Red Sea Security and the Geopolitical-Economy of the Hanish Islands Dispute

By Lefebvre, Jeffrey A. | The Middle East Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Red Sea Security and the Geopolitical-Economy of the Hanish Islands Dispute


Lefebvre, Jeffrey A., The Middle East Journal


This paper examines the global, regional and national geopolitical and economic dimensions of the Eritrea-Yemen conflict over the Hanish Islands, and the implications of this conflict for security in the southern Red Sea region. For Eritrea and Yemen this dispute is about control over maritime resources. For strategic and economic reasons, external powers have been drawn into the conflict, as have northern Red Sea states, thereby complicating the de-escalation process. While Eritrea and Yemen have submitted this dispute to international arbitration, the conflict has apparently produced a consensus that enables France to act as the 'guardian' of the southern Red Sea region.

Although the Red Sea has served as one of the world's most important maritime routes throughout history, Western powers acquired a strategic and economic stake in ensuring Red Sea security only after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. From the middle of the nineteenth century until the outbreak of World War II, the three European colonial powers that dominated the Red Sea basin, namely, Great Britain, France and Italy, acted as guarantors of peace and stability in the region.2 Despite the geopoliticaleconomic nexus that grew out of increasing Western dependence upon Persian Gulf oil, and the need to maintain the free flow of maritime traffic through the Red Sea, Western interest in the Red Sea declined in the post-war period relative to other regions of the world.3 The closure of the Suez Canal between 1967 and 1975 caused only minor economic dislocations for the West. Supertankers carried Persian Gulf oil to the West via the South African Cape route, proving that the West could survive the disruption of maritime traffic in the Red Sea. By the mid-1970s, only France among the Western powers maintained a military presence of any significance in the southern Red Sea area, where approximately 4,000 French military personnel remained stationed at Djibouti even after that mini-state gained its independence in 1977.4

In striking contrast to its security policy toward the Persian Gulf over the past five decades, the United States has never proposed a formal security regime for the Red Sea region.5 Enhancing US military capabilities in the Red Sea was deemed politically unwise as well as militarily unnecessary.6 Since the mid-1970s, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia have patrolled the northern Red Sea, while, in the southern zone, French naval capabilities that surpass those of local powers have ensured the security of the passageway to the Indian Ocean.7 In spite of the wars that have been waged along the southern Red Sea littoral, through the mid-1990s, maritime traffic in the region has been disrupted only briefly by a few isolated incidents.8

The relative calm of the Red Sea was broken, however, on IS December 1995, when Eritrean naval forces attacked a garrison of some 200 lightly-armed Yemeni troops stationed on Hanish al-Kabir (Greater Hanish)-an island that forms part of the Hanish archipelago, located approximately 65 miles north of the Bab al-Mandab strait. This `odd war' over a group of approximately 40 hot, dry, mostly uninhabited islands, islets, and rocks, at the southern end of the Red Sea lasted for three days.9 A telephone conversation between Yemen's President `Ali `Abdallah Salih and Eritrea's President Issaias Afwerki produced a cease-fire that took effect on 17 December at midnight. By that time, however, the Yemeni resistance on the island had collapsed,' six Yemeni and a dozen Eritrean soldiers had been killed, and the Eritreans had taken 213 Yemeni prisoners of war, of whom 17 were civilians working in construction on the island, and had seized control of Hanish al-Kabir."

A war practically ignored by the Western media, the Hanish Islands conflict reveals a great deal about how local, regional and external powers currently perceive Red Sea security issues. For Eritrea and Yemen, the question of sovereignty over the Hanish Islands is critical owing to the perceived zero-sum nature of the economic stakes (control over maritime resources), compounded by their own perceptions of national honor. …

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