What are the Security Threats, Geopolitics, and Economic Fallout in the Red Sea?

By Krishna Kant Choubey

Published on: February 7, 2024 at 12:08 IST

The Red Sea is a narrow inland sea between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, extending from Suez, Egypt, to the Strait of Mandeb. It separates Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and reaches southern Israel and southwestern Jordan. The sea is known for its warm and salty seawater, and its name comes from the color changes in its waters, which can be intense blue-green or reddish brown. It also covers an area of 1,930 kms.

The Red Sea, connected to the Suez Canal, is a crucial shipping route that maintains political and economic stability in many countries. It lies between Asia and Africa, separating the Middle East, Far East, Europe, and Asia. The Red Sea’s geopolitical position is significant as it serves as a natural border between Africa’s eastern coast and the Arabian Peninsula’s western coast, and a vital route for unarmed oil transportation. As oil remains a primary energy source, this shipping lane will continue to be vital for its transport from the Gulf.

The Red Sea is an important military route between states and their global bases, as well as a site of regional conflict and competitiveness. The region’s growing economic prominence is due to its substantial oil deposits and precious metal resources.

Until recently, no coastal states had explored the potential of mineral deposits, leading to the discovery of vast amounts of zinc, copper, silver, gold, cadmium, cobalt, and hydrocarbons in the Red Sea’s isolated depths. The Red Sea, which accounts for 15% of world shipping, is experiencing destabilization as a result of Houthi rebel attacks supported by Iran. The United States has established a multinational naval force to safeguard commercial ships. Recent attacks on ships on the Red Sea trade route, combined with the current drought at the Panama Canal, have promoted concerns about global trade disruptions.

Economic think tank Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI) warns that longer disruptions at the Red Sea trade route could impact manufacturing lines in sectors like electronics, automobiles, chemicals, consumer goods, and machinery. Companies relying on just-in-time manufacturing processes are particularly vulnerable. Disruptions can lead to delays in manufacturing and increased costs. The Red Sea’s busiest shipping route has been disrupted by Houthi rebel attacks.

The purpose of this article is to thoroughly investigate the Red Sea as a critical geopolitical and economic location, concentrating on its historical significance, trade routes, problems, and current interruptions to world trade.


The history of interruptions in the Red Sea is diverse and it is influenced by geopolitical tensions, piracy, conflicts, and environmental concerns. Over a span of time, maritime security challenges, regional conflicts, and occasional piracy have all had an impact on the flow of commerce and navigation. Historical battles, such as those between Egypt and Israel, have resulted in the closing of critical marine routes. The ongoing geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, notably the situation in Yemen, have contributed to shipping blockades and restrictions. Furthermore, environmental problems such as climate change and natural disasters have threatened maritime industries in the Red Sea region. These disruptions emphasize the intricate interaction of political, security, and environmental factors influencing this vital river.

  • Ancient Period

The Red Sea, which accounts for 15% of world shipping, is facing destabilization due to Houthi rebel attacks supported by Iran. The United States has established a multinational naval force to safeguard commercial ships. In the 6th century BC, Darius the Great, ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, made significant efforts to improve and extend navigation in the Red Sea. He sent reconnaissance missions to explore the area and identified navigational hazards. The ancient Suez Canal, constructed during Darius’s reign, played a pivotal role in improving trade and communication between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea and beyond to the Indian Ocean. The Red Sea was favored for Roman trade with India starting with Augustus’ reign, and was also a trade route for the Red Sea slave trade from Africa to the Middle East.

Red Sea’s Trade Route and Challenges

  • Connected ancient civilizations via Egyptian, Phoenician, and Greek sailors.
  • Early challenges included piracy and regional conflicts.
  • European colonial powers influenced the Red Sea’s maritime dynamics.
  • The Suez Crisis in 1956 disrupted global trade, highlighting maritime choke point vulnerability.
  • Modern Period

During the Middle Ages, the Red Sea was a crucial part of the spice trade route. In 1183, Raynald of Châtillon raided the Red Sea to attack Muslim pilgrim convoys to Mecca, causing fury in the Muslim world. However, it was believed that Raynald’s target were lightly armed Muslim pilgrim convoys rather than the well-guarded cities. In 1513, Afonso de Albuquerque attempted to secure the channel to Portugal, but was forced to retreat. They cruised the Red Sea inside the Bab al-Mandab, becoming the first European fleet to have sailed these waters. In 1798, France ordered General Napoleon to invade Egypt and take control of the Red Sea. Engineer Jean-Baptiste Lepère revised the plan for a canal from ancient times, which was eventually opened in 1869. The Red Sea slave trade attracted international condemnation during the first half of the 20th century. After the Second World War, the Americans and Soviets exerted influence, leading to the closure of the Suez Canal from 1967 to 1975. Today, despite patrols by major maritime fleets, the Suez Canal has never recovered its supremacy over the Cape route, which is believed to be less vulnerable to piracy.

Red Sea’s Trade Route and Challenges

21st Century Gulf of Aden Piracy and Middle East geopolitical tensions

  • The Gulf of Aden generated worldwide naval coalitions to combat piracy.
  • Yemen’s turmoil, particularly around the Bab el-Mandeb strait, has resulted in shipping blockades and limitations.
  • The Middle East’s geopolitical conflicts and regional rivalries raise security worries.
  • Red Sea nations are implementing regional cooperation and marine security initiatives to promote stability.

