The new cold war brewing in the Gulf region has rapidly rewritten the geopolitical rule book in the Horn of Africa. As usual, US policy is playing a role, especially when it comes to its long-term ally Ethiopia, the Hornís most powerful nation.
1991 revolution that brought Ethiopia’s present government to power, the US and
the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling party have
forged a strong, bilateral relationship, primarily based on Ethiopia’s role in
the global war on terror.
As the US
shifts its focus away from terrorism toward political and economic threats,
numerous squabbling Middle Eastern potentates are jockeying for power in the
region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) versus their bitter
adversaries, Qatar and Turkey — are looking to forge closer connections with
play is motivated by the same forces that once had the old, imperial powers of
Britain, France and Italy tussling over the Horn in their desire to control the
Suez Canal, a vital shipping avenue. But the latest contest isn’t necessarily a
bad thing: It could benefit the region’s benighted economies and has already
achieved notable gains in terms of peace and stability, highlighted by the
recent opening of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border after 20 years of animosity and
conflict. But the sparring also has the potential to unleash dangerous forces
in a politically volatile region.
between Ethiopia and Eritrea will have a significant dividend for the Horn of
Africa,” said Hallelujah Lulie at Amani Africa, a policy research,
advisory and consulting think tank.
“But at the same time, US policy is shifting;
new powers are emerging; there are rivalries over the Red Sea and Yemen; in the
background you have Iran, which is an enemy of Saudi, who is an ally of the US.
It’s a complex battleground.”
roots of a new cold war
cold war began in 2017 when Saudi Arabia initiated an Arab blockade of
Qatar. Soon after, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey all descended
on the Horn, building military bases, signing defense pacts and taking over
has been dealing with meddling foreigners for the past two centuries and has
proven adept at playing them against each other and switching allegiances to
suit itself. During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974), Ethiopia
forged strong ties with the US. But after a military coup overthrew the emperor
in 1974, Ethiopia pivoted to Russia. After the next revolution in 1991,
Ethiopia aligned again with the US. Since 2001, as the global war on terror
intensified, the US regarded Ethiopia’s large, professional army as a vital
years, however, the US has gradually come to perceive the rise of China and
Russia, and not terrorism, as its biggest threat in Africa and elsewhere.
power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national
security,” US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in a January speech
outlining the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia are
from each other.”
policy was shifting, the Ethiopian government has been belayed since 2015 by
ongoing protests in the country, spearheaded by the Oromo, the largest ethnic
group in Ethiopia, and later joined by the Amhara, the second-largest group —
together, the two groups represent more than 60 percent of the population — as
well as by internal squabbles within the EPRDF party. As a result, it took its
eyes off the bigger picture outside Ethiopia, according to analyst Mehari
result, he says, the EPRDF failed to prepare itself for the implication — for
one thing, Ethiopia continued to accept enormous Chinese investments in
infrastructure and to forge economic and diplomatic ties between the two
countries — and became “the unintended target of US policy shift from war on
terror to economic confrontation with China.” With the US not offering the
same steadfast, diplomatic support as before — including being
less willing to look the other way over controversial practices by the
Ethiopian government — the EPRDF became increasingly susceptible to its inner
frictions and thereby less stable and sure of itself.
beginning of 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned — the first
Ethiopian leader to voluntarily cede power — in an effort to placate EPRDF
criticisms and to calm the turmoil gripping the country. Abiy Ahmed was sworn
in as the new prime minister on April 2, 2018.
after Abiy took office, the US House of Representatives unanimously adopted resolutionHR-128, an unusually outspoken
policy condemning a series of human rights abuses under the Ethiopian
diaspora in the US has become increasingly effective in influencing US policy
toward the motherland. “The new resolution is a reminder to the Ethiopian
government that should it fail to reform, it can no longer rely on US largesse
to contain problems at home,” said Hassen Hussein, an academic and writer
based in Minnesota.
coming to power, Abiy has pushed through numerous reforms at blistering speed,
releasing prisoners, inviting parties once deemed as terrorists back to
Ethiopia, and easing restrictions on the press and free speech.
Abiy’s greatest coup so far is the stunning and unforeseen rapprochement with
Eritrea and the opening of formerly fractious and dangerous borders.
US and outside influence was brought to bear.
burgeoning presence in neighboring Djibouti is of increasing concern to the US,
which has its African military headquarters in the coastal country. Eritrea
could serve as a future alternative, but first it has to come out of diplomatic
isolation, especially by normalizing relations with Ethiopia, analyst Mehari
Taddele Maru says.
quiet diplomatic campaign last year, according to Mehari and others, involving
church officials and US diplomats lobbying the two countries to come together
and resolve their differences.
