Scramble for the Horn

Gulf Nations Cast a Shadow Over the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa is one of the most unstable regions in the world. It has long been known for economic, political and humanitarian crises. However, these challenges have not repelled global and regional powers, chiefly because of the region’s strategic geopolitical importance for global security and international trade. This makes the region a battleground among global actors whose economic and security interests exceed their national boundaries. The United States, France, China, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran have already set up military bases in the region. Germany, Japan and India are also focusing on the area. More recently, with the security bloc formation, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, the region has further become a battle of religious, economic and security influences. In fact, the Horn countries have been highly influenced to side with either of the two blocs. Despite this influence, Ethiopia has remained neutral for many years. Recently, however, worries are mounting that Ethiopia will likely side with the bloc led by Saudi Arabia. However, the government claims that it is firm in its neutral position. EBR’s Samson Berhane investigates.

Throughout history, the horn of Africa region has been a battle ground for foreign actors. From a century long Ottoman dominance to colonial influence and Soviet vs Western confrontation, the region has long been witnessing competition for influence. In recent years, new actors like the Gulf nations and Asian countries such as China have started to seek influence in the region.

The reason is obvious. The horn of Africa rests on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea, which are some of the most important global maritime trade routes. Asian countries such as India, China and Japan export a significant volume of their commodities to European countries through Bab al-Mandab. On the other hand, Gulf nations such as UAE and Saudi Arabia use the Gulf of Aden, Bab al-Mandab, and the Red Sea routes to ship oil and natural gas.

Since it is considered to be the major entry point to the African market, the horn of Africa has also attracted global powers; leading countries in Asia and the Middle East became interested in developing closer economic and political relations with regional countries that had ports, such as Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti.

While the region is rapidly becoming a place of great geopolitical importance, the changing political dynamics have turned it into a battleground on which rivalries between global powers play out. In fact, it would not be an overstatement to consider the region as the second most important playground for great powers next to the Middle East, as some geopolitical analysts argue.

“It is a region whose history has been shaped by the influences of outsiders,” says Solomon Mebre (PhD), a geopolitical analyst who is Associate Professor at Addis Ababa University.

It was the opening of the Suez Canal, built by Britain and Egypt in 1869 to link the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, which transformed the Horn’s importance from a mere strip of water into a vital passageway in international trade.

For over a hundred years, most powers in the world saw the Horn and the Red Sea as nothing more than extensions to the Suez Canal, because of the 1956 Suez crisis and the bloody Six Days War in 1967, according to Awol Allo, a lecturer in law at Keele University School of Law in the UK, and an expert in Horn of Africa geopolitics.

Trade was not idle though, flowing through the long-serving narrow straits of the Bab al Mandab. Larger powers were successful in guaranteeing the daily flow of trade along the Red Sea, while overlooking the region’s wider politics and security. But in the 1970s, the reduction of oil production by Arab countries in a bid to penalize the western powers that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War offered an opportunity for the Gulf nations to start becoming more involved in Horn affairs.

The countries in the region, suffering from the oil price hike and the resulting rise in the cost of living, began looking to the Middle East. Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti, which had and still have close cultural and religious ties to the Gulf States, asked for aid as a temporary solution to their economic crises and instability, while offering political loyalty and natural resources in return. The Gulf countries agreed.

“But this was short-lived. Things in the region started to change. Sudan became an Islamic republic, Eritrea gained independence and Somalia entered a civil war. For the next twenty years, the Gulf nations retreated, assuming that the Red Sea region was no longer significant,” explains Awol.

In the meantime, port development in the Region was overlooked, except for Djibouti, which flourished because Ethiopia started to use the Port of Djibouti after war broke with Eritrea. On the other hand, Eritrea adopted a more inward looking policy, making its two ports, Assab and Massawa, obsolete and inoperative, while the growth of piracy activities in the Red Sea and internal instability kept Somalia from developing its ports.

Piracy activities coupled with the civil war in Yemen were enough to attract the attentions of global and regional super powers. They then began to spread their influence into the region with the construction of military bases. The UAE in particular made a strategic move to become an influential actor in the region by allowing its military to operate in the semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland, although the Emirati pursuit of controlling strategic ports in the horn of Africa, particularly in Somalia and Djibouti, faced tough resistance. Eritrea, which shifted its foreign policy to ally with Saudi and the Emirates, hosts a UAE military base in Assab, set up three years ago. Saudi Arabia is reportedly establishing a base in Djibouti.

But Middle Eastern countries are not alone in the region. France has stationed its biggest overseas forces in Djibouti. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States chose Djibouti for its only permanent African base. Italy, Japan and China also established military installations in Djibouti, as did Germany and Spain.

Russia, the latest player in the region, recently entered an agreement with the Eritrean government to set up a logistics centre in Massawa, and expressed its intentions to setup a military base in Somaliland, one of the de facto states in the Horn.

