Sometimes I have an interest in odd things, and one of those things is ports. Ports are cities that are on bodies of water that provide access to the inexpensive transportation of people and goods through ships. The Red Sea happens to be a vital sea connecting three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa, through the Suez canal that provides access into the Mediterranean Sea. One might imagine, therefore, that the ports of the Red Sea are of considerable importance, and so they are. In multiple cases (Jordan, Sudan), the Red Sea marks the only access to the sea that these nations have, and thus provides vital importance to the economies of these nations. In other cases, the Red Sea provides one of two coasts that the nation has access to and thus a still important window to the outside world. Wikipedia lists 21 contemporary cities that are ports on the Red Sea. Let us briefly look at these cities, discussing their population as well as their importance to the nation in question, looking country by country.
Hurghada: Starting around a century ago as a small fishing port, Hurghadah has since grown to a large coastal resort city of more than 250,000 people. The place is especially popular with European tourists on package deals as well as Egyptian tourists, given the beautiful beaches and calm seas of the area. Although much of the growth of the city has been recent, the area was long a gateway into Egypt from the Red Sea with historical sites going back to Pharaonic times.
Sharm El Sheikh: This port city of around 73,000 people is at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and is an important city for tourism as well as foreign conferences, and it also serves as the capital for the Sinai governorate of Egypt. Once a small fishing port, the area became increasingly important during the 20th century and became a major naval base for Egypt that has been fought over several times over the course of the last century, including having been occupied on multiple occasions by Israel.
Suez: With a population of nearly 750,000, Suez is a city of high importance to Egypt at the southern entrance to the eponymous Suez canal that serves as a vitally important global transportation route connecting the Red Sea and thus the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and thus Europe and the Levant’s thriving trade centers. The city’s importance to Egypt is difficult to exaggerate, given that the revenues from the Suez canal make up almost 4% of Egypt’s entire GDP, and Suez has a long history as a vital port for trade from Egypt to the outside world that continues to this day.
Eilat: This city, the only port of Israel on the Gulf of Aqaba, has a population of a bit more than 50,000 people. Somewhat remote from most of the rest of Israel, the area around Eilat has long been known for its copper mining, and Israel is attempting to develop the region to expand its population to around 150,000 through the building of infrastructure including a new airport as well as high-speed rail with connections to the core of Israel at Beersheva and Tel-Aviv, as well as a large amount of new housing.
Aqaba: The only one of these cities I have yet to personally visit myself, Aqaba has a population of around 150,000 people and is the only seaport for Jordan and thus one of the most important cities in the country as a whole. The city has a long history as a vital port in the region and was key in the Arab Revolt of World War I in providing for the eventual independence of Jordan from Ottoman rule. The city is a beautiful one with a lot of history as well as a pleasant climate and friendly people with a strong approach to tourism.
Al Lith: This port is rather obscure to outside sources, but with a population of only 72,000, it is still the fifth-largest city in the Mecca Province of Saudi Arabia, and one of the ports in that region. Although the city is somewhat small now, it was once a vital transshipment port where goods came from Yemen and Africa and were then shipped on to Jeddah and Mecca.
Al Qunfudah: This port city of 300,000 residents is the fourth-largest city in the Mecca province, and is a port of considerable importance to the south of Al Lith. Besides being an important port for Saudi Arabia in terms of the convoy route for the hajj, the town also has universities as well as banks and some airport construction is going on the area, testimony to its growing importance.
Jeddah: With a population of around 4,000,000 people, Jeddah is the largest city in the Mecca Province and the second-largest city in all of Saudi Arabia after the capital of Riyadh. Jeddah’s importance to Saudi Arabi is extremely high, as it is a popular resort city, a major city in fishing, the second-busiest port in the entire Middle East, and the principal port in the hajj in bringing Muslim pilgrims to the nearby city of Mecca. Although close to Mecca, Jeddah is known for being a considerably more liberal city than its religious neighbor, and its extreme importance to Mecca has made it a place that has long been fought over by those who wished to control access to Muslim holy sites.