Causes of Disruption

The causes of disruption in the Red Sea region can be numerous, including geopolitical, security, economic, and environmental concerns.Here are some factors mentioned below

  • Geopolitical Tensions

Geopolitical tensions in the Red Sea region significantly impact global trade and security. The intricate interplay of political rivalries, territorial disputes, and strategic interests among nations has increased the complexity of managing this critical waterway. Conflicts, blockades, and diplomatic standoffs pose a constant challenge to maritime activities. Understanding these tensions is crucial for developing effective strategies to ensure the stability and security of the Red Sea region, as they influence the flow of goods, naval forces’ strategic positioning, and overall geopolitical dynamics.

The ongoing conflict in Yemen has resulted in shipping blockades and restrictions, particularly affecting the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a crucial chokepoint connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

  • Security Threats

The Red Sea faces numerous security threats, including piracy, maritime terrorism, and regional conflicts, posing significant risks to international trade and stability. These threats are exacerbated by strategic chokepoints, geopolitical tensions, and contested maritime boundaries, necessitating comprehensive understanding and addressing to ensure a secure and resilient maritime environment.

International naval efforts combat piracy, but sporadic incidents may affect shipping lanes. Terrorist presence in the region raises security risks, necessitating increased surveillance and security measures.

  • Political and Diplomatic Disputes

The Red Sea region is grappling with political and diplomatic disputes over territorial claims, maritime boundaries, and regional dominance. These tensions pose a significant risk to maritime stability, potentially leading to blockades and restrictions. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for promoting cooperative frameworks, ensuring uninterrupted trade flow, and preserving peace in the region.

The ongoing conflict in Yemen, backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran, has led to blockades and restrictions on shipping, particularly affecting the Bab el-Mandeb strait. The construction of the GERD on the Blue Nile has sparked tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, with broader geopolitical implications in the Red Sea region. The border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti, both along the Red Sea, underscores regional rivalries that can influence maritime dynamics.

  • Economic and Trade Policies

Economic and trade policies significantly impact the stability and prosperity of regions like the Red Sea, which are crucial for international trade. These policies are crucial in mitigating disruptions, fostering economic growth, and ensuring the smooth flow of goods through the Red Sea’s maritime arteries. Understanding these dimensions is essential for crafting resilient strategies that fortify the economic vitality of nations along the Red Sea and beyond. The intricate web of economic interdependencies and trade alliances underscores the importance of well-defined policies in navigating global commerce challenges.

The Red Sea region’s nations are considering diversifying their trade routes to counter disruptions. Economic policies promoting flexibility in trade partnerships and routes can enhance resilience. Investments in maritime infrastructure, like ports and shipping facilities, can improve trade efficiency and security. Economic diplomacy can be employed to strengthen ties, resolve disputes, and ensure smooth trade relations with Red Sea partners.

What is the Impact of disruption on Maritime Commerce?

Maritime commerce is crucial for global trade, particularly in the Red Sea, connecting the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans. However, disruptions from geopolitical tensions, security threats, and environmental issues can threaten its stability. Understanding these implications is essential for developing resilient strategies to protect the economic lifeline of nations reliant on the Red Sea.

  • Supply Chains

The Red Sea, a vital part of global trade routes, can be severely disrupted by delays, increased transit times, and maritime route uncertainties, affecting global production and distribution networks. The current Red Sea disruption also impacts on the supply chains as well which may result in inflation to the global market.

  • Geopolitical and Security Implications

The conflict in Gaza has escalated into a maritime conflict in the Red Sea, involving Houthi rebels attacking merchant ships and naval vessels, and drone and missile attacks on Israel. This has led to the US setting up a maritime task force in the region. The Sudan war and attacks against southern Israel threaten Saudi Arabia’s strategic goals along its western coast. The stability in the Red Sea region is crucial for Saudi development plans, and the Yanbu pipeline terminal on the Red Sea is also critical for the traditional oil economy.

The war in Sudan also threatens Saudi security in the Red Sea, and Riyadh has been engaged in mediation. The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) bypasses the Red Sea and is a major geopolitical initiative drawing regional states away from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, IMEC faces challenges in financing and normalization between Saudis and Israelis, which has been stalled due to Israel’s war in Gaza. Despite these challenges, the logic of linking European, West Asian, and Indian markets holds, and India’s appetite for the project is strong.

  • Global Economic Impact

Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched missile attacks on container ships in the Red Sea, raising geopolitical and military tensions in the region. The attacks have disrupted trade flows, adding headwinds to a fragile global economy and threatening to expand the ongoing war. Top shipping companies, such as Maersk, Hapag Lloyd, and MSC, have decided not to use the Red Sea, pausing their ships before traversing the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. Some ships have been diverted around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, causing significant delays and costs. The disruption to Red Sea shipping would create a strong headwind to the global economy, particularly energy importing regions, particularly low-income countries and Europe. Rising oil and gas prices would keep headline inflation high, complicating central banks’ efforts to pivot to easing. The Houthi attacks have raised military tension in the region, threatening a spreading of the war in Gaza. The longer the war in Gaza lasts, the longer shipping disruptions caused by missile attacks in the Red Sea will go on, risking further destabilization of the regional economy and spilling over into the global economy.


In conclusion, the recent wave of attacks on ships using the Red Sea trade route and the prolonged drought affecting the Panama Canal are raising concerns about potential disruptions in global trade. These challenges ripple through worldwide commerce, highlighting the complexities and vulnerabilities of the global economic ecosystem. Proactive measures, diplomatic actions, and investments in robust infrastructure are crucial for mitigating disruptions and strengthening the foundation of a stable and integrated global trade network.

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