Ethiopia’s diplomatic blitzkrieg also reflects the changing geopolitics of the Horn of Africa and its surroundings. These new alignments are largely being driven by the Persian Gulf struggle of Iran and Qatar versus Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. That is why the UAE played a backroom role in Prime Minister Abiy’s peace initiatives with Eritrea and Egypt.
The two sets of Gulf rivals had sought allies in the Horn because of the civil war in Yemen. In 2015, Djibouti ended the UAE’s military presence there, forcing Abu Dhabi to hunt for a new basing partner to help them support Sunni fighters in Yemen. The UAE was able to bring Eritrea to its side, successfully dislodging and replacing the Iranian navy from the port of Assab. UAE used its various facilities in Eritrea to carry out a successful amphibious assault on Aden three years ago.
But the UAE’s Eritrean bonding led to complaints from Ethiopia. Additionally, there was Ethiopia’s ongoing river dispute with Egypt, another UAE ally. After a few rounds of talks, the two sides found a common interest: developing the port of Berbera in the quasi-state of Somaliland. This would allow Ethiopia to become less dependent on Djibouti and allow the UAE to weaken Djibouti’s importance. In 2015, just a month apart, Ethiopia and the UAE announced separate plans to use and develop Berbera. Today, Ethiopia has a 19 percent stake in the UAE controlled port. The US has joined the UAE in using Berbera for military purposes.
The UAE recognized it needed to end the hostility between Ethiopia and its two other friends, Eritrea and Egypt. Abiy’s coming to power provided that opportunity.
The UAE greased the process by depositing one billion dollars with the Ethiopian central bank and resolving Abiy’s first challenge: a looming foreign exchange crisis. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited Addis Ababa just days after the Eritrean settlement. Besides the cash injection, he also promised $2 billion in aid and UAE investment support if Abiy fulfilled his economic reforms. Notably, Eritrean leader Afwerki visited Abu Dhabi just days before the peace agreement and also received a financial top-up.
The Ethiopian prime minister seems to be returning the favour in one diplomatic arena: trying to repairing UAE’s relations with Somalia. The Somali government, incensed at the UAE’s support for breakaway Somaliland, had been moving closer to Iran and Turkey. After Crown Prince bin Zayed’s visit to Ethiopia, Abiy flew to meet Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, Mogadishu has since agreed to resume talks with Somaliland and seems to be believe it should balance ties between the UAE and Iran. Saudi Arabia has supported Abu Dhabi’s diplomatic moves.
At present, the UAE seems to have corralled the Horn of Africa’s most important players with Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland in its pen. It has more than compensated for its loss of Djibouti. But the Somali nations are still at loggerheads and Ethiopia-Egypt relations remain a work in progress. Djibouti, meanwhile, has found a new global partner in the form of China which is investing billions to convert the enclave into a regional transport and telecom hub.
July 31, 2018