Editor’s note: Exploring Ethiopia’s relation with state actors in the region, namely Djibouti, Eritrea, Somaliland, Somalia, and Sudan, against the backdrop of great power rivalry in the face of new scramble for Africa, the writer offered a lucid and insightful analysis into Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy Dilemma. In doing so, this excellent article also highlights the impacts of transactional opportunities domestically which elucidates what Ethiopia is experiencing with greater clarity. It is a must-read article.

Metta-Alem Sinishaw,
Washington, DC Metro Area
November 1, 2019


The naval bases that the U.S., China, and other members of the UN Security Council and Gulf countries proliferated in the Red Sea region is a testament to the strategic value they placed on the Horn of Africa. The U.S. Africa policy has evolved from counterterrorism to great power confrontation with three main objectives: trade, investment, and security. Russia presents itself as non-colonial power with minimal ideological interest but aspires to gain its lost geopolitical influence and access to natural sources, as witnessed in the just ended its first-ever Russia-Africa Submit. After its unsuccessful bid to gain a military base in Djibouti, it cooperates with Emirates to get access to Eritrea as a gateway to Ethiopia and collaborates with Turkey to improve proximity to Somalia and Sudan.

China portrays itself as an alternative development model to the West, supports African modernization efforts, invests heavily in infrastructure that aligns with its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, and offers frugal technology, especially in communication. China maintains strong ties with Ethiopia and Sudan and has its lonely logistic facility in Djibouti from which it protects its investment in the region, advances its political and military objectives, and deters its rivals around the Indian ocean, especially India and Japan.

Gulf countries represent absolutist monarchies and lack multilateral and long-term commitment but offer transactional opportunities for aspiring local actors to become strongmen. While Emirates pursues secular foreign policy vying for regional ports, Saudi and Qatar allegedly promote Wahhabism and Muslim Brotherhood, respectively, which exacerbates instability in the largely Sunni Muslim dominated Horn community. As Gulf has minimal concern for human rights and good governance, autocratic regimes continue jockeying the Gulf for political survival.

While global powers counter each other’s influence and advance maritime security along the Red Sea shipping lanes, new actors, Saudi and Emirates compete against Qatari, Turkish, and perceived Iranian influence.  As the Yemen conflict became the center of rivalry, the Gulf exported its conflict to the Horn in search of client states that sought money for their cash starving repressive regimes.

Global powers seem to have preferred Gulf allies with whom they work quietly, often behind the scene, which makes relations between Gulf rivals and Horn countries more complex. Gulf’s priority for political expediency and Horn’s desire to mitigate the economic pressure posed by growing unemployed youth makes the Gulf-Horn relations transactional. In the absence of multilateral engagement, local leaders in the Horn pursue asymmetrical interests without regard to the long-term positive and adverse outcomes of regional significance.

Since coming to power, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new premier has taken radical policy measures and earned diplomatic and economic support, including diversified shares on foreign ports but compromised neutrality, insecurity, instability, complicated the Nile hydro politics, and delayed democratization. The summary of the adverse effect of Abiy’s foreign policy on domestic affairs can be viewed or explored on the web “Ethiopian blurred Foreign Policy and the adverse effect of Gulf Rivalry.”  This article attempts to review the effect of Ethiopian foreign policy on its intra-Horn relations against the backdrop of the new scramble for Africa using openly available resources and highlight its implication on stability, development, and democratization.

  1. Why does the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace agreement remain mysterious?

Since the 1998 border war, Eritrea has been undermining Ethiopian stability, GERD, and the Ethio-Djibouti railroad, including supporting rebel groups. When Emirates expulsed from Djibouti, Saudi pressed Eritrea to shift its alliance abruptly from Iran and Qatar and provide its port to Emirates to be used as launching pad against the Houthis in Yemen that Eritrea was supporting earlier in collaboration with Iran. Eritrea accuses Turkey and Qatar, who jointly operate a military base in Sudan, of destabilization with Sudanese collusion but maintains cordial relations with Egypt due to shared interest against Ethiopia.

Eritrea’s convergence with Emirates initially benefitted its impecunious military and encouraged to project animosity against Ethiopia that ultimately irritated Ethiopia’s relations with Emirates until the  Ethio-Eritrean rapprochement that ended Ethiopia’s policy of Eritrean diplomatic and economic isolation.

