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Juggling the politics of the Horn

Monday July 30, 2018
Neamin Ashenafi

Due to its strategic positioning in connecting the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa, the Horn of Africa region has been a focal point for many foreign actors throughout history. Ethiopia’s location to this strategically significant route led many countries to establish cordial relationship with the country. At times, Ethiopia’s diplomatic relations, due to its strategic location, was also a source of contention with many countries, especially the Arabs. In that regard, many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia were portrayed by the Government of Ethiopia as supporters of instability in the country. However, recent developments reveal that the relationship between the Arabs and Ethiopia seem to be changing which in turn heralds the dawn of a new era, writes Neamin Ashenafi.

July 9 2018 marked the end of the 20-year-old war between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. This long awaited phenomenon came after a peace accord was signed between the Prime Minster of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), and the President of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki, in the capital of Eritrea, Asmara. Following the agreement, many applauded for the two leaders for bringing peace without the involvement of a third party; however, the two leaders acknowledged the efforts of the leaders of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. “President Afewerki and Prime Minister Ahmed thanked the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their contribution to the efforts to end the dispute between the neighbors,” a joint statement that was released at the Ethiopian-Eritrean-UAE tripartite summit in Abu Dhabi reads.

This peace brokering role by the UAE and the Saudi has caught the attention of many analysts and politicians who follow the matter closely, given the fact that the relationship between the two Arab countries and Ethiopia was somehow antagonistic in the past and the recent development seems to have ushered in a new trend.

Many GCC countries are trying to strengthen their presence in the Horn of Africa because of various reasons; according to literature and analysts, the recent development is the result of the GCC countries aiming to expand their presence in the region. By the same token, the GCC countries are in search of market and resource.

According to Leulseged Girma, a geopolitical researcher at the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies Institute (EFRSSI), the recent development of the relationship between the GCC and Ethiopia is derived from mainly three major objectives.

“The countries are determinedly working to significantly upend their dependence on oil and they are trying to diversify their economies. They can find no place better and nearer than the Horn of Africa. The Horn countries are now opening up their economies as can be understood from Ethiopia’s recent declarations to change in its course of handling its business enterprises including telecom, airlines and hotel industries. GCC countries have also huge investments in the Horn countries to ensure food security for their people. Ethiopia and Sudan are major allies in this regard,” Leulseged told The Reporter, outlining the rationale behind the recent developments.

Apart from this Leulseged further stated: “The GCC feud is also affecting the Horn of Africa for the prior’s strategic interest to isolate Qatar and Iran from the pivotal Red Sea geopolitical space. That is why the countries are dealing to control ports across the Red Sea and the Horn region to satisfy their rivalry needs. UAE’s feud with Qatar also affected Somalia where some of its regions explicitly expressed their allegiance to the Saudi-led countries who severed ties with Qatar.”

The GCC countries also want to assure their presence in the Horn because of China’s huge investment, which is related to the Road and Belt Initiative (RBI) that is mainly composed of maritime silk roads across the Horn of Africa.

The Horn of Africa region is situated on the shores of the Gulf of Aden, the strait of Bab al Mandab and the Red Sea, which is one of the most important waterways for global trade. Bab al Mandab is particularly important for Asian trade giants such as China, Japan and India that exports significant amount of goods to Europe and Africa through this route. Additionally, a great deal of the oil and natural gas exports from the Gulf countries to the European market is also shipped through the Gulf of Aden, Bab al Mandab and the Red Sea route.

Though many countries are competing to strengthen their presence in the Horn, Ethiopian leaders and diplomats have started to think about establishing security partnerships to safeguard the security of the Red Sea region all the way from the Suez Canal to the strait of Bab al-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. “Ethiopia believes that it is only through partnership that these regional ailments can be eradicated,” Leulseged says.

For Getaneh Balcha, vice president of Blue Party (Blue), the recent development is very important in strengthening Ethiopia’s interest in the arena of geopolitics; however, he stated that the development needs careful analyses and should be backed by a clear foreign policy on how to deal with “both the Arabs or any other government that want to protect its interest in the region. “Ethiopia’s interest should also be protected vis-à-vis the development in the region,” Getaneh recommends.

Another concern for analysts is the relationship the Arabs have with other countries in the region. For instance, the UAE is at odds with Djibouti and Somalia because of issues related to ports; therefore, according to analysts, Ethiopia’s move to wine and dine with the UAE should be seen very carefully so as not to hamper the existing relations between the countries in the region mainly Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia.