Even Ethiopia’s long-time rival, Egypt, which cut ties with the Horn and the African Union following the assassination attempt against former President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, seems to have come around after witnessing the start of construction on the controversial Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, which took advantage of the turmoil of the 2011 Arab spring. Egypt returned to the AU, and was readmitted in 2014. Egypt also created close ties with Eritrea and is helping finance the troubled South Sudanese government as a counterbalance to other influences in the region.

By contrast, Eritrea, whose relations with neighbours Sudan, Djibouti and Ethiopia were in bad shape for the last two decades before the recent rapprochement, had cut ties with powers willing to influence the region, later establishing a close relationship with Qatar. This enabled the Isaias Afewerki-led government to receive military and financial aid. But their loyalty faltered when Qatar tried to break Eritrea’s stalemate with Ethiopia.

Eritrea accepted an offer from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to create an alliance, and signed a security partnership pact with the UAE in 2015, which allowed the building of the Emirati base in Assab. While the UAE and Saudi Arabia provided financial aid, and agreed to expand infrastructure and raise fuel supplies, Eritrea, on its part, agreed to provide land, airspace and allegedly sent 400 soldiers to the war in Yemen.

On top of the war in Yemen, the situation pushed global and regional powers to reconsider their strategy towards the Horn and revive the strategic consideration of the countries west of the Red Sea. This created three factions in the region, according to Awol: the Arab bloc (led by the Saudi Arabia, which is reportedly setting up a base in Djibouti, as well as the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain); the Iran block; and the Qatar-Turkey bloc.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia remained neutral, a position which, in fact, emanated from the government’s foreign policy, which is based on non-interference and mutual respect for sovereignty. “We have always embraced a policy that is based on neutrality and a non-partisan approach. No matter how dynamic situations are in the Horn, we will maintain the status quo,” said Meles Alem, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), in a press briefing held a month ago.

As a part of its integration efforts, Ethiopia has close relationships with both the Qatar-Turkey, and Arab blocs. While being a promising destination for Qatari investment, Ethiopia has managed to attract Turkish investment to the tune of around half of the six billion dollars Turkey has invested in Africa. At the same time, the country has maintained ties with the emerging powers in the Horn- Saudi and UAE.

Last July, following the official visit to Ethiopia of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, the UAE committed three billion dollars in aid and investments to the country. One billion dollars was deposited into the account of the National Bank of Ethiopia as a temporary solution for the foreign currency crisis. A month later, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, visited and pledged to raise his nation’s investment in Ethiopia, although he did not specify the amount. “All of our actions reveal how balanced we are in our relations with the Gulf countries,” said Meles.

But this doesn’t seem convincing to some experts, including Mekonnen Fisseha, an Assistant Professor of Law at Mekelle University. “As it stands, there is a lack of clarity in the government’s policy directions. The ongoing alliances and scenarios seem to point to a radical shift in foreign relations,” he argues. For him, it looks like Ethiopia has sided with the Gulf nations, as can be observed from the role the Gulf played in the normalization process of the Ethio-Eritrea relations.

He is not the only one to assert that the peace pact signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea smacks of influence from the Gulf nations in Ethiopia’s security affairs. “Although Ethiopia has been able to be neutral and benefit from the renewal of interest in the Horn so far, it has started a dangerous game,” Awol states. “The combination of the Gulf’s transactional politics and Africa’s often kleptocratic leadership style [often characterized by exploiting national resources and theft using power] could prove unstable, as historic rivalries take on new turns and matters develop beyond the Horn’s control.”

Mekonnen concurs. “The policy direction of the Horn of Africa has changed dramatically and the alliance is very volatile, while institutions such as the African Union, remain weak in shaping African countries’ policy directions and the behaviour of their governments.”

Despite the concerns, however, after the renewal of interest from the Gulf, Ethiopia has managed to maintain the status quo by adopting a neutral approach, even as countries that have accepted huge investment deals seemed easily influenced. One instance was when Saudi influence pushed Asmara and Mogadishu to condemn Canada following a disagreement between Saudi and Canada over human rights issues.

Martin Plaut, who has more than three decades of experience in Horn affairs and as an advisor to the United States government, attributes the Horn’s weak position to the financial gap. “Although the countries in the Horn had the potential to advance their interests in changing dynamics, they might be open to financial incentives or inducements, both explicitly and tacitly,” argues Plaut, who is the author of the book ‘Understanding Eritrea’.

