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Why are tensions rising in the Red Sea region?

Egypt sends troops to Eritrea as Sudan and Turkey ink a deal to rebuild a Red Sea island and construct a naval dock.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Tensions in the Red Sea region have been brewing for months but came to the fore when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan last month.

The visit, hailed as historic, was the first by a Turkish head of state since 1956 when Sudan gained independence.

Sudan's official state news agency said the two countries agreed to set up a strategic planning group to discuss international affairs, and that they intended to conclude a military deal.

Among more than a dozen agreements signed by Erdogan and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was a deal to temporarily hand over the Red Sea island of Suakin to Turkey.

Ankara and Khartoum said Turkey would rebuild the ruined, sparsely populated Ottoman island to increase tourism and create a transit point for pilgrims crossing the Red Sea to Islam's holiest city of Mecca.

'Sudan in Turkish hands'

Egyptian and Saudi media have harshly criticised the agreement, and alleged Turkey would build a military base on Suakin.

Turkey and Egypt, an ally of Saudi Arabia, have had frosty relations for some time. Ankara strongly condemned Egypt's military coup in 2013, which overthrew the first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi newspaper al-Okaz ran a headline that read: "Khartoum hands over Suakin to Ankara … Sudan in Turkish hands."

"Turkey's greed on the African continent seems to have no limits," the report noted, referring to Turkey's recent move to set up its biggest overseas military base in Somalia.

The Sudanese embassy in Saudi Arabia responded by saying that "Suakin belongs to Sudan, no one else", and promising that the deal with Ankara would not harm the security of Arab countries.

The ripples, however, were immediately felt across the African continent.

Military reinforcements

In what may have been a response to fears that Turkey was expanding its influence in the region, Egypt sent hundreds of its troops to a UAE base in Eritrea, on the border with Sudan.

Khartoum responded by recalling its ambassador to Cairo, hours after the head of the Sudanese Border Technical Committee, Abdullah al-Sadiq, accused Egypt of trying to "drag Sudan into a direct [military] confrontation".

Days later, Sudan shut its border with Eritrea and deployed thousands of troops there.

The Suakin island deal with Turkey has merely heightened an already tense political situation in the region. For months, Sudan and Egypt have exchanged accusations, with Cairo claiming that Khartoum had been supporting Muslim Brotherhood members and Khartoum alleging Cairo was supporting Sudanese dissidents.

Ethiopian Dam project

Also straining relations between the African nations is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, the largest hydroelectric dam project in Africa.

Unhappy with Khartoum, Egypt last week reportedly proposed to Ethiopia to exclude Sudan from contentious negotiations over the future of the dam.

Egypt has been at odds with its neighbours over the $4.8bn megaproject, with Cairo fearing that its position downstream may affect its access to water from the Nile River basin, which will feed the dam.

The Egyptian proposal, sent by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, suggested that talks proceed with Ethiopia alone, according to the Addis Fortune newspaper. Egypt was quick to deny the claims.

On Monday, Hailemariam received Sudanese army chief Emad al-Din M Adawi and discussed how to further strengthen their "strategic partnership".

Adawi said the two neighbours would continue in their collaborative efforts to contain problems in the region.

Eritrean-Ethiopian tensions

The deployment of Egyptian troops to Eritrea has sent longtime foe Ethiopia into frenzy. Aware of the poor relations between Egypt and Ethiopia over Nile water use, Eritrea eagerly welcomed the Egyptian troops.

Ethiopia, which has the third-largest army on the continent, responded by sending more troops to the border with its regional rival, Eritrea. Asmara and Addis Ababa have had two bloody wars over border disputes.

Ethiopia is also uneasy that the United Arab Emirates, which has cosy relations with Cairo, has been stepping up its presence in the region. It recently acquired military and naval bases in countries that have borders with Ethiopia, Somalia to the east and Eritrea to the north, as well as Yemen. This has led Ethiopia to steam ahead with construction of the dam, saying that more than 60 percent has already been completed.

"Construction has never stopped and will never stop until the project is completed. We are not concerned with what Egypt thinks. Ethiopia is committed to benefit from its water resources without causing harm to anyone," Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia's minister for irrigation, water and electricity, said in November.

As Egypt, Turkey and the UAE make efforts to expand their influence and secure allies in the region; it is unclear whether relations between African states will continue to sour. Further twists and turns could be ahead as African heads of state prepare to meet in Addis Ababa later this month for the African Union summit.


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