interests with the regional priority of its main ally, Saudi Arabia: countering Iran. Surely, Egypt receives now less direct financial support from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait with respect to 2013-2016: but economies are widely interconnected. Stretched between its national agenda and Gulf allies’ agendas, Cairo has still to define a role for Berenice.
Egypt and the Gulf Allies: Aligned, Not Overlapped in Foreign Policy
For Egypt, the Red Sea is a historical backyard: a natural bridge linking Africa (both Mediterranean and Eastern), to the sands of the Arabian Peninsula. But Egypt alone is no longer able to play the king-maker role in the Red Sea: this has turned into the arena of a big geopolitical struggle for commercial and military influence involving Middle Eastern and global powers. Rather, Egypt needs regional allies and shared strategic goals to preserve, and enhance, its influence in the sub-region. Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the UAE (which doesn’t have borders on the Red Sea) have quickly entered the game, multiplying commercial and military interests along these coasts. But Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not always on the same page in foreign policy: despite strong economic ties and a compatible approach to leadership style and state-society relations, their regional priorities are aligned, not overlapped. This occurs for instance on Yemen, Red Sea security and, most of all, Iran.
In such a mosaic, Berenice is now the military focal point in the northern Red Sea. This strategic linchpin at the crossroads between the Gulf and the Horn could serve diverse, if not dis-aligned, goals depending on who drives the agenda. In this context, Egypt is no longer able to go it alone in the Red Sea, while Cairo and Riyadh – although allies – still differ on how to build, and govern, security in the Red Sea.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia Strengthen Naval Cooperation
Egypt’s increasing naval projection in the Red Sea combines with a tightened political and maritime cooperation with Saudi Arabia: Berenice is likely to become a cooperation hub for Red Sea security. Not by chance, Khalid bin Salman Al Saud, the Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense Affairs, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, both attended Berenice’s opening ceremony. The base (just in front of the Saudi industrial city of Yanbu), close to a civilian airport, can host large vessels, aircraft carriers, submarines and frigates: it comprises a military hospital and training facilities.
The expansion/opening of new military bases by Egypt also supports a broader naval restructuring effort: naval forces are now divided into two combat fleets (one of them in the Red Sea), plus two naval special operation forces. Added to this is new equipment (like the Mistral class amphibious warfare ships) from diversified defense procurement sources. In 2018-2020, the Egyptian navy has strengthened maritime cooperation with Saudi Arabia for naval drills and training: this is likely to have direct implications for Berenice, not only in terms of training and education, but also on an operative side.
In 2019 (January and September), the Saudis organized with Egypt Red Wave-1 and Red Wave-2, the “first naval joint drill promoting naval security in the Red Sea region”, involving also Jordan, Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti. The latest Egypt-Saudi Arabia Morgan exercise was held in January 2020 (Morgan-16) within the scope of the Red Sea Naval Base based at Safaga, as part of a joint training plan for the armed forces. The training effort included theoretical lectures, conferences, special operations with live ammunitions and exhibition of arms: most of all, it aimed to unify operational concepts between the Egyptian and Saudi navies, as Riyadh is pursuing blue-water capabilities too.
A Security-First Approach to Mega-Projects
Mega-projects concerning infrastructures, urbanism and tourism are flourishing on the two sides of the Red Sea. In Egypt, the military is both actor and supervisor of these projects. In 2020, the Egyptian Parliament passed a clause to a 1968 law authorizing the defense minister to name a military adviser and a “sufficient” number of assistants in each governorate: reporting to the MoD, the adviser will monitor the progress of development projects “to avoid any grave danger that may undermine the safety and security of the state”. The military is directly involved in the economic activities which are likely to generate synergies with the Saudi “Vision 2030”, first of all NEOM: the “King Salman Bridge” is going to connect the two countries, crossing the Red Sea. Many of the “Vision 2030” projects develop along the kingdom’s western coast or territorial waters (NEOM, the Red Sea Project, the Jeddah port expansion, the Aramco-SABIC integrated industrial complex). Moreover, Saudi Arabia plans to further boost oil exports from the Yanbu South Terminal to bypass the Hormuz Strait.
