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Ethiopia’s diplomatic dance with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has caught the attention of global observers, and as the relationship deepens, it brings to light a myriad of potential advantages and challenges. In the past decade or so the UAE has shown increasing interest in the Horn of Africa (HoA). The intricate web of regional military collaborations, financial partnerships, and geopolitical alignments, underscores the need for Ethiopia to craft a nuanced approach that maximizes benefits while safeguarding against potential risks.
Military Cooperation and Technological Advancements: One facet of this evolving relationship lies in the realm of military collaboration, specifically in technology transfer. The UAE’s provision of military assistance offers Ethiopia an opportunity to fortify its defense capabilities and contribute to regional security, especially important for Addis Ababa, in light of the troubled HoA. This collaborative effort extends beyond mere military transactions, holding the promise of technological advancements beneficial to both nations.
Human rights groups have accused the UAE of exacerbating human rights in Ethiopia by aiding the government’s fight against rebel groups. On the other hand rebel groups aiming to forcibly overthrow the government in Addis Ababa have also found support from the likes of Egypt, Sudan and others. Although relations have since improved, Saudi Arabia also seemed to provide implicit support for regime change in Ethiopia from 2020 to 2022.
Economic Growth Through Financial Support: Ethiopia’s economic landscape stands poised for transformation, though it faces debt financing difficulties and a constrained foreign exchange market in the short term. In the Past, cash injections from the UAE has provided a lifeline to the stability of the Birr. Ethiopia is currently in a drawn-out negotiation with multilateral development bank, as well as bilateral lenders to restructure its debt. With the financial support and investments pledged by the UAE this process an be expedited further.
This financial infusion has the potential to drive economic growth and foster infrastructure development, opening avenues for mutually beneficial partnerships across various sectors. The UAE for its part sees potential in Ethiopia growing market size and its untapped potential.
Strategic Maritime Access and Geopolitical Alignment: The UAE’s expressed interest in supporting Ethiopia’s bid for Red Sea port access was revealed in 2018, when it initiated refurbishment of the port Assab, after Ethiopia reached a peace agreement with Eritrea. The plan was to turn Assab into a free trade hub. The initiative fell apart over disagreements between the two neighboring counties not long after its start.
The UEA appears to be interested in anchoring itself on the Red Sea. This is also something Ethiopia wants to do for itself. The convergence of the two countries on the issue has immediate roots in their exclusion from the new Red Sea forum organization. There is no doubt however it goes beyond just the Forum. Both nations see it as strategic to their long term maritime interests.
Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia recently publicly spoke about “breaking the silence” on the Red Sea. This adds urgency and significance to the endeavors at least in the near term. Abiy says, “Ethiopia needs a reliable port a navy“. But it has irritated neighbors, particularly Eritrea, which has a history of fraught relations with Ethiopia, ever since it broke away as an independent country in the early 1990s.
Ideological Misalignments and Democratic Challenges: The UAE has in the recent past supported militarism in Yemen, Sudan. It was involved in the war in Yemen extensively before exiting after outcries of human rights violations. The UAE’s hard-hitting and agile diplomacy introduces a layer of complexity. It’s small size, a strategic alliance with the United States , and lots of cash to spend allows it to take risks. Ethiopia, with its democratic aspirations, faces the challenge of balancing economic and security matters on a much tighter budget, with plans of developing fast. Negotiating this ideological as well as economic terrain will be crucial for Ethiopia’s long-term stability at it manages its relationships.
Preserving Democratic Foundations: The governance models of both nations stand in stark contrast, especially concerning basic tenants. The UAE is a highly authoritarian monarchy with a very small and affluent population. Ethiopia on the other hand is a developing country with a nascent parliamentary democracy, one that has bouts of serious authoritarian tendencies. The fear is that growing ties with the UAE could potentially undermine its commitment to nurturing democratic institutions. The challenge lies in avoiding compromises that might undermine the democratic foundations that the nation aspires to uphold, especially given its diverse and sizable population.
Ethiopia’s diplomatic journey with the UAE unveils a complex tapestry of opportunities and challenges. As Ethiopia charts its course through this intricate relationship, a strategic tailoring of diplomatic engagements is imperative. Achieving a delicate equilibrium between economic collaboration, security interests, and democratic values will define Ethiopia’s trajectory. Thoughtful diplomacy in the interest of long term strategic values should steer Ethiopia relations with the UAE towards a future that is mutually beneficial.
Up to now, Ethiopia seems to have successfully navigated and benefited from the increased attention the Middle East has shown in the HoA. It has solidified alliances by joining BRICS, gained reprieve from debt repayment schedules to China and the EU, all while upholding its independent foreign policy. However, this delicate balance poses risks. The mix of transactional politics in the Gulf, corruption and conflict in the HoA could be perilous, especially as historical rivalries take unexpected turns, potentially spiraling matters beyond the Horn’s influence.