Although both the U.S. and Russia allegedly worked to end Eritrean sanction, Eritrea reportedly favored Russia due to perceived western pressure towards democracy and resentment to earlier U.S. support for the Ethiopian campaign against Eritrean. China’s interference with the U.S. military operations in Djibouti compelled the U.S. to look elsewhere for alternate, during which Eritrea emerged as a possible candidate.

After failing in Djibouti, Russia forged a strategic partnership with Emirates to gain a foothold in Eritrea, where it intends to build logistic center and regional transport corridor as a get way to Africa and counter the West. Emirates, in its part, sought to exploit Russian residue from cold war era to strengthen its position against Saudi in Southern Yemen.

Saudi and Emirates consider the Ethio-Eritrean peace deal as the most earnest dividend of Gulf’s intervention and desire to capitalize on its success to gain foothold elsewhere in Africa. However, more than 18 months after the Ethio-Eritrean peace deal, while ground transportation remained closed after only four months of services, no known strategic agreements emerged despite earlier optimism and claim of “deepening bilateral cooperation and regional issues of mutual interest.”

Saudi and Emirates sponsored peace deal excluded key African partners such as the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Agency on Development (IGAD) that could have substantively contributed to its subsequent implementation. Some emphasize that the exclusion of Ethiopia, a regional powerhouse, from Saudi sponsored new Red Sea security alliance and lack of specific modalities on the implementation of intra-border relations could have deterred progress. Others stress that the stalemate might have multidimensional causes stating that the lack of shared interest on how to deal with mutual neighbors, Sudan and Djibouti, could be a key detrimental factor to the realization of the peace accord.

Contrary to local and international media reports, the terms of the Ethio-Eritrean peace deal and the causes of the impasse remain unclear, as neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea has articulated any long-term vision. Some observers suspect Eritrean dissatisfaction with the meddling of the restive Tigray people liberation front (TPLF), a former comrade in arm and current bitter foe, in Eritrean affairs could be the impediment.

Pundits remain perplexed by the lack of clarity about the direction of the rapprochement and political commentators point Eritrea’s recent military showcase, with Russian armament, as illuminating its hidden ambition to emerge as a regional force against Ethiopian hegemony. Geopolitical analysts even hypothesize that to neutralize the threat from Ethiopia, Eritrea might have wanted TPLF to secede from Ethiopia and become an independent buffer zone between the two countries, the validity of which seems very unlikely despite its logical stance.

Still, others contemplate that Emirates control over Assab and its plan to build a pipeline to take advantage of the Ethiopian market could be at the heart of contention. Eritrea may perceive that growing proximity with Emirates would enable Ethiopia to circumvent Eritrea and deal directly with Emirates to utilize the Assab port, for at least the life of the Emirates lease. If true, it undermines Eritrean interest and defeat the objective of the agreement with subsequent adverse effect on regional security. Ethiopia’s recent interruption of utilizing the Massawa port and diverting its shipping lines clearly signals the depth of uneasiness in implementing the agreement, if not reversing the initial gains.

After hosting more than a year, Eritrean president has not yet accepted the credential letter of Ethiopian ambassador, a sign that shows the brittleness of the agreement and the speculation that Eritrea may abandon from the agreement its earliest convenience. Some even argue that no meaningful strategic relation would emerge between reformist Ethiopia and autocratic Eritrea before democratization. Others underline that Abiy’s statement “…don’t worry about all these problems we Ethiopians face, Eritrea’s “Isaias (President of Eritrea) is leading us” meets Isaias’ expectation of himself as a father figure and guide to Abiy, which concurs to Eritrean hidden ambition to become a regional leader.

Eritrean leadership may be interested only in the economic benefits that came with the agreement while subordinating regional economic and security interests, which is consistent with Eritrean growing regional ambition due to its proximity to Emirates, Saudi, and Russia in the face of growing Ethiopian instability. Despite the massive differences between the two countries, Eritrea allegedly sought egalitarian treatment from Ethiopia to settle the foreign currency imbalance during the ephemeral inter-border economic exchange, further signaling Eritrean renewed miscalculation of Ethiopian capabilities and its relentless aspiration for exploitative relation, the very reason why it went to war in 1998.

Absence of the Eritrean leadership among the invited guests, during Ethiopia’s Unity Park inauguration, offers additional insight about the lack of Eritrean confidence on the agreement and undercuts media reports on the authenticity of improved relation. Another absence of Eritrea from the list of neighboring countries that offered congratulatory message to Abiy’s 2019 Novel peace prize caught many by surprise, which speaks volume about the true status of the agreement.

