14 September 2018
Country emerging from isolation after Ethiopia rapprochement
Closer ties being forged with U.A.E., Russia, Saudi Arabia
Decades of eschewing international cooperation by the Red Sea state are giving way to renewed ties. Relations with Ethiopia, its sworn enemy since a border war at the end of last century, are blossoming after the two states agreed a rapprochement in July. Somalia signed a trilateral cooperation accord with the two countries that includes an initiative to seek peace with Djibouti, which in turn has welcomed the move.
The effects of the improving bonds are rippling beyond the Horn of Africa, drawing the attention of countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia. A quarter of a century after it won independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea is welcoming the interest.
Eritrea is not an island but can thrive in an environment of regional cooperation,” Yemane Gebreab, the top political adviser to President Isaias Afwerki, said in an interview in the capital, Asmara.
Geography is Eritrea’s trump card. It’s situated across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and Yemen near the Bab el Mandab, a shipping choke-point used by oil tankers and other cargo vessels en route to Europe and the U.S. through the Suez Canal. China has lauded the country’s position on the Maritime Silk Road, which links shipping lanes along the proposed multi-trillion dollar Belt & Road Initiative.
That makes Eritrea “a key component of any power with interests in the region’s security architecture,” Saud al-Sarhan, secretary-general of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, said by email from Riyadh.
Yemane, providing the first official Eritrean confirmation of the installation’s existence, said its construction is “not about bases, it’s not about cash,” but an acknowledgment that there are vital interests that need to be protected in the Red Sea. For instance, neighboring Djibouti is home to the only U.S. and Chinese military bases in Africa.
The “basic requirement” for forging the peace accord with Ethiopia was to find a partner in its giant neighbor for regional cooperation and integration, Yemane said. It only became possible after Abiy Ahmed took over as prime minister in Addis Ababa in April and immediately initiated a broad array of political and economic reforms.
“If there was a different situation in Ethiopia and a different setup, all the efforts and encouragements would not have produced results,” said Yemane, who heads the political department of the ruling Eritrean People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. “For us, the crucial point was determining whether real change had come to Ethiopia.”
The rapprochement has reopened a route to Ethiopia, the continent’s fastest-growing economy and second-most populous nation, that had been closed since the war between the two countries ended in 2000. The prospect of access to the broader region is also drawing potential investors.
In the wake of the peace accord, the Abu Dhabi Fund for International Development pledged a $3 billion aid package to Ethiopia, including $1 billion for its central bank, while state-owned Dubai Ports World Ltd. announced plans for a regional logistics facility in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s water surplus and vast stretches of arable land might help solve food-security concerns among the Gulf Arab states, while its proposed sale of state-owned stakes in key enterprises such as telecommunications and the national airline offer investment opportunities, according to Taimur Khan, non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month the improved relations present an opportunity for Russian businesses to expand their interests in the region, such as a logistics center in the country and participating in a regional oil pipeline and transport corridors. In March, Lavrov announced talks with Ethiopia to establish a nuclear-technology center dedicated primarily to research, after Moscow and Cairo last year signed a $30 billion deal for a nuclear power plant in Egypt and announced talks to use each other’s airspace and air bases.