The Red Sea Council of littoral states that was formed in early 2020 was supposed to focus on multilateral security initiatives for protecting this vital waterway, among other shared goals, but the Houthis’ seizure of an allegedly Israeli-connected ship discredits their raison d’être. A significant share of the global economy is dependent on ensuring safe transit through the Council’s namesake body of water, which that group wasn’t able to guarantee as proven by this incident despite everyone’s expectations.
Its members had three and a half years to devise a realistic plan for carrying out their primary mission, yet this was neglected for whatever reason, thus raising questions about why the Council formed in the first place. The Houthis earlier announced their intent to scale up operations against Israel out of solidarity with Hamas, including in the Red Sea, but the Council took no tangible action in response. This represents an unacceptable dereliction of their members’ stated duty in securing this waterway.
Quite clearly, the Red Sea Council can’t be relied upon for ensuring safe transit through its namesake body of water. It had over one-third of a decade to do so but neglected the goal that formally serves as their raison d’être. It therefore wouldn’t be surprising if those non-littoral states with (mostly economic) stakes in this region soon assemble a naval coalition for replacing the Council’s mission. After all, that group can’t be expected to make the required reforms right away if they haven’t done so already.
Accordingly, since the Red Sea Council failed to carry out its stated duty to the international community, it naturally falls on the latter to rise to the occasion in doing so instead. The problem is that some stakeholders might exploit the noble goal of collectively ensuring security in the Red Sea for ulterior reasons related to their own zero-sum interests. For instance, it wouldn’t be surprising if some Western countries militarize the region on this pretext in order to put pressure on some of the littoral countries.
For as regrettable as that outcome would be, there’s no denying that it’s the Red Sea Council’s own fault by failing in its stated duty to secure this waterway, which can be attributable to the suspicions that its formation was driven by other motives than its official ones. By remaining restricted solely to the littoral states instead of allowing non-littoral members and observers like the Arctic Council does, the Red Sea one prevented any possibility of other stakeholders encouraging it make progress on such plans.
Nobody else had a say in the group’s workings because they were left out of this closed organization’s meetings. In fact, some might have naively assumed that progress was being made on implementing the Red Sea Council’s raison d’être since it seemed unthinkable just prior to this latest incident that those littoral countries with the most direct stakes in that body of water would neglect their founding goal. It’s now known that this is precisely what just happened, which is regrettable and reflects poorly on them.
Looking forward, it wouldn’t be surprising if the US and those of its NATO allies (France and Italy) that presently have bases in Djibouti unilaterally take the lead in patrolling the Red Sea, which risks turning it into a “Western lake” of sorts that could create unexpected security challenges for Eritrea and Sudan. In parallel with this, non-Western countries like China (which also has a base in Djibouti) could either carry out their own patrols or lead those comprised of similar such Global South stakeholders in the Red Sea.
Either way, the Council’s neglect of its raison d’être in securing this waterway per its founding mission inadvertently created the pretext that NATO might soon exploit for militarizing the Red Sea, which could lead to future problems for some of its members. This was entirely avoidable and is completely due to them failing to do what everyone expected of their group. Instead of jointly protecting this body of water, they pursued ulterior goals in hindsight, which emboldened the Houthis to seize that ship.