Qatar Crisis: Will Eritrea and Ethiopia take sides?
Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on a visit in April 2015 (Saudi Press Agency)
As battle lines are drawn in the diplomatic standoff between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that began last Monday, Horn of Africa nations including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan face pressures from the Saudi-led coalition to sever ties with Qatar.
Saudi Arabia has mustered a coalition with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt and other powers, seeking to isolate Qatar diplomatically and economically over its support for Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other militant groups. Qatar says the campaign aims to subvert its sovereign right to enact its own foreign policy.
Several Arab and Turkish news agencies on Friday cited a statement in Arabic by Asmara’s foreign ministry declining a request by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. The purported statement said that Qatar “rejected” the demand to cut ties “with brother Doha,” adding, Eritrea has “strong ties with the brother people of Qatar,” and it was “impossible to cut ties.”
But the country’s foreign minister took to Twitter soon thereafter to disavow the statement and described it as “forged” on foreign ministry letterhead. But he did not elaborate further on the actual state of relations with Qatar or Saudi Arabia.
Eritrea hosts a military base belonging to Qatar’s Gulf rival UAE. But the country also has significant ties with Doha. Speaking with The Messenger on Wednesday, Professor Harry Verhoeven explained that Eritrea is a country with few international allies and that Qatar is one friend that has proven itself “reliable.”
Meanwhile, Eritrea’s neighbor and rival Ethiopia is likely to be cautious about getting drawn into the diplomatic row, even though its sympathies probably lie more with the other side, according to Professor Verhoeven, who has written extensively on international relations in the Horn of Africa.
Verhoeven points to ties between Ethiopia and Israel as a relevant factor, saying the Israelis are opposed to the Qatari position. He also cites ongoing talks between Ethiopia and the UAE over the refurbishment of the Red Sea port of Berbera. “It’s complex for Ethiopia because Ethiopia suffers from a lack fo deep ties to any of these players and in many ways actually a lack of understanding of how they operate. So I think it’s difficult for Ethiopia to decide in the near future on a particular course. But there’s no question Ethiopia will look for an opportunity,” he says.
“It’s interesting that at the very time this is happening (Prime Minister) Hailemariam has been visiting Israel. And Israel, of course, officially is not in the picture but is very closely aligned with the Emirati and Saudi position. Also if you look at some of the Saudi and Emirati demands of the Qataris — these could be Israel’s demands — demands about Hamas, about Hezbollah, about the Al Jazeera coverage, about potential ties with Iran.”
However, Verhoeven does not describe the relationship between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia and its ally UAE as unequivocally strong. He says the Ethiopians have been sceptical of Saudi and Emirati influence in the Horn of Africa even as they’ve seen their bilateral relationships grow. The Ethiopians are “trying to at least adjust themselves to the Emiratis and the Saudis on the one hand as a potentially credible partner, and on the other hand, trying to say, well, don’t pull too closely to Somaliland and particularly also to Eritrea.”
‘Ethiopia would probably calculate that it has more to lose from pulling closer to Qatar.’
Verhoeven sees Ethiopia as likely to ‘inch closer’ to the Saudi camp. “Ethiopia is largely in reactive mode. It’s difficult for them to shape these events. And so they’ll certainly look for an opportunity as everybody else does, but I would expect a relatively high degree of caution when it comes to this dispute, even though, as I said, most of their sympathies — I think their strategic instinct — will point in the direction of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi,” he says.
What’s unusual about this potential alignment is that it would put Ethiopia in the same camp as Egypt, which has sided strongly with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, even though the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia is quite tense right now.
“Ethiopia would probably calculate that it has more to lose from, say, pulling closer to Qatar or the Iranians, which would also be compromising of the relationship with the United States, particularly under this administration, so that’s why I would think that they would inch closer to that camp rather than to the other side.”
Qatar seeks to avoid isolation
Diplomatic events over the past week indicate that the Saudis and Emiratis have the upper hand over Qatar in the Horn of Africa, with Djibouti and Somaliland announcing their ‘solidarity’ with the Saudi-led coalition, and Ethiopia looking unlikely to enter the fray on Qatar’s behalf.
But Qatar has built up reserves of goodwill in some countries in the region that make it unlikely that it will be easily isolated, even if the standoff with the Saudi coalition continues for a prolonged period of time.
Besides the Eritreans, who have given no indications that they will cut ties with Qatar, the Sudanese and Somali governments have strong reasons to take a middle road too. These countries both announced they would be willing to help mediate the dispute, calling on the two sides to resolve their problems amicably.
Verhoeven says he expects Qatar to try to leverage its relationships in Sudan, citing its historical role in lending to the central bank and brokering a peace deal in Darfur, as well as a recent visit to Sudan by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, a wife of the late Qatari Emir. He also cites recent Sudanese-Egyptian tensions as a reason why the Sudanese would be reluctant to abandon their relationship with Qatar.
“If really forced to abandon them, the price that they will demand is very, very high indeed,” Verhoeven says. On the other hand, Qatar will “try to argue that it is important to maintain ties (with Sudan) and potentially to try to form some kind of opposition to the Saudis and Emiratis.”
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Notice of Correction, June 10th: Elements of this story have been updated shortly after publication to reflect the fact that Eritrea’s Minister of Information has contested the authenticity of a statement ascribed to his ministry announcing that Eritrea has no intention of cutting ties with the state of Qatar.