For the last 20 years, de Waal says, Ethiopia's strategy has been to isolate Eritrea's Afwerki from the African Union and other regional bodies. When it came to convincing Ethiopia, the Gulf states saw their chance in Ethiopia's new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. He had already indicated his willingness to reopen diplomatic ties with Eritrea. "In the context of the new government in Ethiopia, they [Gulf states] stepped in and said to Abiy: You have a very serious financial problem. We will help you out," de Waal explains. In return economic deals were struck and the peace deal was sealed.

Map of the Horn of Africa (source: Deutsche Welle)
Untapped economic potential: with the signing of the recent Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal, and negotiations afoot between Dijbouti and Eritrea, trade across the Red Sea, which is just 355 kilometres wide at the Horn of Africa, is likely to increase, especially with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The peace deal could also bring Ethiopia an economic upsurge of its own. "Ethiopia's economic growth has long been constrained by its limited access to the sea. Almost all of its export traffic is today directed through Djibouti," says Dickinson. "If Ethiopia can use ports in Eritrea, as well as new ports under development in Somalia, the region could see a major surge in commercial trade."

A shift in regional politics

The Horn of Africa is not only of economic but also of military interest to the Gulf states. The region is the base for some of Africa's biggest military interventions. The UAE has a base in Eritrea and Dijbouti hosts Saudi troops, among others, while Turkey and Qatar both have bases and close relations with Somalia and Sudan.

In particular, Saudi Arabia has taken on a highly disputed role in the Yemeni Civil War as the leader of a military coalition supporting an ousted Yemeni government against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

The coalition involves not just the UAE and the U.S., but also most of the Horn of Africa. Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea have made their airspaces, waters and military bases available for the war.

Though Saudi Arabia is leading the coalition, de Waal is intrigued by the UAE's role. "What's interesting is the extent to which the Emirates emerged as an equal partner in that the Emirates took responsibility for military operations in Aden [where the ousted Yemeni government is based] and along the coast," de Waal explains. "And in order to do that the Emirates established a military base in Assab [Eritrea] which has been their principal base for air operations around Hodeida [Yemen]."

According to analyst Dickinson, coalition forces have trained local Yemeni forces in Assab and then re-inserted them into battle. Reports of Sudan and Eritrea themselves having troops on the ground in Yemen are denied by authorities. Officials also denied the existence of secret prisons for Yemeni prisoners in Eritrea's port in Assab. In June 2017, AP had interviewed the relatives of detainees in such prisons, with Human Rights Watch also citing similar sources in its reports.

While the future of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia remains unclear, de Waal does believe that recent developments point to a political shift between the Horn of Africa and the Arab Gulf states. As de Waal points out, the two East African nations went to Saudi Arabia instead of the African Union. "This is an interesting and significant symbolic switch from the peace and security of the Horn of Africa being grounded in African institutions to being grounded in Middle Eastern principles and processes."

Sella Oneko

© Deutsche Welle 2018

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Comments for this article: Winds of change in the Gulf

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Okbqy berhe02.10.2018 | 17:01 Uhr