Incontestably, the rapprochement reconnected the two countries through air transport, diminished state animosity, and improved regional security. However, delay in the realization of the much-expected economic interaction, despite Abiy’s continued optimism, creates uneasiness among Ethiopians about Eritrean hidden ambition, especially in the face of increasing Egyptian nervousness and homegrown virulent radical Islam in Oromia region that is crumbling Ethiopia.

  1. Would future relations with Djibouti remain amical?

Since the Ethiopia-Eritrean border war, Djibouti remained the main gateway for nearly 95% of Ethiopian trade whose port usage allegedly contributed, at least partially, for the border conflict between Djibouti and Eritrea that Qatar mediated. Despite fraternal ties, Djibouti intermittently abused its monopoly by increasing port service fees, often abruptly, which forced Ethiopia to look elsewhere for an alternative.

On the other hand, the increasing militarization of Djibouti by foreign military forces undermines not only Ethiopian hegemony on regional security but also increases vulnerability that Djibouti’s patrons could exploit. Ethiopia was particularly overwhelmed when Saudi and Emirates pressed both Djibouti and Eritrea to severe abruptly their ties with Qatar, the country that mediated and served as peacekeeper between the two. Qatari’s positive influence in Djibouti, Eritrea, and Sudan prompted Saudi to secure a military base in Djibouti, get closer to the Yemen conflict, and curb Qatar’s growing regional dominance.

As the undeniable beneficial of the Ethiopian-Eritrean hostility, Ethiopian agreement with Eritrea, if implemented, will end Djibouti’s monopoly with adverse consequences. If Ethiopia begins using other ports and/or finds better prices, declining yearly revenue (~$2 Billion) from Ethiopia will pose serious Economic and political challenges as the combined revenue from U.S., France, Japan, Italy, and Saudi will never compensate Djibouti’s loss. If the loss persists, Djibouti’s authoritarian regime, in power since 1999, would inevitably face increasing social upheaval due to extreme poverty, poor social services, and abysmal political rights and civil liberties.

After losing a legal battle and political fallout, Djibouti expulsed Emirate’s DP World and their relations deteriorated, including canceling a project to build a military base, following which Emirates moved to Berbera in Somaliland (and Eritrea) in search of an alternative port with an alleged Ethiopian mediation. Djibouti then offered China an unknown stake in the Doraleh port from which Ethiopia has an unspecified percentage of share and counter-offered Djibouti with an optional stake in the Ethiopian government-owned key assets, including Ethiopian Electric Power and Ethio Telecom but the status of which remains unknown.

As China and Ethiopia own shares in Djibouti’s port, previously leased by DP World, the probability that Emirates, a key mediator in the Ethio-Eritrean peace deal partly to revenge Djibouti, is unlikely to return to Djibouti and will continue modernizing Eritrean and Somaliland’s ports vying for Ethiopian market.

Abiy cunningly maneuvered the rivalry and gained shares in Berbera and Djibouti ports that would effectively diminish vulnerability. As Ethiopia diversifies access to the sea, Djibouti would either reduce its exorbitant port prices or face the threats posed by declining revenue, the effects of which could lead to an inevitable revolution against its authoritarian regime. If Djibouti defaults on the Chinese loan that it incurred on its port and railroad, deteriorating economic conditions will irritate its relation with Ethiopia and China and, if persisted, Djibouti would be subject to Chinese unfiltered manipulation, including losing its ownership on critical assets.

Therefore, Ethiopia should carefully weigh the full spectrum of the effects of its port diversification vis-à-vis the interests of its partners: China, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Emirates as well as France if Ethiopia cooperates in building its planned Navy.

  1. Could Ethiopia’s relations with Somalia improve thorny history?

Following its expulsion from Djibouti, Emirates intensified its investment in Berbera, whose proximity to Aden, Yemen, brought a strategic advantage. Emirates considers Somaliland as a trade partner, especially in port services, and hopes to boost its trade in the Red Sea along the Chinese OBOR Initiative and counter Qatari and Turkish influence.

Despite the persistent claim, many doubt Somalian neutrality in the intra-Gulf crisis, especially after Somalia shifted its alliance from Iran, and joined Saudi’s coalition against Yemen while maintaining strong ties with Qatar and Turkey. The current Somalian president allegedly came to power with Qatari support against the Emirates’ favorite candidate. The competition between Emirates vs Qatar and Turkey aggravate disputes between Somaliland and Somalia and Emirates relations with Somalia reached nadir when Somali forces captured a large sum of Emirates’ cash, following which Emirates shifted its focus from Somalia to the peripheral the Republic of Somaliland. Somalian federal government condemns Emirates of funding its rival, fueling opposition, and creating animosity between Somaliland and Somalia. Emirates and Qatar effectively manipulate influential Somalian business and political elites in the Gulf to enhance their respective interests using their political clout and remittances.