In this regard, Leulseged argues: “Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia are not happy with PM Abiy’s standalone decision to lift the sanctions on Eritrea, which have been imposed by the United Nations. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) should have been consulted before this measure was taken. But PM Abiy’s initiative, if taken earnestly, will pave the way for IGAD to launch peace talks to resolve the feud between Eritrea and other member countries of IGAD. This situation may compel Ethiopia to open political spaces for peace talks to transform the region into a peaceful haven.”

But to the contrary, for Getaneh, the recent development between Ethiopia and Eritrea can serve as a springboard to transform the antagonistic situation between countries of the region and could also contribute to the peace and stability not only for the region but to the whole of Africa; therefore, countries like Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia should not feel alienated or betrayed by Ethiopia.

Similarly, Leulesged argues: “Peace with Eritrea may bring forth so many good things for the region if handled amicably.” He highlighted that Ethiopia’s call for peace with Eritrea and its marvelous achievement will open the way for using Eritrean ports for its own purposes. Djibouti should not be unpleasantly surprised by these developments. A common denominator, peace, should be achieved through dialogue and togetherness. Ethiopia is an emerging economy in the region and all ports of the Horn might be necessary for its development and security purposes.

According to analysts, with all these new developments surfacing on the ever-changing relationship between the GCC and the Horn of Africa countries, the solution for having lasting peace is diplomacy.

“Diplomacy is the key instrument to alter the situation on the ground. Ethiopia-Egypt feud over the Nile water has now been transformed from political level to technical level because of the diplomatic efforts our politicians together with hydro-experts. It is through iterative diplomacy that you make your counterpart understand the situation and change his stance on a particular matter. The second strategy and instrument to improve the hostile situation is cooperation. Cooperation in trade and security between Ethiopia, its neighbors and GCC countries is what has surfaced now. Other countries should take the same path to get rid of any spat with any country,” Leulseged recommends.

Historical context

Its strategic location of the region has led many to extend their control by employing different schemes. For instance, in the 1970s and 80s, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt each proposed for the establishment of a “Red Sea Forum” composed of states along the coastline. These did not succeed partly because of Cold War divisions and questions over the participation of Israel.

According to Alex de Waal, a researcher on African issues, this proposal has been revived more recently, firstly by the European Union special envoy to the Horn of Africa, who emphasizes the importance of the sea-lanes to Europe’s economy; secondly by Egypt, which sees the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden as an extension of the Suez Canal.

But yet again, the same questions arise over who should be part of this Forum. Should Israel, a littoral state, be included? What about non-coastal countries with major interests in the Red Sea such as Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)? In response, the African Union (AU) has begun talking of a “Red Sea Arena” with a wider span and less formal composition.

The main reason there has never been a common security mechanism for the Red Sea so far is that it has not been needed to protect the trade route. During the Cold War, for example, the US and the Soviet Union had a common interest in keeping the sea-lanes open. China’s decision to locate its first overseas naval base in Djibouti indicates its strategic interest in the area and suggests it shares the US and Europe’s priorities regarding freedom of navigation.

With all these international rivalries in the region, the move by Qatar, which sought to position itself as a mediator of choice – hosting peace talks for Darfur and between Eritrea and Djibouti, was regarded as a new force entering the region through mediating peace and providing some humanitarian assistance to the impoverished Somalis.

Next to move was Turkey. Before the Syrian war began in 2011, the then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a vision of reviving Turkish leadership throughout the lands of the former Ottoman Empire using the soft power of trade, aid and education. Turkey became the first country to open an embassy in fragile Somalia after its Transitional Federal Government returned and has remained a major supporter of the new government. It is also an active investor in Sudan with plans to open a base at Suakin on the country’s Red Sea coast.

Egypt only truly awoke to the consequences of its neglect of sub-Saharan Africa in 2013 when it was suspended from the AU, which deemed the military takeover that brought President Abdel Fatah al Sisi to power unconstitutional and hence in contravention of Article 4(p) of the Constitutive Act. Egypt then began a frantic diplomatic effort to return to the AU and was readmitted in 2014. Egypt is therefore seeking to counterbalance Turkey and Qatar.

However, Alex de Waal, in his article entitled “Beyond the Red Sea: A New Driving Force in the Politics of the Horn”, presents the recent development in the Horn as follows: “A momentary “Pax Arabica” may emerge based on Gulf money used to meet African leaders’ urgent cash needs. But any peace agreements that result will be only as good as the transitory alignments of political interests from which they arose. Today, the UAE’s immediate need for a friendly African hinterland as it presses forward with its war in Yemen creates such a configuration. But that is not a foundation for a durable peace and security order.”


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