Egypt, Saudi Arabia Flexing Military Muscles In The Red Sea

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have concluded a joint naval training in the Red Sea, one aiming at increasing cooperation between the two Arab countries’ navies and delivering a message about their preparedness for any emergency in the region. The “Morgan 16” naval training started on January 22 at a newly-opened Egyptian naval base near Egypt’s southern Red Sea coast.

The area where the training took place is in close proximity to the southern entrance of the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the coast of Yemen, an Arab state where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting an insurgency by the Iran-backed Houthi militia for almost five years now.

Why Were The Drills Done Now?

The training – only one aspect of military cooperation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia – came at a sensitive time in the Middle East and Red Sea region. The January 3 killing of the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, brought retaliation fears to areas controlled by militias affiliated with Iran.

In terms of Yemen, the Houthi militia has overrun most of the country – including the capital Sana’a in 2014 – and kicked its legitimate government out. The Houthis’ control of Yemen’s coastal cities is especially increasing fears about freedom of international maritime movement in the southern entrance of the Red Sea, particularly regarding oil exports from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

The militia attacked oil tankers off Yemen’s Red Sea coast several times in the past years, highlighting the dangers they pose to the maritime movement in the area. Egypt is especially worried about the security of the southern entrance of the Red Sea, which is strongly connected with the prospects and business done on the economically vital the Suez Canal.

The administration of incumbent Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has invested billions of dollars in digging a parallel channel to the canal to allow two-way traffic in it for the first time. Sisi’s administration also wants to turn the canal region into an international investment magnet and a major industrial and logistical support center. The training drills are clearly about flexing muscles and demonstrating a commitment to the security of the region.

Military Buildup In The Wider Region

The training, which ended on January 30, also came at a time of major military buildup in the Middle East region, including in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Gulf region. This buildup has rising tensions in the region in the background. Regional states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are also taking their own measures to shield themselves against potential threats.

On January 6, Saudi Arabia formed a new Red Sea coalition. The new military bloc, made up of eight countries, will be ready to act against piracy, smuggling, and other threats in the Red Sea with a view to protecting the international maritime movement in it.

Egypt is also making a large deployment of important naval and military equipment in the region as part of its Southern naval fleet. Egyptian military and naval presence in this area also aims to function as a shield against Turkish ambitions in the Red Sea, according to analysts.

Turkey was hoping to gain presence in the Red Sea by signing an agreement in December 2017 with ex-Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for the administrative control of the Sudanese Red Sea island of Suakin. The island is located a few kilometers away from Egypt’s Red Sea coast and Turkish presence in the island will tighten the noose around Egypt, especially as part of a Turkish plan to besiege the Arab country for ideological, economic, and strategic reasons. Turkey has a military presence in Libya and in the Horn of Africa and its control of the Sudanese island would bring it dangerously close to the Egyptian border as well.

The Scope Of The Naval Training Exercises

A large number of Egyptian and Saudi naval units participated in the training. They included a number of corvettes, speedboats, and supply ships. The troops participating also trained in electronic warfare and electronic maneuvering. They carried out search and rescue operations for distressed ships and planes. They feigned a real naval battle and trained in live fire shooting, especially aiming at surface targets.

The Egyptian and Saudi navy troops also trained in the supply of naval units in the sea as well as in countering non-traditional attacks. They raided a remote island where enemy forces are heavily fortified to make it difficult for invaders or attackers to reach them. The clear message behind all these activities was that the two navies are ready to defend the Egyptian and Saudi coasts and operate in tandem with each other.