Ethiopia allegedly played key role in facilitating the Emirates and Somaliland partnership on Berbera port and Emirates helped Ethiopia to acquire a 19 percent stake with an additional $400 million road project that will link Berbera to Ethiopia. Despite diminishing exclusive dependence on Djibouti’s port, Ethiopia’s stake in Berbera seems a double edge sword. On one hand, it emasculates optimism in the perceived Ethiopian future use of Eritrean port, and on the other hand, it antagonizes relations with Somalia for undermining its sovereignty, which creates a vulnerability that Egypt and Somalia Islamists could exploit.

Abiy’s regional integration initiative sounds an excellent complement to mitigate Gulf’s transactional engagement with multilateral agenda. If implemented, it could even serve as a platform to converge with Turkey, Somalia’s strong allay and Egypt’s foe, with significant investment in Ethiopia, to improve relationships with Somalia and serve as a bulwark against Egyptian penetration in both Somalia and Sudan.  However, Somalia is skeptical of the new partnership not least because the new integration initiative lacks political framework or economic modality, but due to historical animosity and center-periphery discourse that irk relations with it and its allies, Qatar and Turkey, who have interests in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia.

In addition to the 1964 and 1977 wars and the 2006 military intervention, Ethiopia’s de facto recognition of Somaliland undermines Somalian sovereignty in the face of which Somalia remains silent due to fragile federal government and fear of further disintegration in the already crumbling Somalia. However, Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group with alleged Gulf support, effectively utilizes Ethiopian interference as ammunition for public rallying support. The recent launch of an anti-Ethiopian campaign from Somali based Islamic State and the history of animosity against Ethiopia, by Islamist radicals, severely undermines the likelihood of improving Ethio-Somalian relations and intra-border security.

Despite fragile Somalian government, Somalian non-state actors, mainly radical Islamic groups could adversely affect Ethiopian domestic security and stability by cooperating with Ethiopian growing Islamic forces in the Oromia region.

  1. Could Ethiopia’s engagement with Sudan become any better?

Ethiopia built a great partnership among Nile’s upper riparian countries that fundamentally changed Egypt’s narrative and many now consider the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as an African dam from which Sudan takes enormous pride and counters the residual impact of Egyptian psychological dominance rooted in the Anglo-Egyptian colonial legacy. Since then, Sudan has been persistently collaborating with Ethiopia on GERD against intense pressure from Eritrea and Egypt.

After its Islamic revolution, Sudan became the strongest ally of Iran, the archenemy of Saudi and its Gulf allies, save Qatar. Following the overthrown of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government that Saudi and Emirates consider as a terrorist, Sudan shifted its alliance from Iran to Saudi and Emirates in search of hard currency that Iran could not offer. Although Emirates question Sudan’s commitment, Saudi worked with the U.S. to end Sudan’s sanction, freeze its relations with Iran, improve ties with Egypt, and contribute 14,000 troops to Saudi’s coalition against Yemen.

Hoping to curb Turkey’s unfiltered alliance with Qatar, Saudi facilitated the Turkey-Sudan rapprochement that irritated Egypt. Despite protracted claims over the Halayeb triangle, relations between Sudan and Egypt deteriorated when Turkey leased Sudanese Suakin Island that undermines Egypt’s influence in the Red Sea. Saudi and Emirates poured investment to convince Sudan, abandon its residual ties with Iran, and discourage its backdoor engagement with Qatar, Turkey, and remnants of Islamists.

Unlike Gulf rivals, the U.S. initially showed ambivalence between sanctions in favor of democracy and support to prevent instability. China quietly observed evolving dynamics to secure its investment against the fear that Sudan could become the next Libya or Somalia. Each side of the Saudi/Emirates vs Qatari-Turkish alliance backs rival Sudanese factions in a bid to gain greater influence that weakens the fledgling transition and cause strategic clash that could lead to the possible reemergence of Sudan-Iran alliance that would favor Turkey and Qatar.

