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Saudi Arabia, Egypt lead regional naval drills in Red Sea

Military analysts say the naval military exercise held off the Jeddah coast show regional dedication the Red Sea's security.

CAIRO — A mixed naval exercise called “Red Wave 5” kicked off on May 29 off the Saudi Red Sea coast of Jeddah. Countries bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden including Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen as well as observers from Somalia took part in the drill under the command of the Saudi Western Fleet and with the participation of the Saudi land, naval and air forces. A previous edition of the drills under the same name took place in Saudi waters in January 2019, with the participation of the same five countries.

Commander of the Western Fleet Yahya bin Mohammed Al-Asiri was quoted by the Saudi Press Agency as saying that the exercise aims to strengthen military cooperation in the Red Sea between countries bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, to unify naval operations, exchange combat experience and increase combat readiness, with the aim of achieving maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, one of the most important international economic corridors. 

The drills, which ended June 4, included several combat missions and exercises involving Apache helicopters.

Gen. Samir Farag, the former director of the Egyptian army's Department of Morale Affairs, told Al-Monitor that the recent naval exercises gave the Red Sea countries a chance to practice cooperation in light of the threat posed by Yemen’s Houthis in the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

Farag called reports about current talks between Khartoum and Moscow to establish a Russian military base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast baseless rumors. He added, however, that a naval military base would not affect military cooperation between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the countries bordering the Red Sea.

The Red Sea links Asia, Africa, and Europe, covering about 438,000 square kilometers and reaching 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles) long. 

In recent years, the strategic waterway has faced repeated threats, most notably the rising influence of the Iran-aligned armed Houthi movement in Yemen. Since it took control of the Yemeni capital in 2014, the group has sought to control the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the southern gate to the Red Sea, and control navigation in the area. 

The strait is the main route for oil shipments to the Gulf states, Europe, and the United States as it links the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Any threat to the strait would be tantamount to a direct threat to the international Suez Canal shipping lane.

The Red Sea also faces environmental threats and piracy off the Somali coast.

Maj. Gen. Amin Ismail Majzoub, who researches crisis management at the National Studies Center in Khartoum, told Al-Monitor that the drills coincided with the ratification of the charter establishing the Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. On May 30, Sudan ratified the charter establishing the council created to protect the security of regional waterways. 

Majzoub said that Sudan’s participation shows its commitment to the council and to securing its Red Sea coast. He believes Khartoum’s participation in the drills sends a message to the other participating countries that it rejects the establishment of a Russian base or any Russian logistics center on its territory.

During his 2017 visit to Moscow, former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir urged Russia to establish a logistics center on Sudan's Red Sea coast.

Majzoub said, “In 2017, Bashir signed an agreement with Russia to establish a base on the Red Sea that would host Russian ships. The agreement stipulated that the base will be based [in Sudan] for a period of 25 years without any financial return and that Sudan will have no jurisdiction over that area and shall not approve the establishment of another base or logistic center next to the Russian naval base. Under the agreement, the base would also house nuclear ships, which would pose a great danger to Sudan and the countries bordering the Red Sea.”

He continued, “In light of this, the Sudanese government that was formed following the revolution that toppled Bashir’s regime in 2019 sought to freeze the agreement pending submission to parliament, which has yet to be formed. Thus it seems that by taking part in the naval exercises, Khartoum is rejecting a Russian military base on its coast in the Red Sea.”

Majzoub also mentioned the dangers that threaten navigation in the Red Sea, including the presence of Houthis, an increase in maritime piracy, and illegal fishing activities. He added that the presence of foreign military bases on the Red Sea coast of Djibouti also threaten the key waterway.

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