Jizan: With a population of a bit more than 100,000 people, Jizan is a major port on the northern side of Saudi Arabia’s border with Saudi Arabia. Although the area of Jizan has long been known as a rare area of agriculture for Saudi Arabia in the production of high-quality tropical fruits (including, alas, mangoes), the area is also the source of a great deal of industrial development in aluminum smelting, oil refining, as well as further agricultural development.
Yanbu: With a population of a bit less than 200,000 people in the city itself and more in the surrounding area, Yanbu is the main port for the second-most holy city of Isalm, Al Madinah. The city has, unsurprisingly, been important for a long time and the area is known for its industry related to three pipelines that end in the port as well as some beautiful reefs that encourage a growing tourist industry. The port mainly deals with oil but also takes in pilgrims as well and has been the site of terrorist attacks against Westerners in 2004.
Port Sudan: With a population of around 500,000 people, Port Sudan is the main port for Sudan (perhaps unsurprisingly), with a large container port, ferry access across the Red Sea to Jeddah, a thriving university, and a diverse religious population that contains Muslims and Christians. The area also has considerable infrastructure connecting it to Sudan’s capital at Khartoum, allowing the port to serve as Sudan’s main window to the world at large.
Suakin: Once a historically important port for Sudan, this city of a bit more than 40,000 people has been granted in a 99-year lease to Turkey, who is in the process of rebuilding the Ottoman port. The area has an interesting history going back to ancient times and was once part of a thriving Christian community that was swamped by Muslim immigration and domination, and there are ferries from this port to Jeddah.
Assab: With a population of only about 20,000, Assab is a city known for its pleasant beaches and nightlife and for its importance as a port for the nation of Eritrea. Unfortunately, the border disputes between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti have made this particular port far less populated than it was at its heyday when it was an Italian and then a Soviet naval base in the region.
Massawa: With a population of just over 50,000 people, Massawa is nonetheless a very important port, with large docks and a naval base of considerable historical importance. The area has Ottoman architecture and has been a vital port in the region for centuries, although its population has suffered in recent decades because of conflicts with Ethiopia that have severed the port from its previous hinterland that extended into the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. The area was once the capital of Italian Eritrea and was also the main naval base for the Ethiopian naval base before Eritrea won its independence in 1991.
Aden: Aden, with a population of more than 850,000 in 2017, is not technically on the Red Sea, but it is a port very near the entrance to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, and it is a vital port in controlling the gate of the Red Sea at its base, and as such was long controlled by Great Britain and also was for some decades the capital of the nation of South Yemen. The city has long been a vital hub of tourism and transportation, even if it has in recent decades been periodically threatened by various political conflicts within Yemen, including a recent civil war.
Al Dahama: In stark contrast to Aden, Al Dahama is a small village with a population of only about 250 people. It is on the Gulf of Aden, quite a bit far from the Red Sea proper.
Al Hudaydah: This port on the Red Sea is not well-known compared to some other ports, but at more than 400,000 inhabitants, it is the fourth-largest city in Yemen and is a vital port in the logistics of food transportation into Yemen. As a result, the city was fought over highly in the recent Yemeni Civil War, and for several years the port was closed through the conflict, though it has apparently been open since 2018. The city has some fame in historical sources that view the city as a place where khat was chewed by the local population and was also a port that played a role in the hajj to Saudi Arabia, and the city has been fought over by Saudi Arabia and Yemen on several occasions.
Al Luhayyah: This small port is to the north of Al Hudaydah, and has a population of around 3,000 people. Its small and protected port was long fought over between Yemen and Saudi Arabia as well as the Ottoman Empire, and was once vital in the coffee trade, but its trade has since between eclipsed by its larger neighboring port to the south, in whose region this small town resides.
Mocha: A small port of around 16,000 people, Mocha was once (unsurprisingly, given its name) a vital port in Yemen’s coffee trade. The city once had a thriving Jewish population and was once the main port for Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The port has since been eclipsed, however, by Aden and Al Hudaydah. The city’s importance, such as it is, at present is in fishing and a small number of tourists, and the city has been fought over during Yemen’s recent civil war.
Salaq: A small port in the far north of Yemen near the boundary with Saudi Arabia, this village has a population of around 200 people.
Salbah: Another small port in the far north of Yemen near the boundary with Saudi Arabia, this village has a population of a bit less than 1,000 people.