Bashir’s persistent double-dealing with rivalry forces, despite claiming neutrality, brought him an abandonment from both camps and his eventual collapse led to intense rivalry between Egypt and Turkey to dominate the new Sudan. While Turkey remains anxious about the future direction of the Sudanese revolution as it continues seeking protection for its investment, Egypt seeks to regain its lost dominance against increasing Turkish penetration. Terrified by the Libyan turmoil, Egypt has been working with Saudi/Emirates to strengthen Sudanese TMC but Sudanese citizenry rejected a $3 billion offer from Emirates and Saudi, for fear that the funds would support TMC and take power from protestors with Egypt’s collusion. Egypt offered last-minute critical support to pressure Bashir to withdraw his support to GERD, albeit unsuccessfully and is likely to face hostile Sudanese government due to the growing awareness of its alliance with Saudi and Emirates and their concerted effort to hijack the revolution.

In his last days, Bashir was allegedly leaning towards Egypt due to Ethiopian proximity to Eritrea and Egypt’s pressure to isolate Sudan from Ethiopian. Abiy countered Egypt and introduced a peace initiative that the African Union endorsed. He used his personal ingenuity and succeeded in enabling the peaceful cohabitation of Sudanese military and civilian actors that earned him international acclaim. Saudi and Emirates extended economic support to the Transition Military Council (TMC) to ensure continued Sudanese participation in Yemen, prevent failure of civilian rule, and protect their agricultural investment.

Ethiopia should continue building on its success and strengthen the Sudanese transition to manage the contradicting interests of its global, regional, and national partners. While Friable Sudanese transition aggravates Ethiopian preoccupation on border security due to transboundary crime and illegal arms smuggling that has been exacerbating its instability, the successful transition would enable Ethiopia to preempt potential Egyptian interference in the renaissance dam.

  1. Concluding summary

In the face of the scramble, dealing with rival absolutists’ royals and transactional actors with little concern for human rights and development would not spur economic growth to respond to the plights of growing unemployed youth nor enhance good governance.  The growing unemployed youth remains vulnerable that ethnic entrepreneurs effectively exploit to unseat regimes through protracted instability. While Ethiopia and Sudan have seen revolutions with optimistic future and uncertain directions, Eritrea and Djibouti continue facing simmering uprisings.

As the leader of the Ethiopian “revolutionary reform?,” Abiy maneuvered the new actors, pursued a radical foreign policy to become too close to Gulf royals,  attracted political and diplomatic support and  Emirates investment with opportunities for alternative port services. However, the declaration of the Arab Parliament to stand with Egypt against Ethiopia seriously undermines Ethiopian prospects for development. Gulf’s alliance with Egypt would have a long-term adverse effect on Ethiopia’s stability in the years to come.

Although his regional integration initiative remains largely unaccomplished, his personal ingenuity has made the cohabitation of Sudanese military and civilian possible and earned his reputation, including an endorsement from the African Union and international community. His success in Sudan contributes not only for regional stability but also preempts potential Egyptian meddling, if Sudan resists the inevitable pressure from the Arab league.

Building Navy anew would consume Ethiopia’s meager resource and exacerbate predicament, at least with some of Ethiopia’s neighbors. Partial stake in Berbera port diminishes exclusive dependence on Djibouti but irritates relations with China and Djibouti. It also undermines Eritrean enthusiasm and antagonizes relations with Somalia for undermining its sovereignty.

Despite the optimism, his economic reform has not yet curbed the rising price of living nor spurs economic growth. However, the Novel peace prize has ostensibly strengthened his faltering administration in the face of his long tightrope to strike a delicate balance between nationalist and sub nationalist groups. He vowed to transform the incumbent coalition into a national political party against the defiance of TPLF and warned that tolerance has dwindled. However, despite emerging more assertive, his administration is unable to curb widespread instability and mounting ethnic conflicts.

Virulent ethnocentric forces and radical Islamists are operating unchecked in his home state of Oromia, and effectively exploit the growing unemployed youth, under the pretext of tribal emancipation, to undermine his reformist agenda by targeting non-Oromo ethnic and religious groups, which resulted in mass killings and church burnings in ways that has never been the case before.

Concerned citizens and responsible actors need to weigh geopolitical imperatives amidst the unfolding rivalry, analyze external threats, reexamine contemporary domestic affairs, reconcile contradictory interests, and fight against homegrown Islamic and ethnocentric radical forces. They ought to support those with better agenda in advancing long-term challenges facing Ethiopians than engaging with endless ethnic squabble, which increases only vulnerability to landlocked and aid-dependent Ethiopia.

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