By Amr Emam,
Over the past two years, Egypt spent billions to upgrade its navy, buying helicopter carriers from France, frigates from Russia and submarines from Germany. Photo by AHMED XIV/Wikimedia
CAIRO, Egypt — By establishing a naval force in the Red Sea, Egypt aims for more than protecting navigation in the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for international trade, military experts said.
“The force will be the backbone of Egypt’s new Red Sea strategy,” former Assistant Defense Minister Hossam Suweilam said. “There is a marked surge of unrest in the southern entrance to the Red Sea, which needs an aggressive policy.”
The new force utilizes recently acquired naval equipment, including a French-made multifunction helicopter carrier.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the new force would help his country protect its coast. Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi said the force would help Egypt impose control on its territorial waters in the Red Sea.
Cash-strapped Egypt spent billions of dollars to upgrade its navy over the past two years. It bought two helicopter carriers from France, frigates from Russia and submarines from Germany. Cairo does this for a purpose, military experts said.
In 2015, Egypt spent almost $8 billion to dig a parallel channel to shorten transit time in the Suez Canal. It also dug tunnels under the canal to deliver water and ease the movement of people and goods to and from Sinai.
These huge investments are only part of Egypt’s vision for the Suez Canal region, one that cannot be implemented without proper security in the Red Sea, experts said.
Egypt wants to turn the banks of the canal into an investment magnet where vast industrial zones, huge logistics areas and extensive service facilities are planned. Egypt plans to attract hundreds of billions of dollars in investments to the region. In 2015, revenues from the Suez Canal totaled $5.2 billion, which did a lot to buoy Egypt’s struggling economy.
Analysts in Cairo said Sisi does not squander the limited funds available at the central bank with a purpose in mind.
Last April 8, Sisi ordered Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to sign a maritime border demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia. The deal includes the handover of two disputed Red Sea islands to Riyadh. Egyptians now debate whether the islands are Saudi.
Absent from the conversation, however, are the reasons Sisi insists to demarcate the maritime border with the Saudis. He has said Egypt cannot explore its territorial waters for oil without defining its sea boundaries.
He mentioned a similar agreement with Greece and Cyprus. A few months after Egypt signed the agreement with both states, Italian state-owned petroleum company Eni announced the discovery of the East Mediterranean’s largest natural gas field off Egypt’s coast.
There is a strong probability of Egypt’s territorial Red Sea waters containing wealth so huge that Sisi is ready to risk angering his people with the maritime border demarcation deal with Saudi Arabia.
“Such a potential wealth is badly in need of a military power to protect it,” said Nasr Salem, a lecturer at Nasser Military Academy, the army’s strategic and military science institute. “We cannot leave the billions of dollars we spend on investments in the Red Sea without protection.”
Parliament is to debate the deal soon. Analysts expect that after deal approval, Egypt would offer concessions to international oil firms to explore Red Sea territorial waters.
Fear for these investments and potential wealth lies, meanwhile, more southward, near the coast of restive Yemen where the Houthi militia controls key port cities near the Bab el Mandeb strait, political experts said. The Houthis have threatened Red Sea navigation many times.
The establishment of the new Egyptian naval fleet comes after pro-Saudi forces in Yemen failed to capture the country’s port cities.
The fear in Egypt is that the Houthis can threaten traffic in the strait, which would deal an irreversible blow to the Suez Canal.
Close to 4 million barrels of oil pass through the Bab el Mandeb strait en route to markets in Europe and the United States every day, most of which is moved through the Suez Canal, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.
A disruption of traffic at the strait would be catastrophic to Egypt and the world.
“This is exactly why Egypt takes the security of this area very seriously,” said Mohamed Kamal, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Whoever controls the southern entrance to the Red Sea will control the Suez Canal and Egypt cannot leave this control in the hands of anybody else.”
This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.