A Tangled Web of Relationships in the Red Sea: Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen

Readers have likely heard about the ongoing military conflict between Saudi Arabia and rebels in Yemen. But did you know that Eritrea stands accused of aiding the Yemeni rebels?

Iran is using Eritrea as a base to provide weapons to Shi’ite insurgents in Yemen, an Eritrean opposition leader alleged on Sunday.

“They (rebels) are receiving their arms from Iran through Eritrea,” Bashir Eshaq, head of external relations for the opposition Eritrean Democratic Alliance, told AFP in an interview.

“The weapons arrive in Eritrea’s coastal towns – mainly Assab, and from then onwards, Huthi rebels smuggle the arms to Yemen at night,” he added.

Eritrea lies just across the Red Sea to the west of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Horn of Africa nation has frosty relations with the West, but has recently fostered close economic ties with Iran.

I cannot judge the truth of Eshaq’s claims, but this remind us that we can’t neatly separate the political world of the Horn of Africa and the political world of the Gulf. It’s all interrelated. Here are just a few of the important connections:

Despite the human, economic, and military ties between East Africa and the Gulf, we’re not getting the nuanced media coverage of this region that we need. It’s hard to find a sophisticated public discussion in the American media of how the relationships between these countries and the domestic situations in each one are affecting conflicts that are too often depicted as self-contained, like the Somali civil war, or as bilateral, like the fighting near the Saudi Arabian-Yemeni border.


Asmara, Eritrea

If we’re not getting the coverage we need, is Washington formulating nuanced and effective policies toward the region?

Clearly, the administration is aware that problems have regional dimensions. US policymakers who are concerned about terrorism and instability in Yemen and Somalia recognize that these problems are connected. Speaking in August in Nairobi with Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Secretary Hillary Clinton displayed an impressive knowledge of the effects of the Somali refugee crisis on its neighbors, and took questions about the possibility of the Somali civil war destabilizing Kenya. The US has taken a hard line on Eritrea for alleged involvement in Somalia. I am still concerned, though, that policies toward different players in the region are at odds with one another. Is close friendship with Ethiopia conducive to promoting stability in Somalia? Can we pressure Kenya’s leadership to reform (a move that has already evoked backlash) while still demanding their cooperation on Somalia? If accusations of Eritrean intervention in Yemen turn out to be true, I hope that the Obama administration will carefully examine all the strands in this tangled web.

On a related note, here’s a video from NTV Kenya about recent arrests of terrorist suspects:

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