Saudi Arabia has already established a military base in Eritrea to further its
war efforts in Yemen; it is engaged in a vicious war against Iranian-backed
Houthi rebels, and wants to expand its investment beyond Eritrea’s ports. This
likely played a significant background role in brokering the deal, notes
Hallelujah. Ethiopia is being drawn into the Saudi-UAE bloc. After becoming
prime minister, Abiy’s first official visit outside Africa in May was to Saudi
Arabia, and he has met with UAE’s rulers.
“States in the
Horn such as Ethiopia are trying to leverage these rapidly changing
geopolitical dynamics to enhance their own influence,” said Awol Allo, a
UK-based law professor and frequent commentator on Ethiopia and the Horn
for African Arguments.
growing competition for influence among the Middle Eastern axes, Addis Ababa
has managed to avoid taking sides — at least publicly — and leverage its geostrategic
significance as the region’s hegemon to attract much-needed investment from
several different partners.”
this, the US remains firmly committed to Ethiopia “more than ever,” according
to staff at the US embassy in Addis Ababa.
plays an important role for regional stability as the largest contributor to UN
peacekeeping missions globally and host to one of the world’s
largest refugee populations,” said a US diplomat in Addis Ababa who asked not to be named.
“With a growing population of over 100 million, Ethiopia also represents
tremendous untapped economic potential. The reform process launched by Prime
Minister Abiy opens the door for further progress and collaboration in all of
these areas, not least because democracy and good governance are powerful
factors in building political stability and economic prosperity. Far from
drifting away from Ethiopia, the US is moving closer as we see a clear
alignment in our priorities.”
At the same
time, US counterterrorism efforts will continue in partnership with Ethiopia
and further afield in Africa.
transnational challenges of terrorism and extremism in the Sahel, northern
Nigeria, Somalia, and now in Central Africa, and the rise of Boko Harem,
al-Qaeda in the Magreb, ISIS West Africa, and al-Shabab, require new, determined
regional approaches to counteract these groups,” said Tibor Nagy Jr.,
assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs at the US
Department of State. “This includes better-trained and paid African security
and law enforcement.”
threats and the measures needed to counter them not going away, the
Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement is one of several seemingly positive political
developments assisted by external forces that has sparked talk of a "new
dawn" for the Horn after decades of strife and suffering.
signed declarations of peace and
cooperation with Djibouti and Somalia. After years of hostility over the building of
the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, Ethiopia and Egypt have seen a
significant improvement in relations. Sudan, too, has mended
relations with Egypt and
has managed to get US sanctions lifted.
affected citizens still see these geopolitical machinations as a potential
cause for concern. Eritreans remain particularly skeptical about the motivations
of their president, Isaias Afewerki, whose authoritarian regime is blamed for
an endless stream of Eritreans crossing the Mediterranean toward perceived
safety in Europe.
never wanted the border open, but he had pressure put on him,” said Yohannes,
an Eritrean who was conscripted into the army at 16 and forced to serve for 18
years before crossing the border to live in Ethiopia. “In the end, he opened it
for his image, not for the people. Nothing will change in Eritrea,” Yohannes
Eritreans and Ethiopians worry about getting caught up in the ensuing struggle
for influence in the region. As their respective governments hastily comply
with external forces vying for influence, citizens fear they might neglect
their internal duties and obligations.
hasn’t been any legal ratification or laws put in place by the government since
the border was opened; they are ad-libbing the whole process,” said a
young, Ethiopian doctor working in a city close to the Ethiopia-Eritrea border
who wishes to remain anonymous. “It’s very lazy by the leadership, and
potentially laying the groundwork for problems later.”
A lack of
strong leadership in the Horn may allow Gulf rivals to prioritize their
brinkmanship over humanitarian consequences in vulnerable states in the region.
between Somaliland and Somalia sunk to a new low in the wake of a UAE companystriking a major deal with Somaliland to
develop its Berbera Port. Somalia says the move undermines its sovereignty and declared the port
deal illegal because Somaliland’s de facto independence from Somalia is not
is engaged in a dangerous game,” Awol said. “The combination of the Gulf’s
transactional politics and Africa’s often kleptocratic leadership could prove
treacherous as historic rivalries take on new twists and matters develop beyond
the Horn’s control.”
note: This version more clearly attributes a quote to Mehari Taddele Maru.