Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ethiopia’s Red Sea Deal Sparks Concern Across Arab Region

Ethiopia’s Red Sea deal triggered a barrage of disapproval from Arab nations and the reasons vary by each country's specific interests in the region.

Ethiopia’s Red Sea Deal
A man waves an Ethiopian flag. Amanuel Sileshi / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

In January and February of 2024, Ethiopia stirred significant regional controversy with its ambitious plan to lease the port of Berbera in the breakaway region of Somaliland, situated along the Red Sea coast.

The project includes the potential establishment of a commercial zone near the port, a military base and the creation of a land corridor linking to the Ethiopian interior.

This initiative addresses Ethiopia’s longstanding challenge stemming from Eritrea’s secession, leaving it landlocked without direct access to the sea.

As part of this arrangement, Ethiopia is poised to formally recognize Somaliland as an independent republic, marking the world’s inaugural official acknowledgment of this state.

This recognition is anticipated to bestow crucial regional legitimacy on the separatist state, considering Ethiopia’s influential role in the Horn of Africa region.

Expressions of Arab disapproval

As expected, Ethiopia’s Red Sea deal triggered a barrage of disapproving responses from Arab nations. Tensions steadily intensified from the beginning of 2024 until February, ultimately culminating in threats of potential field escalation.

The focal point of concern in this maneuver was Somalia itself, which deems the breakaway region of Somaliland as an integral part of its territory. Somalia considered the Ethiopian undertaking a “violation of its sovereignty.”

Consequently, the immediate fallout included the withdrawal of the Somali ambassador from Ethiopia, with Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Bar vowing to safeguard his nation and prevent any encroachments on its borders.

Beyond Somalia, neighboring Arab countries harbored apprehensions about Ethiopia’s actions.

Egypt, under the leadership of Abdel Fattah Sisi, promptly labeled the Ethiopian project as “a unilateral step that heightens tension,” censuring the destabilizing impact on the Horn of Africa region.

Issuing a stern warning about the repercussions, Egypt asserted that the Ethiopian project jeopardized the interests of regional countries and exposed their national security to potential risks and threats.

Sudan, despite grappling with internal conflicts, did not remain indifferent to the unfolding events. The Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under the control of the regular army, swiftly insisted that Ethiopia adhere to proper diplomatic channels, emphasizing the need to engage with “legitimate, internationally recognized governments” and not with entities viewed as illegal separatist regions.

The Sudanese stance consistently underscores the imperative of respecting Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, advocating for cooperation frameworks that align with established legal norms.

In the Gulf region, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have jointly affirmed their commitment to supporting Somali territorial integrity. This consensus prompted an urgent convening of the Arab League Council in January 2024, aimed at addressing Ethiopia’s encroachment on Somalia’s sovereignty.

Notably, the Arab Gulf states, excluding the United Arab Emirates, found themselves deeply engaged in this issue, mirroring the concerns expressed by Egypt and Sudan. This prompts an inquiry into the underlying factors behind this uncommon regional accord in countering the Ethiopian project.

Diverse Arab Geopolitical Considerations

It is important to highlight that the motivations behind Arab countries opposing Ethiopia extend beyond mere solidarity with Somalia as an Arab nation. These nations perceive the Ethiopian project as a potential threat to their regional security and economic interests, irrespective of its impact on the unity and sovereignty of Somalia.

Furthermore, it’s essential to note that the underlying reasons for the caution exhibited by Arab countries against the Ethiopian project vary, shaped by each country’s specific interests in the Red Sea region.

Egypt, for instance, views the Red Sea as the natural gateway to the Suez Canal, a cornerstone of its geopolitical and economic strength. Recent Houthi attacks and corresponding American reactions have exposed Egypt to the potential risks of military tensions in the Red Sea, affecting maritime navigation security and, consequently, the pivotal role played by the Suez Canal. This situation has also sparked concerns regarding the revenues that the canal generates for Egypt.

In light of these factors, Egypt is apprehensive about granting Ethiopia a port in the Red Sea, particularly if it includes a naval military base alongside a commercial port. Such a project would position Ethiopia as a major influencer in the security of Red Sea navigation, a matter intricately linked to Egyptian national and economic security concerns.

It is worth noting that Egypt already faces numerous tensions and disputes with Ethiopia on various regional issues, including the Renaissance Dam and Ethiopia’s role in the Sudanese civil war. The presence of Ethiopian military forces in the Red Sea region would provide Ethiopia with additional leverage over Egypt, further intensifying the existing conflicts between the two nations.

In addition, Egypt consistently harbors concerns about Western nations aligning with Ethiopia’s presence in the Horn of Africa, potentially acting as a counterbalance to Egypt’s regional influence. The Ethiopian presence becomes a strategic tool, exerting pressure on Egypt across various regional issues, such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Despite the positive rapport between the Sisi government and Western countries, Egypt apprehensively anticipates a diminishing negotiating power as Ethiopia’s regional influence strengthens.

On the other hand, the Arab Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, view the Red Sea as a vital route for exporting Arab oil and gas to Europe and North America. Any disruption to navigation security in the region would raise shipping costs, forcing longer alternative routes, as observed during recent naval confrontations near the Yemeni coast. This could result in a decline in the competitiveness of Arab oil and gas in global markets and a reduction in available shipping capacity due to prolonged transportation times.

Consequently, Gulf countries are apprehensive about Ethiopia entering as a new player in shaping security dynamics in the Red Sea region, especially in light of Iran’s heightened influence and its Houthi allies in the Bab al-Mandab Strait region.

Ethiopia’s direct impact on navigation security could translate into political leverage against Gulf countries exporting oil and liquefied gas. Recognizing Ethiopia’s political ambitions, the Gulf countries are cautious, given the country’s potential influence on neighboring Arab nations.

Lastly, Sudan shares concerns with other Arab nations regarding the potential regional legitimacy granted to the Republic of Somaliland if Ethiopia acknowledges it as an independent sovereign state. This legitimization of a separatist state could fuel aspirations among other separatist movements in the region, including those in Darfur and southern Yemen.

The roles of Israel and the UAE

As mentioned earlier, the UAE stands out among the Arab Gulf states, taking a distinct approach by not adopting a stringent stance against the Ethiopian project. It perceives no threat to its regional interests from the initiative.

To grasp the Emirati standpoint, one must note that Dubai Ports World officially expressed its interest in late January 2024 for Ethiopia to contribute to the development of the Berbera port. This collaboration strengthens the UAE’s existing positive relations with the Somaliland region, aligning with its investment aspirations in the area.

The UAE strategically invests in the separatist Somaliland region and Ethiopia’s project there to bolster its presence in the Red Sea region. This is consistent with its prior foreign policy in the Red Sea, evident in its support for the Transitional Council in southern Yemen, which shares separatist tendencies with Somaliland.

Another significant aspect involves Israel and its robust security and military ties with Ethiopia’s ruling regime. This relationship is expected to intensify as Ethiopia faces challenges from neighboring Arab countries. Israel depends on Ethiopia’s presence in the Red Sea region, countering the Iran-backed Houthis.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appears to be capitalizing on these developments to fortify his regime’s security control, citing regional strategic challenges. This was evident in early February 2024 when he appointed Temesgen Tyrone, the intelligence chief, as deputy prime minister, emphasizing the government’s prioritization of security considerations. Concerns arise regarding the potential escalation of ethnic violence involving Ahmed’s government in the Oromia region.

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