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Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement and wider dynamics of regional trade, politics and security

For the Horn of Africa and the wider Red Sea region, 2018 has been a momentous year. In particular the recent rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea opens the possibility of redrawing regional economic and security dynamics which have become entrenched over the last two decades. To understand the broader implications, we need a multi-level analysis, starting with the interests and dynamics of the two governments themselves, then considering regional and global dynamics.

Beyond the impasse in the Horn of Africa

The ‘no war, no peace’ stalemate has been a primary axis for instability within both countries, with both governments supporting the other’s opposition movements (including armed opposition). Although this dynamic fits into a long-standing regional pattern of mutual destabilisation, it cuts across the national and economic security interests of both countries.

In particular, landlocked Ethiopia is seeking economic (and thus political) security through becoming a net exporter (and an accruer of foreign exchange reserves), via the physical integration of transport networks via its neighbours to the global market, and to some degree through exports of power and key commodities (e.g. sugar) to its neighbours themselves. Ethiopian foreign policy since the 1950s has been characterised to some degree by a strategy of resisting encirclement and seeking to prevent the emergence of an effective and well-resourced state with contrary interests on its periphery (especially Sudan and Somalia). To some degree this has shifted since the 1990s, but only in recent months has the government in Addis Ababa openly embraced what is in effect a policy of mutual interdependence — although new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration has yet to officially update the 2002 Foreign Affairs and National Security Strategy which underpins Ethiopia’s economic agenda.

From Asmara, the priorities under President Isaias Afeworki’s government appear to have been first and foremost continued existence for the state, in the face of hostile relations with Sudan and Ethiopia in particular. (Hence the invitation to Somali Federal Government President Farmaajo to normalise relations in early August.) Asmara presents itself as a small actor, doing its best to avoid being swamped by dynamics driven by larger players (especially across the Red Sea, or by ‘global forces’ – read, the ‘imperialistic’ United States). The rapprochement is opportunistic as a reaction to drivers from inside Ethiopia. However, Eritrea’s shifting relations with the Gulf States during the last three years are crucial here.

Emirati influence: a new order?

This brings in the next level of dynamics, revolving around the Red Sea and the Nile basin, where these developments would appear to have uneven impacts.

First, because of the prominent presence of Emirati crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed in Ethiopia amid the rapprochement, and particularly because both Isaias and Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed visited Abu Dhabi following the restoration of relations and the reopening of the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa, there has been much speculation on the Emirati role in the rapprochement. The Emiratis extended an emergency loan/deposit of $1bn to the National Bank of Ethiopia, with a pledge of a further $2bn in investments in the tourism industry, to help relieve the country’s persistent balance of payments pressure. This Emirati influence is seen as a part of a wider push for hegemony in the Horn of Africa, linked to the Emirati (and Saudi) agenda in the wider region – which is mainly concerned with containing Iranian influence in the absence of a coherent US-Iran containment policy, countering Turkish/Qatari support for MB-style Islamist reform movements that threaten the ruling families in the Gulf States, and countering jihadist movements.i In the region, this is playing out most clearly in the conflict in Yemen. However, it’s not clear yet whether the Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement fits neatly into this pattern.

Eritrea – along with other coastal states in the Horn – has indeed engaged the Saudi-Emirati regional security/counter-terrorism alliance, with an Emirati military base established in Assab, as part of the operations in Yemen. Asmara has also downgraded relations with Doha (with the subsequent impact that Qatari troops were withdrawn from the disputed Eritrea-Djibouti border).

However, Ethiopia has not declared sides in the Gulf crisis. Rather, it recently improved relations with Doha, and al-Jazeera has re-opened an office in Addis Ababa. It is not clear that Ethiopia wants to be drawn into that crisis. And as an emerging middle-sized player, it is not obvious that it can be pressured into doing so. As such, an important indication that an Emirati-led regional security order is emerging would be a clear signal from Ethiopia that it has joined that alliance, and a downgrade/severing of relations with Doha. (Turkey is another important investor in Ethiopia, which also militates against such an outcome.)

The UAE may have achieved a short-to-medium term alignment which will help it to regain clear influence over the federal government in Somalia, which also tried to remain aloof in the Saudi/Emirati vs Qatar crisis. President Farmaajo’s visit to Asmara is interesting in this context, although it is unclear that Isaias would want to pressure Mogadishu at this point. Ethiopia has more to be gained from cooperation with the Emiratis – Ethiopian support for federal solutions to regional stability is unlikely to have shifted with the change of government.

Links to the crisis in the Gulf States

For the Emiratis and Saudis, a more stable Horn of Africa, and in particular, the cultivation of influence across the African side of the Red Sea (including Sudan, Egypt and the Horn), is part of a regional and national security strategy linked to important shifts in the last decade.

First, the Arab Spring from 2010 presented a fundamental challenge to the existing political economy of the Gulf monarchies. Revolutions in Egypt and Yemen were too close for comfort. Bahrain has also struggled for stability, with its resources more limited that KSA or UAE to allow it to spend its way out of its legitimacy crisis. Support from KSA helped Bahrain to avoid revolution, but those dynamics have not been erased. In the meantime, KSA and UAE also worked actively to undermine the Morsi administration in Egypt and support the coup by El-Sisi in 2013.

Since 2015, with the ascension of King Salman in KSA, and particularly with the appointment of his son Mohamed as Crown Prince and Defence Minister, KSA regional security policy has shifted dramatically. By the end of 2015, KSA had launched a regional counter-terrorism alliance, and intervened militarily in Yemen. UAE influence on Mohamed bin Salman seems clear, with Emirati Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed playing a mentoring role to his younger counterpart.

