Abiy has made significant shifts in Ethiopia’s regional posture, which has created opportunities and challenges for the governments of Egypt, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Somaliland and Sudan. Somalia has benefitted most from Abiy’s more supportive position on the FGS. The challenge this creates for relations with Kenya, particularly in terms of competing agendas in Jubaland, may be offset by advantages for Kenya related to Ethiopia’s liberalization agenda. Although Abiy’s administration has embraced Saudi and Emirati engagement more robustly than previous Ethiopian governments, he has so far resisted being drawn into the diplomatic crisis on the Arabian Peninsula, maintaining relations with Qatar and Turkey.
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Significant regional challenges remain for Abiy’s administration, including defining the future relationship with Eritrea and navigating the redevelopment of the Berbera port while maintaining Ethiopia’s relations with the FGS in Somalia. Ethiopia faces internal challenges as well, especially around the approaching 2020 elections. As such, many variables could shift the course of Ethiopia’s trajectory and by extension impact regional dynamics. The Nile Basin remains the most significant source of tension in the long term and divides Ethiopia from its emerging partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have tended to support Egypt.
Regional multilateralism is evolving in two important ways. First, IGAD has the chance to evolve into a better functioning regional forum, after the resumption of its rotating presidency and the appointment of a new executive secretary (former Ethiopian Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu) in November 2019. IGAD’s potential to bring Eritrea back into the forum could be hindered by Eritrea’s preference for a multilateral platform that includes multiple potential hegemonic players, so none can dominate.91 Generally speaking, a functioning regional forum might actually be beneficial for promoting regional stability and cooperation, if a mutually agreeable organizing principle can be found around which a multilateral platform could emerge. This leads to the second important trend in multilateralism: the emergence of the Red Sea Council, a regional forum for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden that connects some of the key players in the evolving Red Sea regional security landscape—in particular Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, this new council’s mandate is narrowly framed around maritime security in a way that includes only coastal states. By excluding Ethiopia and the UAE, its ability to serve as a platform connecting all the major players is limited. Similarly, Somali tensions with the UAE may prevent the UAE’s participation for the foreseeable future. 92
This points to a few important considerations:
First, as reflected in the emergence of the Red Sea Council, the interconnectedness of the Horn and the Red Sea regions is increasingly apparent to actors on both the African and Middle Eastern sides. External actors, including donors and other influential states such as China or Turkey, are also aligning their policies across this region.
Second, under Abiy, Ethiopia remains the center of gravity in the Horn of Africa, and increasingly an influential player in the evolving Red Sea regional security—and, eventually, economic—landscape. Much will hinge on the stability of the Abiy administration in what promises to be a volatile period.
Third, Ethiopia’s regional aims under Abiy are grounded in familiar structural constraints that also guided previous governments, in particular economic considerations related to its export agenda. However, his administration has made a slight shift towards more orthodox economic policy on investment and monetary issues. Abiy’s diplomacy is more personalized and couched in the language of collaboration. Although this has produced a balance for the moment, it is not yet clear how medemer (synergy) will evolve as a principle for organizing foreign policy.
Finally, despite emerging multilateralism, significant fault lines remain, which existing platforms are unable to reconcile. Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the development of the GERD appear to have precluded Ethiopia’s participation in the emerging Red Sea Council for the present. Under Abiy, Ethiopia’s aims in Sudan and Somalia are at cross purposes with those of Saudi Arabia and, especially, the UAE, although Ethiopia and the UAE have some mutual interest in the pursuit of infrastructure. Emirati policy in Somalia has produced a rift with the FGS that will be difficult to repair.
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