How ports in the Horn of Africa are shaping and breaking unlikely partnerships

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Eritrea and Ethiopia’s unlikely peace efforts over the past few months have inspired a renewed sense of optimism for the Horn of Africa. The region’s bitter enemies have promised to become economic partners and Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed hasn’t been shy to talk about one of the biggest benefits his country receives from teaming up with Eritrea: port development.

This is a crucial part of Ethiopia’s economic roadmap as a landlocked nation with ambitious development goals.

This isn’t the only story emanating from the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea that separate the Horn of Africa from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Unlikely partnerships are forming in the region while others are becoming increasingly strained in one of the most important trade and military strategic locations in the world.

Ethiopia steps up regional relations

Since coming into power in April, Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has repeatedly cited port development as a key strategy in his drive to sustain the country’s rapid economic progress. Recent trips to Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan have accompanied the peace efforts with Eritrea – all neighbouring nations with coastlines along the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

Currently, 90% of Ethiopia’s foreign trade comes through Djibouti ports and this has been the case since the border war with Eritrea began in 1998. With peace officially declared between the two countries and plans in motion to develop stronger economic relations, it seems inevitable that Eritrean ports will be revived.

With the United Arab Emirates (UAE) already using Eritrea’s port of Assab as a military location in the Yemen war, economic ties with Ethiopia could open Eritrea up to the wider world as a trade and military strategic position to rival Djibouti.

This would be some turnaround for the country dubbed “Africa’s North Korea” although it’s too early to get excited about Eritrea joining the international party.

It’s important to keep in mind that Ethiopia isn’t distancing itself from Djibouti by building ties with other port nations in the region. In fact, trade between the two nations is only going to further increase but Abiy recognises the need to diversify Ethiopia’s options. While he’s calling for joint investment in Djibouti’s ports, Abiy has also secured plans to modernise Port Sudan and work with Somalia to upgrade four ports in the country.

For Ethiopia, it’s a question of decreasing its reliance on the tiny port nation of Djibouti and driving down costs by increasing competition.

Djibouti facing regional competition

Djibouti has enjoyed a decade of unprecedented economic growth, as a beneficiary of circumstance in the Horn of Africa. Conflicts in neighbouring Eritrea and Somalia have left the tiny country as the only safe hold in the crucial trade route that runs through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, which leads to the Suez Canal connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Eastern world.

Djibouti has faced little competition during this time with Eritrea closed off from the world and Somalia facing the dual security threat of Al-Shabaab and piracy of the nation’s coast.

While Somalia’s security problems continue to hurt the country’s political and economic developments, Eritrea presents a potential competitor if its ties with Ethiopia lead to improved relations with the wider international community.

Djibouti won’t need to worry about Ethiopia suddenly turning its back on two decades of trade ties, though. Earlier this year, the new 750km railway connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti officially opened and both countries will need to ensure the $3.4 billion project is profitable.

Djibouti also has an ace card in the regional trade race: Africa’s largest free trade zone, which cements the country’s position as a key entry point into the continent.

The roles of China, UAE

The role of China in the Horn of Africa’s port development is widely documented. The Asian powerhouse financed both the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway and the free trade zone currently bein built in Djibouti – as well as a wide range of other infrastructural development projects in the region.

China’s entry into Africa has prompted concern over its increasing geopolitical presence and the increasing dependence of African nations on Beijing, not to mention the astronomical levels of debt being resulting from each of development project.

In the case of the UAE, its motives in the Horn of Africa are drawing less attention but they have a much greater impact on the local political environment. The UAE is already present in Eritrea as part of its involvement in the Yemen conflict and the Middle East nation clearly has interests in Ethiopia and its relations with Eritrea.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia PM Abiy Ahmed were both awarded the UAE’s highest award in Abu Dhabi for their recent peace efforts. In May, the UAE also announced a $1 billion emergency loan to Ethiopia to help the country deal with its forex shortage.

This comes as relations between the UAE and Djibouti continue to deteriorate. The fallout over DP World has pushed the UAE company signed a 30-year deal to develop Berbera port in Somaliland, which led to a fallout between Somalia, which doesn’t recognise the autonomous government of Somaliland and the UAE. The spat resulted in the UAE withdrawing funding and supplies in Somalia’s military efforts against extremist group al-Shabaab and more than $10 million  worth of UE money being seized by authorities at Mogadishu airport.

Clearly, the UAE’s interests in the Horn of Africa are increasing and they go beyond its military concerns in Yemen. They’re also having a significant impact on the political relations between countries in the region with many questioning how much involvement it has in the sudden peace efforts between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

While the world’s media continues to criticise China’s involvement in Africa, perhaps they should be asking more questions about what the UAE’s motives are.

Featured image: “Drought crisis in the Horn of Africa in July 2011” flickr photo by International Livestock Research Institute https://flickr.com/photos/ilri/5904012074 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.