Continuing insecurity in Yemen is seen as a threat to KSA/UAE because of the opportunity it creates for Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. Shifts in US policy under the Obama administration towards regional security – in terms of its response to the Arab Spring, but more importantly in terms of its attempts to normalise relations with Iran in exchange for a halt to its nuclear program – presented shifts in the regional balance of power in ways that the KSA found threatening. Iran has a demographic advantage and has for years been increasing its influence in Iraq. It is also a potential major hydrocarbons producer, and its Islamic revolutionary democracy presents a fundamentally different political model that threatens KSA’s dynastic oligopolistic autocracy.

The Gulf Crisis – with the KSA and UAE spearheading an effort to isolate and undermine the Qatari royal family — is an extension of these dynamics. Doha has supported Islamist reform movements (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood) across the wider region. Like Iran’s political system, Qatar and its ally Turkey represent incompatible political economy models. Although KSA/UAE concerns probably extend beyond the wider Red Sea region (encompassing competing visions for influence across North Africa and especially in Iraq and Syria), the Horn of Africa and Nile basin are important regional theatres for influence.

Turkey is a major investor and potential influencer in Somalia, Ethiopia and – more recently – Sudan. As an economic competitor, Turkey also presents a challenge to the UAE. Turkey has embassies in every country in the Horn of Africa and has developed a regional foreign policy framework.ii A Turkish company runs the port of Mogadishuiii, and recently the governments of Turkey and Sudan reached an agreement to rehabilitate a formerly important port in Suakin, Sudan.iv

Nile Basin politics and development

Even less conclusive is the outlook for Nile basin relations, although Ethiopia appears to be the winner in the near term.

Tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over the development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile have continued for several years. One source of leverage for Cairo was its relations with Asmara, with the occasional rumour of an Egyptian military presence there (or more recently a rumour about Berbera), a pressure point on Ethiopia. (The apparent murder of GERD chief engineer Simegnew Bekele will fuel such conspiracies.) However, with the rapprochement, Egypt loses an important source of potential leverage. Egyptian relations with Sudan are already strained, with Khartoum fairly well aligned with Ethiopia on Nile Basin development.

However, Egypt and the UAE are allies. This shift may bring some tensions between Egypt and the Gulf players, including some pressure from Cairo for the Emiratis/Saudis to lean on the Ethiopians about Nile basin development.

Geopolitical implications of a changing Red Sea context

The third and final level is where post-Cold War, post-9/11 American/Western foreign policy in the region is bumping up against other interests, especially from China (and to a lesser extent, India).

The most immediate dimension will be the unravelling of the case for the UN sanctions regime against Eritrea, which are tied to its involvement in Somalia and its unresolved dispute with Djibouti. Given President Farmaajo’s visit, the former case is collapsing. Accusations of destabilisation would seem unlikely to continue to hold much water, given the restoration of relations with Ethiopia. A range of players with an interest in Djibouti (the US, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, foremost) can be expected to lean on Guelleh’s government to accept an end to the sanctions regime in exchange for some negotiated settlement of the dispute.

Competition with China for security and especially economic influence and access in the strategic Red Sea region is already underway: China has displaced DP World for important port infrastructure in Djibouti, where Beijing also operates its first permanent overseas military base (alongside a range of other players).

To the extent that the US has had influence on the rapprochement, perhaps particularly in encouraging Emirati involvement, a question remains as to how this might affect its kinetic-led counter-terrorism strategy in the region. This will play out largely in Somalia. In the medium term, should peace hold with Eritrea, Ethiopia may be in a position to redeploy its military resources more assertively to the east and west, although it’s not clear that it would do so. For now, all regional players remain committed to the FGS model in Somalia. However, a more coherent IGAD (including restored Eritrean membership) might shift towards a mediated outcome, to try to bring in some elements of al-Shabaab (especially given the penetration of the national security infrastructure in Mogadishu).

It is difficult to see a deep relationship emerging between the United States and Eritrea, given the foundational role of ‘malign US imperial influence’ in Eritrea’s explanations of and approach to regional foreign policy (and its historical narrative of the betrayal of Eritrea’s nationalists by the West). However, should that shift occur, it will present an interesting opportunity to observe the rewriting of important aspects of Eritrea’s foundational mythology in real time.

Jason Mosley is a Research Associate of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, an Associate Fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, and the managing editor of the Journal of Eastern African Studies. His recent publications include ‘Frontier transformations: development visions, spaces and processes in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia’, and ‘Somalia’s Federal Future: Layered Agendas, Risks and Opportunities’.

 

i De Waal, Alex. ‘’Beyond the Red Sea: A new driving force in the politics of the Horn.” African Arguments, July 11, 2018. http://africanarguments.org/2018/07/11/beyond-red-sea-new-driving-force-politics-horn-africa/.

ii The government of Turkey developed an ‘Africa Action Plan’ in 1998. Activities and actions to realize the ‘Africa Action Plan’ begun in 2002 after the Justice and Democracy Party (usually abbreviated as the AK) won the elections in 2002. The AK party headed by Recep Teyyip Erdogan is still in power after winning the controversial 2018 elections.

iii Jama, Mo Ahmed. “Somalia gives Turkish firm 20-year contract to run Mogadishu port.’’ WARGANE. https://wargane.com/2018/03/04/somalia-gives-turkish-firm-20-year-contract-run-mogadishu-port.html.

iv Kucukgokmen, Ali & Khalid Abdelaziz. “Turkey to restore Sudanese Red Sea port and build naval dock.” Reuters, December 26, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-sudan-port/turkey-to-restore-sudanese-red-sea-port-and-build-naval-dock-idUSKBN1EK0ZC.

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