Digital Corridors

Bypassing the Red Sea Bottleneck Could Lead to Big Opportunities

If new terrestrial systems can offer diverse connectivity at equivalent cost and scale to existing subsea cable systems, the benefits would be transformative

Martin Atkinson
Bypassing the Red Sea Bottleneck Could Lead to Big Opportunities

In an Equinix blog from 2021, we reviewed the factors affecting demand and consumption of internet content in the Middle East and their role in growing the region’s digital economies. We also highlighted the importance of the region as the primary corridor for intercontinental connectivity between Asia-Pacific, East Africa and Europe—albeit narrowly concentrated through the Red Sea and Egypt.

Recent attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and the resulting subsea cable breaks have prompted renewed focus on building terrestrial and hybrid cable systems to enable a greater diversity of pathways for traffic passing through the region. There are many challenges that will need to be overcome in order to make these new routes viable, but the opportunities are enormous.

Background: Subsea cable traffic is highly reliant on the Red Sea corridor

TeleGeography[1] and RIPE NCC[2] report recent growth of content caching and internet exchanges in the Middle East, but the vast majority of the region’s total interconnection bandwidth remains tied to Europe, and intra-regional connectivity has not grown at all. Global carriers and network service providers in the region have historically been discouraged from terminating and transporting their traffic terrestrially. This is largely due to high costs and the complex regulatory and geopolitical environment.

An estimated 90% of Europe-to-Asia communications passes through the Red Sea on subsea cable systems[3], and then overland through Egypt to the Mediterranean, bypassing Suez and the GCC countries completely.

Figure 1: Middle East subsea cable systems (Source: TeleGeography Africa Telecommunications Map 2023)

Figure 2: Terrestrial systems around Suez (Source: TeleGeography 2024)

Figure 3: Terrestrial and hybrid systems in the Middle East, and Equinix IBX facilities in the UAE, Oman and Türkiye (Source: TeleGeography 2024)

As the map of terrestrial networks around Suez (Figure 2) shows, Telecom Egypt has done an excellent job of creating diverse paths to minimize the risk of concurrent outages. However, the Red Sea approaches leading to Suez don’t afford a similar level of spatial diversity.

The table below details current submarine, terrestrial and hybrid cable systems and those scheduled to go live in the next several years. As the third column shows, design capacity of the subsea systems passing through the Red Sea—especially the latest ones—is enormous. Equivalent capacity on alternative routes does not currently exist. Of the three cable systems still down as a result of February’s events (shown in red font), only SEACOM is nearing readiness to reenter service.

Subsea, terrestrial and hybrid networks passing through the Middle East, highlighting paths via—or diverse from—the Red Sea. Source of data: TeleGeography

In his LinkedIn article after Capacity Middle East Dubai 2024, “Who Wins from Trouble in the Red Sea?”[4], Bevan Slattery reported on the scramble to build diverse terrestrial routes that bypass the Red Sea. These new systems would form “super corridors” connecting the Mediterranean with the Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, stimulating digital economies in Dubai, Riyadh and Jeddah via subsea-terrestrial interconnection hubs such as Muscat, Salalah and others in the Gulf. Most likely, these super-corridors would follow one of two possible routes: either a southern route crossing the Arabian Peninsula or a northern route crossing Kuwait/Iraq and Türkiye.

The opportunities: New infrastructure projects emerge

A number of high-profile infrastructure projects[5] are planned or in progress to help create diverse terrestrial/hybrid systems in the region. For example:

  • While the Cinturion TEAS South cable system will still be vulnerable to Red Sea disruption, the TEAS North hybrid cable system will bypass the Red Sea completely.[6]
  • The groundbreaking collaboration between ZOI and Telecom Egypt[7] will build a high-capacity transport network between the Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea via MC1, our Equinix IBX® data center in Muscat.
  • Iraq’s Development Road[8], an ambitious 1,200 km rail and road transport project that stretches from the Al-Fāw port on the Arabian Gulf to Türkiye, would support high-capacity terrestrial network infrastructure if investment can be secured.
  • The KSA Vision 2030 and NEOM[9] project aims to build a digital economy to rival that of Dubai, based on foreign business and cultural tourism. Saudi Arabia has by far the largest international capacity and internet consumption of any Gulf country, and the central role it will play in building alternatives to the Red Sea bottleneck is clear. With its center3 project, Saudi Telecom Company has made a huge investment in cable systems, data centers, IXPs and IT infrastructure, reflecting a long-held ambition to become the digital hub of the Middle East.[10]

To connect subsea cable systems from Asia, East Africa and Europe across the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, these projects will require new data centers—or the expansion of existing ones—to serve as network interconnection hubs.

The challenges: Geopolitical, regulatory, technical and commercial

Exciting as this vision of terrestrial diversity is to the international community, governments and service providers alike, a number of long-standing problems that exist in the region will need to be addressed.

Many industry sources have remarked upon the region’s lack of open and competitive backhaul services from cable landing station to data center (or from cable landing station to cable landing station). This, plus the regulatory complexity that sustains it, is perhaps the greatest brake on the growth of diverse terrestrial systems in the Middle East.

There’s also a general lack of carrier-neutral colocation facilities in the region. (Equinix IBX data centers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Muscat, Salalah and Istanbul are notable exceptions, as is the Aqaba hub in Jordan.) Subsea cable operators and consortia generally prefer to terminate at carrier-neutral colocation data centers because they offer a greater choice of terrestrial carriers.

Carrier-neutral facilities hosting subsea system terminations also replace cable landing station backhaul with simple physical cross connects. This massively reduces the cost of interconnecting subsea and terrestrial systems with one another. If the transition from subsea to diverse terrestrial paths is to create super corridors, then mitigation of these punitive subsea-terrestrial interconnection costs will be essential.

The Middle East needs public and private investment in terrestrial network infrastructure and interconnected data centers to unlock super-corridor capacity rivaling that of traditional subsea routes and global interconnection hubs elsewhere. Our partnerships with du in the UAE and Omantel in Oman are examples of successful collaborations in the region. We hope that these and other partnerships will continue to evolve and expand in the future.

The motivational author Oliver Napoleon Hill, paraphrasing Einstein and an ancient Chinese proverb, wrote: “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” In time, perhaps the events in the Red Sea will come to be regarded as the seed for Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others to grow into powerhouse digital economies at the crossroads of global communications.

To learn more about the Equinix approach to building modernized, interconnected digital infrastructure—in the Middle East and throughout the world—read our vision paper The future of digital leadership.


[1] Transport Networks Regional Analysis: Middle East, TeleGeography.

[2] Jad El Cham, Unlocking Digital Growth: The Role of IXPs in the Middle East, RIPE Labs, February 1, 2024.

[3] Red Sea Cable Damage Reveals Soft Underbelly of Global Economy, Center for Strategic & International Studies, March 7, 2024.

[4] Bevan Slattery, Who wins from trouble in the Red Sea?, March 19, 2024.

[5] Paul Cochrane, How Saudi Arabia is redrawing the map of the future with fibre-optic cables, Middle East Eye, April 5, 2023.

[6] TEAS: An open-access system, Cinturion Group.

[7] Telecom Egypt and Zain Omantel plan a new high-capacity route, Converge! Network Digest, January 15, 2024.

[8] The Development Road Project—Council Views, Middle East Council on Global Affairs, May 9, 2024.

[9] NEOM

[10] From Vision to Reality: The Establishment of center3, Telecom Review, March 5, 2024.

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Martin Atkinson Senior Manager of Peering and Interconnection EMEA
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