If the U.S. State Department wants to scuttle the Somaliland-Ethiopia pact, and recognize Somaliland as Ethiopia, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia may soon do so.

By Michael Rubin

Pity Ethiopia. Once the seat of a great empire, war, corruption, and mismanagement fractured the country, and Eritrea’s 1993 independence cut Ethiopia off from the sea, making the country the world’s most populous landlocked state. Initially, it did not matter. Ethiopia and Eritrea’s rulers were allies against the Derg.

Ethiopia did not need a port, as Eritrea allowed hundreds of Ethiopian trucks to transit its territory daily to the ports of Assab and Massawa. Peace did not last. Rivalries flared, and, in 1998, war erupted ostensibly over the isolated border town of Badme, and a few tracts of barren mountains and scrubland, none of which had significant economic resources. This led one famous observer to characterize the conflict as “two bald men fighting over a comb.”


In 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for his willingness to accept arbitration awarding Badme to Eritrea. In reality, the supposed peace was a devil’s bargain. Abiy and Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki sought a truce only so they could settle scores with Ethiopia’s Tigray, rivals to them both. In public, Abiy railed against Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, oblivious to the fact that an embrace of military unilateralism rather than proper constitutional reform would create a self-fulfilling prophecy of separatism and ethnic grievance that will hobble Ethiopia for generations to come.

Somaliland-Ethiopia Pact, Somaliland Recognition Analyzing US State Department's Potential Impact
A view from Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland

Ethiopia today surpasses Pakistan and Nigeria as the country most at risk of a Yugoslavia-like disintegration. Like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Abiy today follow the dictator’s playbook to saber-rattle as a substitute for competent economic stewardship.

The world cannot complain Abiy gave them no warnings. The problem was never commercial outlets to the sea. Ethiopia has corridors through both Djibouti and Somaliland. Abiy, however, wanted more. In 2018, he declared he would reconstitute a navy, a move that required a permanent Ethiopian port. For a time, Abiy considered seizing Zayla (Seylac), a small Somaliland port just 27 miles south of the Djibouti border that Russia too once reportedly sought to lease. Last year, it appeared Abiy might instead move against Eritrea to gain sea access.

It was against this context that Abiy and Somaliland President Muse Bihi surprised the world by announcing a January 1, 2024, Memorandum of Understanding to trade a long-term Ethiopian lease for a Somaliland port for Ethiopian recognition of Somaliland’s independence. Africans, Europeans (especially the United Kingdom), and many Arab states applauded. They each have growing ties with Somaliland. Once independent, Somaliland is a bastion of stability, democracy, and moderation in a troubled region. While Somalia irredentists in Mogadishu blustered, few beyond the State Department’s Africa Bureau paid them much heed.

The State Department, however, blindly opposes the Ethiopian-Somaliland memorandum. There are two reasons. First, Ethiopia’s navy might complicate the operational environment at a time of crisis in the Bab el-Mandeb. Frankly, such concern is justified given both Abiy’s erraticism and his tendency to pick fights with Egypt. Second, the State Department opposes any erosion of Somalia’s territorial integrity. This is silly, though. Somaliland has been separate from Somalia longer than it was part of it. When part of greater Somalia, Mogadishu launched a genocidal campaign against Somaliland’s Isaaq clan. There is no circumstance foreseeable where Isaaqs subordinate themselves to the entities that sought their deaths.

Somaliland authorities are not Pollyannaish toward Ethiopia but feel they have no choice. The State Department talks about dialogue but fails to demand Mogadishu live up to negotiated agreements with Hargeisa. When, at US urging, Mogadishu reclaimed authority over Somaliland’s airspace, its first action was to try to strangle Somaliland. With the United States figuratively shipping rope to Somalia that Mogadishu turns into a noose, it should not surprise that Somaliland would cut a deal with Abiy, whatever the risks.

It is time for Washington to end a three-decade record of failure and embrace a holistic approach. Recognize Somaliland as Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia may soon do so, giving Somaliland the rights of a sovereign state so it need not lease Ethiopia a port. Reward Somaliland’s success and top subsidizing Somalia’s failure.

Michael RubinAbout Michael Rubin

Senior Fellow

Research Areas

Arab politics, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Horn of Africa

Bio & Experience

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.

A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.


    • Foreign Military Studies Office: Contract Analyst, 2012–present
    • Naval Postgraduate School: Senior Lecturer, 2007–21
    • Middle East Quarterly: Editor, 2004–09
    • Coalition Provisional Authority (Baghdad): Political Adviser, 2003–04
    • Office of the Secretary of Defense: Staff Adviser, Iran and Iraq, 2002–04
    • Council on Foreign Relations: International Affairs Fellow, 2002–03
    • Hebrew University (Jerusalem): Fellow, The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, 2001–02
    • Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs: Fellow, 2000–01
    • Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok (Iraqi Kurdistan): Visiting Lecturer, 2000–01
    • Yale University: Lecturer, Department of History, 1999–2000
    • Iranian Studies: Assistant Editor, 1994–97


Ph.D. and MA in history; BS in biology, Yale University


Send Email:

Twitter: @mrubin1971

Media Request

Brady Africk

Tell: 202-924-0784

Send Email: