Policy Considerations

The UK government can use its relationship with, or influence over, countries in the Gulf, and Turkey, to further its own strategic agenda in the Horn of Africa and the wider Red Sea region. This includes stabilization, poverty reduction, and economic development in all three main countries of focus for this study (Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia). This kind of multilateral and cooperative approach to issues that cross areas of conventional geographical responsibility will likely be of greater importance post-pandemic in an era of shrinking development spending and a reorienting of UK foreign policy.

Support for cross-regional multilateralism

The wider Red Sea region has historically fallen between the remits of existing multilateral bodies. External engagement with the region has also tended to be siloed between the Horn of Africa, North Africa and the Gulf states. The Red Sea Council which was launched in January 2021 offers an alternative forum for intra-regional engagement.

However, the Council has been slow to move forward since the charter was signed. This is understandable given the challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic since early 2021, and the attention this has drawn away for the member states. Nevertheless, the pivot in regional relations by the Gulf states in response to the change of administration in the United States suggests that the development of the Council may make further progress in the short term. In part, this is dependent on Saudi Arabia and Egypt affording the Council sufficient diplomatic investment, and Saudi Arabia in particular the financial support for the consolidation of the secretariat and the emergence of a common agenda.


For the UK, in seeking to support stabilization in a region which has become significantly more volatile in the past two years (with Sudan’s and Ethiopia’s transitions, as well as the crisis in Yemen), any progress towards regularization of the Red Sea Council’s forum and agenda would be worth encouraging. Engagement with the Red Sea Council on maritime trade and security offers an entry point which could help stimulate movement on agenda building for the Council. Bilateral engagement with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular to indicate UK support for the Council, as well as with Sudan, which seeks a higher profile in Red Sea regional affairs, could reinforce this message. However, progress is likely to be slow. Following the lead of regional actors will be essential.

Tackling regional crises

One benefit of a multilateral forum is that it offers the opportunity for dialogue on the sidelines of regularly scheduled meetings—at technical, ministerial, and heads of state level. As a corollary to encouraging the emergence and consolidation of the Red Sea Council and its agenda, Gulf state engagement in two interlinked crises in the Horn of Africa may offer an opportunity to encourage more strategic and sustained, and less transactional, engagement—particularly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both states have developed significant investments in Ethiopia and Sudan in agriculture and other sectors. The UAE in particular has cultivated substantive connections to Abiy’s government in Ethiopia, as well as links to the Transitional Government in Sudan via General Hemedti.

Emirati overtures to defuse tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan over the disputed Fashaga border region have yet to make significant progress. Both governments have indicated that they wish to avoid further conflict. However, de-escalation is proving challenging, in light of the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region along the border. Ethiopia-Sudan relations are also complicated by tensions over the filling schedule of the GERD, which is set to come to a head again when Ethiopia’s rainy season begins in June July. Saudi and Emirati support for a negotiated settlement to the wider Nile basin crisis could help to resolve the Ethiopia-Sudan border tensions, as well.

Both countries appear to have moved on from their very transactional and disruptive influence during the 2019 revolution, particularly since the UAE encouraged Sudan to join it in normalizing relations with Israel in late 2020. This may offer the UK an opportunity to seek actively to collaborate with Saudi and Emirati diplomatic efforts to encourage a settlement. The key will be Ethiopia’s reluctance to engage in formal mediation, and its preference for an African Union-led framework. The UK could usefully engage with Ethiopia to encourage it to support the development of a negotiation forum that enables constructive input from the Gulf states, which may include positive inducements such as further assistance and investment.

Cooperation in donor relations

The UK is at a challenging point in the trajectory of its engagement as a donor in the Horn of Africa. British aid to the Somali transition has been substantial, and the UK is one of Ethiopia’s largest bilateral donors. However, the UK’s foreign policy and assistance policies are under review and potential reorientation at a time when the region faces significant volatility, putting at risk some of the gains in poverty reduction and stabilization achieved in recent years, particularly in Ethiopia. At the same time, the donor agendas of Turkey and the Gulf states have offered states in the Horn of Africa important assistance and investment. Setting aside questions of donor harmonization, the strategic nature of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region suggests that external assistance will still flow, and the pattern of states in the Horn successfully leveraging their position to capture and instrumentalize donor assistance will continue.

Although there are questions about the impact of aid flows on the building of institutions, the political transitions underway in Ethiopia (since 2018), Sudan (since 2019), and Somalia (since 2000) also underscore the degree to which more transactional politics are in some ways already entrenched in the Horn of Africa. The UK could constructively engage in targeted projects that support processes relevant to its goals, especially poverty reduction and economic development, as well as leveraging strategic investment and assistance from Turkey and the Gulf. The Berbera corridor is a useful example, combining Emirati investment and ‘traditional’ donor support for logistics and process-development (i.e., the Ethiopia-Somaliland trade relationship).

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