For Egypt and for Saudi Arabia, improving brown-water maritime capabilities is therefore a must to securitize this highly strategic area, preventing and countering asymmetric threats. Attacks and threats come today from Yemen’s Houthis (think of the three Egyptian fishermen killed by the explosion of a Houthi-planted sea mine in February 2020, or to the Greek-managed oil tanker damaged in November 2020 by a sea mine off the Saudi port of Al Shuqaiq); however, the Red Sea lies in a troubled area also including unstable Sinai, crumbling Somalia and now Tigray in Ethiopia. But the practical translation of the Egypt-Saudi alliance for Red Sea security still remains vague.
The Red Sea Rebus: Which Role for Berenice?
In its renewed strategic direction in the Red Sea, Egypt still has to find a sustainable balance between its own national interests and regional partners’ ends: the outcome will shape Berenice’s operative radius. For the Egyptian Armed Forces, the base is first of all a border and national security safeguard close to the Hala’ib, an area disputed with Sudan. Khartoum has become pivotal in the power competition for the Horn of Africa, in which Egypt’s Gulf allies are prominent actors: in this way, Berenice also counterbalances Turkey’s Red Sea ambitions and its role in the Sudanese port of Suakin.
But on the Red Sea question, Egypt fluctuates between nationalist spirits and political concessions to the Saudi ally, with an eye to budget security. In 2015, Egypt refused to send ground soldiers to Yemen, resisting Saudi insistent requests: Cairo sent warships to patrol the southern Red Sea, thus highlighting the primacy of maritime interests and defensive goals. Egypt’s focus on the maritime side is clear: “We categorically reject that Yemen would become a foothold for the influence of non-Arab forces, or a platform for security and stability threats against the brotherly Arab countries or freedom of navigation” in the area, stated el-Sisi in 2018, after a Saudi oil tanker was damaged by the Houthis in the Red Sea.
On the other hand, Egypt announced and then ceded sovereignty of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in 2016-17, giving the Saudis the entrance keys to the Gulf of Aqaba. As the kingdom has rising economic interests in the sub-region, a security-oriented approach is guiding the Saudi’s Red Sea policy, as demonstrated by the re-launch of the Saudi Naval Expansion Programme II (SNEP II) in 2018, with particular regard to the Western Coast Fleet based in Jeddah. On the contrary, Egypt prioritizes a more inclusive, flexible and economics-oriented approach to the Red Sea, as pointed out by Zach Vertin. Moreover, the “Red Sea Alliance” (Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden) has not to become for Egypt an anti-Iran coalition, differently from Saudi Arabia’s perspective. Trying to mobilize what remains of the Pan-Arab spirit of the past, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan sent a subtle message to el-Sisi during Berenice’s opening ceremony, declaring that “the Egyptian Armed Forces are not only a bulwark of Egypt but also of the entire Arab world because Egypt’s strength is a force for all Arabs”.
Whatever the evolution of the “Red Sea Alliance”, the Egyptian navy is investing in joint naval exercises in the Red Sea with European (France, Spain) and Arab (Saudi Arabia, UAE) partners, improving inter-operability on shared security interests. For instance, if the first-ever Egyptian-Emirati military exercise in the Red Sea (2018) focused on protecting maritime transport, the Eagle Salute-Eagle Response drills, held by Egypt, the UAE and the United States in 2019 (with Saudi Arabia as observer), presented a wider range of activities, including the countering of asymmetric threats such as detecting and neutralizing sea mines.
Berenice supports Egypt’s naval and economic projection in the area, boosting the Egyptian maritime role in a highly-trafficked and competitive sub-region. But the regional best friend of Cairo, Saudi Arabia (and also the UAE), does not limit itself to multilateral security cooperation, since it pursues a zero-sum regional hegemony: this complicates Egypt’s strategic calculus. For this reason, the role of Berenice in the Red Sea rebus is still to be solved.