The strategic turning point in the Horn of Africa

The strategic importance of the Horn of Africa contrasts sharply with its tragic economic conditions.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Security umbrellas. A Chinese woman uses a parasol in front of the main gate of Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) after the inauguration ceremony in Djibouti, last July. (AFP)
Security umbrellas. A Chinese woman uses a parasol in front of the main gate of Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) after the inauguration ceremony in Djibouti, last July. (AFP)

The Houthis’ recent acts of piracy in the Bab el Mandeb Strait along with Iran’s threats to close off the Strait of Hormuz and to disturb navigation in the Red Sea illustrate the vital importance of these sea lanes for global trade in general and energy supplies in particular and why they are often taken hostage in international strategic manoeuvring.

The turn of events in the Horn of Africa has direct consequences for the safety and future of all seaports on the Red Sea as well as on the national security of the Arabian Gulf and must be considered a test balloon for the power struggle at international and regional levels.

Within the context of the new geopolitical conditions in which the Saudi-led Arab coalition plays the role of the main lever behind forming alliances and increasing resistance to non-Arab political interests keen on infiltrating the region and threatening Arab economic interests and security, Ethiopian and Eritrean interests take a different and surprising dimension.

The Horn of Africa enjoys an excellent strategic location south-west of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It refers to four countries — Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti — but, in its wider political and economic context, the term also includes Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda.

The strategic importance of this East African region comes from it being the source of the Nile and a gate to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Its location on one side of some of the world’s major trade sea lanes and land routes gives it vital importance. Its importance increases because of its proximity to the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.

The area has always been a magnet for international powers because of the sea traffic going by, major ports in the area, tremendous nearby riches, weapons trading, crossing points for people and merchandise and the dangers of piracy.

The international importance of the Horn of Africa was boosted after the first war on Iraq and foreign intervention in Somalia. Now, with the war in Yemen, the international and regional competition for control over the Horn of Africa is at its fiercest.

Besides positioning for control of the major ports in the area, there are the Chinese competing with the West in Djibouti, the Turks claiming a foothold in Somalia and the Saudis and Emiratis marking their presence in Assab on Eritrea’s southern Red Sea coast as well as in surrounding islands and inland in Somalia.

The strategic importance of the Horn of Africa contrasts sharply with its tragic economic conditions. During the past two decades, the region has seen horrible human tragedies because of famines and wars. The world still remembers the tragic famines in Ethiopia and Eritrea and how these two countries depended for a long time on foreign aid. It must also not be forgotten that the 1998 war between these belligerent sister countries caused the death of about 100,000 people and ended any contact between them.

Ethiopia in recent years has been achieving respectable economic growth. Regional tensions, however, with Eritrea and Egypt because of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project increased until the beginning of 2018.

One can say that a serious regional crisis in the Horn of Africa was averted with the advent of a new young, wise and realistic leadership in Ethiopia in April. Abiy Ahmed is the first Muslim prime minister in a country with a Christian majority. He belongs to the Oromo tribes, the largest tribal group in Ethiopia, who had led the anti-government protests for the past three years.

Contrary to expectations, the power transition in Ethiopia was peaceful and ushered in a new era. The deep state that former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was assumed to have left in place turned out to be weaker than thought or perhaps was weakened by the massive campaign of changes in the military and security leaderships.

Last June however, there was an assassination attempt on Ahmed.  Mounting tensions with the Tigrayans might lead them to look for foreign allies to bring Ahmed’s regime down or start anti-government discussions with other minorities in Ethiopia who fear the Omoros’ monopoly on power.

To counter the delicate situation inside Ethiopia and to protect his own internal position, Ahmed looked for foreign partners. The United Arab Emirates played an important role, brokering a historic peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. A breakthrough was made in the crisis between Ethiopia and Egypt and tripartite talks with Sudan about sharing the Nile waters resumed.

These developments might be part of a comprehensive security system extending from the Arabian Sea to the Suez Canal. Let’s not forget that Ethiopia and Eritrea had a role in the war in Yemen. Their coordination efforts with the Arab coalition will affect its outcome.

Another unexpected consequence was freeing Ethiopia from its dependence on Djibouti Port by switching its maritime traffic to the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa. Somalia might become interested in this regional detente and end the cycle of violence and destruction gripping it.

In the wider political, economic and security contexts, there is a race between promises of development and openness on the shores of the Red Sea thanks to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s NEOM project and Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani’s threats to consider the Red Sea a war zone because of the United States’ presence in the region.