In August 2018, Ethiopia announced that the UAE had plans to invest in an oil pipeline between Eritrea and Ethiopia. This was just a month after Eritrea's president, Isias Afwerki, welcomed Ethiopia's reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Eritrea's capital, Asmara, for the first time in 20 years.
Then in September, shortly after the peace accord in Jeddah, Afwerki was back in the Gulf. This time he travelled to the UAE's Abu Dhabi to hold talks about investment and economic cooperation with its crown prince. Though the two countries revealed little about the visit, Eritrea's Minister of Information, Yemane Meskel, posted a picture of the meeting on Twitter:
President Isaias Afwerki is on a 3-day working visit to Abu Dhabi & held extensive talks on investment, economic cooperation ties & regional issues of common concern with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyinan, Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour & other officials pic.twitter.com/SjopDMnPrR
— Yemane G. Meskel (@hawelti) 20. September 2018
The Horn of Africa had always been a tough terrain for Saudi Arabia and the Emirates because of the long-standing conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Ethiopia is traditionally the strongest regional power, but due to recent domestic troubles, its lack of access to a sea port and its close ties to Saudi Arabia's rivals Qatar and Iran, it has also been a difficult partner.
In theory, this should make Eritrea economically attractive to the Saudis and the Emiratis since, as de Waal points out, they needed security on the African side of the Red Sea to further develop economic ambitions. "Eritrea was an obvious member," the think tank leader says. And Eritrean President Afwerki has been more open to the allies in the Gulf. "But Eritrea is always going to be a junior partner vis a vis Ethiopia – partly because it's smaller economically and militarily weaker."