Tuesday August 14, 2018
Ethiopia’s so far managed to stay neutral and balance its relationships with opposing Gulf partners. But it’s engaged in an unpredictable game.
Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed meets with Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa in June. Credit: Mohamed Al Hammadi/Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi
This is the fourth part of The Thin Red Line, an African Arguments series focusing on dynamics around the Red Sea.
For the past two months, Ethiopians and Eritreans have been trying to
make sense of their governments’ sudden declaration of peace. After 20
years of hostility, citizens on both sides of the border are waiting to
see what the momentous rapprochement will mean and what the two leaders
will do next.
But the neighbouring populations are not the only ones keeping a
close eye on the events. Nor are the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments
the only players determining the future direction of their relationship
and how it affects the broader Horn of Africa region.
Further afield, several Middle Eastern nations are watching
developments unfold and trying to ensure their interests in the region
are well-served going forwards.
In fact, the United Arab Emirates played a key behind-the-scenes role
in facilitating the deal between Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki. Both men met with Emirati
leaders on several occasions before and during the reconciliation, and
they have stayed in regular contact ever since.
In late-July, for example, Abiy and Isaias paid a joint visit
to the UAE where Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi,
bestowed the nation’s highest civil honour on them. Last week, Abiy
hosted the UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation. That
meeting came just a day after he received the foreign minister of Saudi
Arabia, the UAE’s main ally.
After decades of disengagement, countries east of the Red Sea
are scrambling to gain a greater footprint along the opposite coast. In
response, states on the Horn such as Ethiopia are trying to leverage
these rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics to enhance their own
The return of the Red Sea’s geopolitical importance
Relations between the Horn of Africa and Arab nations east of the Red
Sea date back over millennia. They took a turn for the worse following
the 1973 “Oil Crisis”, triggered when oil-producing Arab counties cut
down production to punish Western countries that supported Israel in the
Yom Kippur War. Horn countries became collateral damage as inflation
To overcome economic devastation and soaring debt, they began to
court oil-rich Gulf States, offering political loyalty and natural
resources in return for aid. Countries such as Somalia, Djibouti, Egypt,
and Sudan invoked their cultural and religious connections with the
Gulf in a bid to gain help in dealing with their balance of payment
crisis and political instability. Arab nations seized the opportunity,
using their wealth and newfound geostrategic importance to expand their
influence in the Horn and secure key loyalties.
With the end of the Cold War in the early-1990s, relations shifted
again as the Horn of Africa underwent several changes. The
Marxist-Leninist regime in Ethiopia collapsed. Somalia imploded into
protracted civil war. Eritrea gained independence. And Sudan experienced
an Islamic Revolution. With revenue from oil declining, Gulf nations
decided to retreat, rendering the strategic waters of the Red Sea
insignificant and inconsequential.
This is how things stood for the following two decades. But profound
geopolitical shifts have now renewed the Middle East’s interest in the
Horn and reinvigorated the strategic significance of countries west of
the Red Sea. The two main reasons for this are the war in Yemen and
deepening intra-Gulf rivalries. These factors have led three main groups
to vie for influence in the Horn: the Arab axis (led by Saudi Arabia
and UAE, but including Egypt and Bahrain); the Iran axis; and the
The Arab Axis – mostly Saudi Arabia and the UAE – has been the busiest recently, as explained in more detail in ‘The politics of ports in the Horn: War, peace and Red Sea rivalries’.
Saudi Arabia is reportedly developing a military base in Djibouti and
is considering Ethiopian requests to supply it fuel for a year with
delayed payments. Meanwhile, the UAE has agreed to provide Ethiopia with
huge loans, investment and infrastructure support; it has upgraded
Eritrea’s Assab port and constructed a military headquarters nearby from
which it has launched offensives into Yemen; and its company DP World
has secured contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to develop
the ports in Berbera and Bosaso, located in the semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland respectively.
One of the motivations for the Arab Axis’ aggressive strategy is
commercial, but the primary goal is political. Its main aim is to
isolate Iran, with which it has a long-standing feud, and contain the
influence of the Qatar-Turkey Axis, which it accuses of promoting
Qatar and Turkey also have deep footprints in the Horn through
development aid, trade, and investments in infrastructure. Both are
heavily involved in Somalia, where Turkey manages the capital’s ports
and airports and has a military base. And both are investing heavily in
Suakin in Sudan, with Qatar announcing a $4 billion plan
to develop the port this March. There are reports that Qatar has also
financed Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, drawing anger from Egypt and
its Arab allies, though Ethiopia has denied these claims.
Ethiopia’s balancing act
In the last few years, the Horn of Africa has become a battleground
on which Middle Eastern rivalries are played out. Different groupings
have engaged with the region in pursuit of their own interests. Some
have been more successful than others, but the question for many is
whether African countries are able to make these relationships work for
On the one hand, many governments have certainly seized opportunities
and managed to secure huge investment deals for their ports. But on the
other, their weak positions have meant that most have been forced to
take sides when required. Last week, for instance, Saudi Arabia
successfully pressured Somalia and Eritrea into condemning
Canada following its spat with the Canadian government over human
rights issues. Somalia has been particularly affected by intra-Gulf
rivalries as some regional governments have pulled in opposite directions in an aim to consolidate alliances across the sea.
The one exception to this turmoil so far has been Ethiopia. Amidst
the growing competition for influence among the Middle Eastern axes,
Addis Ababa has managed to avoid taking sides – at least publicly – and
leverage its geostrategic significance as the region’s hegemon to
attract much-needed investment from several different partners.
As it attempts to foster greater regional integration, Ethiopia has
courted both the Qatar-Turkey and Arab axes to fill funding gaps for
critical infrastructure and free trade zones. It has managed to maintain
close ties to Qatar. And it has been Turkey’s favourite investment
destination for the past several years, attracting nearly half of
Turkey’s $6 billion investments in Africa.
At the same time, however, it has exploited its diplomatic muscle and
importance to simultaneously strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia and the
UAE. The various leaders have met on several occasions recently. And
this June, the UAE agreed a $3 billion deal
in which it would deposit $1 billion into Ethiopia’s National Bank to
help with the forex crisis and invest the remaining $2 billion in
various key sectors.
Ethiopia has also positioned itself well to benefit from the complex
scramble for Red Sea ports. The land-locked country relies on Djibouti
for nearly 97% of its imports, but now has clear avenues for
diversifying its routes to sea. The rapprochement with its neighbour
should give it access to Eritrean ports, while the UAE’s development of
Berbera in Somaliland will give it another crucial option. Ethiopia
defied the Somali federal government’s objections when it supported the
UAE’s deal with the semi-autonomous region, but in return it has
acquired a 19% stake in the project.
Thus far, Ethiopia appears to have been able to balance and profit
from the Middle East’s renewed interest in the Horn of Africa. It has
cemented alliances and attracted crucial investment whilst maintaining
its independent foreign policy. But it is engaged in a dangerous game.
The combination of Gulf’s transactional politics and Africa’s often
kleptocratic leadership could prove treacherous as historic rivalries
take on new twists and matters develop beyond the Horn’s control.
The Arab Axis, for example, might soon decide to capitalise on the
US’ re-imposition of Iranian sanctions to pressure its cash-strapped
African partners to freeze relations with its nemesis. For now, Ethiopia
is able to hold off such demands, but its smaller neighbours are
struggling. And things may only get ever tougher and more unpredictable
as the Middle Eastern battle for supremacy plays out in the Horn of