Red Sea Security, 250 Years Ago

How Colonialism Impacted Conflicts and Rivalry in the Region

Book Cover
Book Cover

Red Sea Security, 250 Years Ago

A month before the publication of this book, its British author, Nicholas Stephenson Smith, wrote about it in the American “Foreign Policy” periodical which is published by Graham Holding Company, former owner of “The Washington Post” newspaper.

“How the Red Sea Became a Trap” was the headline, and the author related recent events in the northern Red Sea to events that took place in the southern Red Sea about 250 years ago. And he argued that Western colonialism was to be blamed for most of these events, not only for past invasions and occupations but also for the continuous rivalry among the present-day Western -- and non-Western-- powers in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

The author mentioned the recent case of the “Ever Given,” the super-cargo ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal, and how, after three-month-long wrangling over the cost of salvage and damages between Egypt and the shipowner, the problem was peacefully solved.

About 20 years ago, the Israeli-Iranian decades-old conflict reached the Red Sea when Israel captured the Iranian ship “Karine A” not far from the Suez Canal, and confiscated weapons that were going to the Palestinians and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Last July, Israel declared that it attacked an Iranian ship in the southern Red Sea during Israeli-American naval exercises. 

The book’s author argued that before the Western invasions and occupations, the southern Red Sea region, although ruled by hereditary families, was less violent and more stable.

The container ship Ever Given, operated by container transportation and shipping company Evergreen Marine, arrives at the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk. The huge container ship that blocked the Suez Canal is preparing to dock in the UK for the first time since causing disruption to global shipping. (Photo by Aaron Chown/PA Wire/dpa)

The author wrote that “The Red Sea’s coastal states, notably Somalia and Yemen, were some of the earliest adopters of Islam. This shared history and faith fostered a view of the Red Sea as a melting pot—a meeting place, not a gladiatorial theater in which rival powers jockeyed for preeminence.”

The author added that “Islamic legal doctrines such as the idea of a man, or ‘security, created de jure maritime free-trade zones around ports where Red Sea governments protected all foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

Then came Western colonialism.

In 1862, Robert Playfair, deputy ruler of the British colony of Aden, was searching for a lost British navy ship. When he found the ship stranded without its crew, he became convinced that the ship had been attacked by pirates from the Horn of Africa

He went ashore to meet Uthman Mahmud, the sultan of Majerteen, in present-day Puntland, in northeastern Somalia. Playfair was confrontational and gave the sultan two impossible choices: arrest and sentence to death the pirates who had attacked the British ship or face his capital’s destruction by British gunboats looming on the horizon.

Reluctantly, the sultan rounded up “culprits” and beheaded them in a grisly ceremony on a beach in front of British officials.

Playfair’s heavy-handed treatment of Uthman damaged the sultan’s domestic credibility, and shortly, after Uthman’s humiliation, a provincial governor seceded from the sultanate which had “a stable history of almost two centuries.”

Not long after this conflict with Britain, other European powers, like Portugal, France, Italy, and Germany started competing over the strategically located Horn of Africa and the southern Red Sea. For about 250 years and prior to Somali independence in 1960, the Western powers' competition led to the creation, of four Somalias: British, French, Italian, and an Ethiopian-controlled region.

By the beginning of the 21st century, Somalia was still at the mercy of foreign powers, in addition to decades-old civil wars and conflicts with neighboring countries. Across Bab Al-Mandeb, the southern entrance to the Red Sea, Yemen also has suffered from the interference of foreign powers, civil wars, and conflicts with neighboring countries.

Other Horn of Africa countries, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan, have been having their share of civil wars, foreign interventions, and conflicts with neighboring and nearby countries.

Currently, Djibouti (formerly French Somalia) hosts military garrisons of U.S., Chinese, French, Italian, Gulf, and Japanese troops, as well as several international military task forces.

According to the author, “The Djiboutian government presents the situation as a success story of peaceful globalization: Rival world powers neighbor one another cheek by jowl, and still the country remains peaceful.”

The author added that “beneath the surface calm, a strong undercurrent of conflict persists. The U.S. and Chinese bases are barely 5 miles apart and incidents have included Chinese personnel shining lasers into the eyes of American military pilots.”

The author seems more critical of the Western colonial powers than of the natives of these countries. Not to minimize the negative political, economic and social results of colonialism, other authors and books have been debating the responsibilities of both the colonizer and the colonized, as civil wars, border conflicts and power struggles continued and might continue for a long time to come.

The present security of the Red Sea might probably be better secured by the nearby Red Sea countries than by faraway powers, so as to untie the “Gordian Knot” (intractable problems) that the author wrote about.

But the author insisted that “Colonialism is the aggravating background noise in all these conflicts, a Gordian knot in which the region is trapped.”

The author added that “In the last few years, there has been a renewed historical focus on colonization’s impact, as well as efforts to decolonize international relations.”

With the recently increasing debate about the need of former colonial powers to apologize – and probably pay billions of dollars in reparations – to former colonies, the author purposely mentioned the approximately $200 million that the owners of the gigantic “Ever Given” paid to Egypt. The implication was that foreign powers' mistakes in the region, past and present, needed to be financially compensated.

After all, “From piracy to the ‘Ever Given,’ colonialism left hard scars” is the title of the author’s report in the American “Foreign Policy”.


Book: “Colonial Chaos in the Southern Red Sea: A History of Violence”

Author:  Nicholas Stephenson Smith

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Paper Pages: 256

Price: Kindle $80, Hardcover $100.

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