Actually, this was also a fear of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. “For Egypt, the Nile water is seen an existential issue, and Egyptian leaders will use every means at their disposal to prevent us from exploiting the Nile waters, while Saudi Arabia and more generally the Gulf states possess a level of resources that we will never, ever match…and have vast political budgets and when they decide to spend them, they first of all purchase loyalty [in the Horn],” said Meles, in a conversation with Alex de Waal, published on the World Peace Foundation website two months ago.
Meles’s fear was seeing the two combine. He feared that the combination of the two interests would happen because of the shared interests in security and commercial interests of the Arab countries, as well as an agenda to impose tight control over their southern perimeters. “With instability throughout the Middle East, Egypt and the Gulf monarchies cannot afford to have trouble on their southern peripheries, and when they can no longer rely on the Americans to keep order, they will club together to do it themselves,” said Meles, who had been the head of the Ethiopian government for almost two decades. “The entire Horn of Africa will become their buffer zone.”

For Mekonnen, this is not just a worry anymore. “The late prime minister was clear that the combination of the Egyptian agenda and money (with the help of the US), and Gulf money might undermine the autonomy of the state. The worst is yet to come as the strategic shift of the Horn is also seen in the light of the Ethio-Eritrean relations.”

But for Meles from the MoFA, this is not a big deal. “Our relationship with Egypt and Middle Eastern countries is based on mutual benefits. We don’t have a history of taking sides in return for assistance. There is no reason for us to make shifts now,” said Meles. “But we are not going use a business as usual approach in dealing with Horn of Africa politics. In dealing with Egypt, our diplomatic relations will go beyond the controversy over the dam. We are not going to treat the Middle East different from the Horn and the rest of Africa. The government also understands that now is the moment to strengthen our institutional capacity so that we can serve the interest of the nation at a time when various interest groups are emerging.”

Meles also affirmed that Ethiopia would continue playing a leading role in the Horn, although experts warn that the nation is not resourceful enough for that. “We have been setting an agenda on key matters in the Horn as well as Africa and will continue using our hegemonic power to maintain the status quo,” said Meles.

But de Waal, in an analysis published by the World Peace Foundation, warns that Ethiopia has much more to lose in today’s emerging world of bilateral, transactional, monetized and coercive international relations. “It is overshadowed by far richer and more accomplished operators in the transnational political markets of the greater Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Its economic gains from embracing the global market will be isolated windfalls; its advantages in the security arena will be subordinate to the interests of bigger players.”

On the economic front, Ethiopia has also disrupted the status quo and diversified its port usage. It signed a joint venture agreement with UAE and Somaliland, bought a 19Pct stake of Berbera Port, and signed an agreement with the Somali government to jointly develop four ports, as well as agreeing to jointly develop a port with Sudan. According to the government, this is because it is unsustainable for Ethiopia to depend on Djibouti to satisfy all of its needs.

“Plus, with the rise in demand in Ethiopia and the growth of the manufacturing sector, imports and exports would rise, along with the need for more ports,” argues Atlaw Alemu (PhD), associate professor of economics at Addis Ababa University (AAU).

Yet concerns endure as the UAE remains the main actor in port development and management in the Horn. Unless it is diversified, the issue of ports will later haunt the nation and weaken its position, according to Atlaw, who explains, “The fact that the country took the lion’s share of its debts from China could also undermine the state’s sovereignty later, unless a prompt action is taken.”

Nonetheless, for experienced geopolitical analyst Yacob Arsano (PhD), an associate professor of political science & international relations at AAU who specializes in issues related with Nile, the major concerns the internal conflict that plagues the nation. “The government of Ethiopia cannot ensure that its needs are met while being overrun by internal ethnic conflict,” he says.

Emily Estelle, who is a senior analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Africa Team Lead, raised a similar concern while presenting an analysis on the existing situation in the Horn in July 2018. “There is a risk that local and regional conflicts, worsened by geopolitical competition, will destabilize Ethiopia,” she argued.

Ethiopia is not the only country at risk of conflict. The rise in geopolitical competition may lead to proxy conflicts and increasing the risk for regional instability, according to Emily. “The power plays among the Gulf nations and Turkey have already caused political turmoil in Somalia and weakened the Somali Federal Government. The militarization of the Horn and the southern Red Sea region has already affected commercial trade and threatens freedom of navigation as more states establish competing military positions,” she warns.

Amidst the dynamic changes in the Horn, Solomon, for his part, believes that Ethiopia must redraft its foreign policy in line with the emergence of different interest groups in the Horn, and the foreign policy of the country is old, confused and unclear. “To remain a winner at a time when countries regard the Horn of Africa as a top geopolitical strategic region, Ethiopia needs to build its institution capacity, such as establishing a think tank that can analyse the dynamics in the Horn and present authoritative research, as well as reformulating its foreign policy,” he argues.

De Waal agrees. “Ethiopia’s 2002 national security and foreign affairs strategy is now outdated and was never more than a statement of intent, and the promise of holding a public discussion on the goals and strategies was never fulfilled,” he argues. “Attempts to bring it up to date in recent years did not translate into a coherent strategy. This is another area in which a national debate is required.”

7th Year • Oct.16 – Nov. 15 2018 • No. 67

Samson Berhane


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