OP-ED: The UAE's Strategic Investment and Maritime Engagement in Landlocked Ethiopia. Vision or Ambition?


The emergence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a dominant player in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, cannot be seen as an accident of fate or a mere gesture of goodwill. The concerted efforts by the Emirati leadership to invest heavily in the region underscore a deliberate, strategic vision that intertwines both diplomacy and economics.

First, let’s understand the appeal of Ethiopia. As Africa's second most populous nation, it offers an enormous consumer base and labor force. With its diverse economy and immense agricultural potential, Ethiopia has long been considered an African powerhouse in waiting. It's no surprise, therefore, that the UAE sees a robust partner in Ethiopia, not only for immediate economic gains but also for long-term strategic partnerships.

The UAE's interventions in Ethiopia, whether through infrastructural projects, investments in sectors like energy and agriculture, or diplomatic overtures, are driven by a multifaceted strategy. Yes, there's the evident economic motivation, but there's more to the story. One can't overlook the fact that Ethiopia, being a landlocked country, is investing in a navy. It raises the question: Which waters are they planning to defend? This concern was echoed by many Somalis when former President Mohamed Farmaajo indicated that Ethiopia would invest in four ports within Somalia.

At the heart of the UAE's engagements in Ethiopia lies the pressing need to secure its interests in the Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb Strait, a crucial choke point for global trade. Ensuring stability in the Horn of Africa directly translates to maritime security for the UAE, given the region's proximity to these critical waterways.

However, to view the UAE's involvement purely through a transactional lens would be simplistic. The nation has consistently employed its soft power across the globe, forging partnerships based on mutual respect and shared values. Ethiopia is no exception. By funding projects that have a societal impact - be it in education, healthcare, or sustainable agriculture - the UAE is also positioning itself as a partner in Ethiopia's holistic growth story.

While the UAE's intentions seem clear and strategic, the relationship isn't without its challenges. Ethiopia's volatile political landscape, ethnic tensions, and its longstanding dispute with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) make it a complex partner. The UAE will have to tread carefully, balancing its ties with other regional powers and ensuring that its investments do not inadvertently stoke internal conflicts.

UAE's involvement in Ethiopia is a testament to its global aspirations and its vision for a more integrated, stable Horn of Africa. It's an ambitious endeavor, fraught with challenges, but if maneuvered skillfully, could pave the way for a new chapter in East-West relations, with the UAE and Ethiopia at its epicenter. As with all international relations, only time will tell if this partnership will flourish into a lasting bond or if geopolitical tensions will dictate a different path.

The UAE's decision to sign a maritime agreement with landlocked Ethiopia might raise eyebrows at first glance. However, a closer look reveals deeper motivations rooted in geopolitical strategy and the shifting power dynamics of the region.

While Ethiopia might not have a coastline, it has historically sought access to sea ports for its trade, relying heavily on its neighbors. The agreement with the UAE is symbolic of Ethiopia's quest for greater autonomy in the maritime domain. By partnering with the UAE, Ethiopia positions itself to potentially influence the future of port developments and logistics in the region.

Moreover, the UAE's involvement signals to other regional powers, like Turkey and Qatar, that the Emirates remains a formidable player in the Horn of Africa, with or without direct sea access.

Overlooking Somalia, given its vital location near the Red Sea and its lengthy coast, is a significant political oversight. Historically, the UAE has been involved both economically and politically with Somalia. However, over time, differences have arisen. Matters such as Emirati ventures in regions like Somaliland and Puntland, along with differing views on the Qatar-Gulf crisis, have tested the bond between Mogadishu and Abu Dhabi.

Engaging with Somalia would require a delicate balancing act, considering the internal dynamics between the Federal Government and regional states. Moreover, the perception of foreign interference could prove counterproductive in a nation where nationalism runs deep.

Looking from the Geostrategic Angle, the larger geopolitical game also plays a role. China's increasing footprint in Africa, especially in ports and infrastructure, is something that other global players, including the UAE, are closely monitoring. Ensuring a friendly partner in Ethiopia, who might provide counterbalance or influence in regional port developments, is a move that looks beyond immediate returns and focuses on the larger strategic canvas.

The UAE's strategic maneuvers in the Horn of Africa underscore the importance of looking beyond the obvious. In international relations, symbolism, long-term vision, and the geopolitics of the moment often drive decisions more than straightforward economic gains. Whether the UAE's gambit proves fruitful hinges on the evolving dynamics of the region and its ability to navigate the complex tapestry of East African politics.

The people and the Federal Government of Somalia are closely monitoring these developments, recognizing that Somalia is integral to the Horn of Africa's growth strategies. Essentially, Somalia is the heart of the Horn.

Ismail D. Osman: Former Deputy Director of Somalia National Intelligence & Security Agency (NISA) – Writes in Somalia, Horn of Africa Security and Geopolitical focusing on governance and security. You can reach him osmando@gmail.com @osmando

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Garowe Online's editorial policy.

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