I. Introduction

Ethiopia’s security influence in the Horn of Africa puts it on a par with other strategic players such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—even if it cannot match those states in economic terms.1 Its proximity to Somalia and the long history of the Ethiopian state’s pursuit of its perceived interest vis-à-vis its Somali-inhabited lowland periphery have made it the dominant foreign policy actor in the Somali arena. Elucidating the broader dynamics of the Horn, in particular how states are affected by and responding to external influences, largely hinges on understanding the transition underway in Ethiopia.2

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This report examines the intersection of two significant trends affecting the regional dynamics of the Horn of Africa.3 First, Ethiopia is undergoing a political transition. Led since 2018 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the transition offers the prospect of significant reforms but carries risks to the country’s economic and political stability. Second, since 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have taken a much more assertive approach to regional security around the Arabian Peninsula—notably in terms of their armed intervention in Yemen. Since 2017, recurrent tensions produced a major diplomatic—and as yet unresolved—rift in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Qatar on the other. The Horn of Africa has been caught up in these evolving Red Sea and Gulf security dynamics. Ethiopia’s transition has affected the government’s approach to managing its relations in the Horn of Africa and with the broader Red Sea region. In turn, this has affected its neighbors as they react to Ethiopia’s shifting stance. There are also implications for the future of regional integration in the Horn of Africa.

Section II contextualizes the recent evolution in Ethiopia’s politics. This is an ongoing process, the drivers of which precede the emergence of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in April 2018. This context helps to illustrate the key points of departure in Abiy’s economic, political and security policies compared with the previous two decades of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government in Ethiopia.

Section III considers the Abiy administration’s approach to the Horn of Africa and its handling of the engagement of the Arab states of the Gulf in the region. It also considers the reactions to shifts in Ethiopia’s position by the other states in the area. This is structured around key geographies: (a) the Eritrea–Ethiopia rapprochement; (b) the Berbera corridor and the Government of Somaliland;4 and (c) Somalia’s federal politics and their spillover effects in Kenya and (d) the Blue Nile Basin, including Sudan’s political transition and relations with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The interests of the Arab states of the Gulf are visible in each region. The analysis considers how Abiy’s administration has attempted to navigate its relations across both sides of the rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE without being captured by either or drawn into the conflict in Yemen. Following the general conclusions in section IV, section V offers potential entry points for promoting regional stability and cooperation and associated risks and opportunities.

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