Photo: 27th Arab League Summit in Mauritania, Egyp
Since 2003, Eritrea has been an observer state at the Arab League, headquartered in Cairo. But has the time come for Eritrea to upgrade its observer status to a full-member at the Arab League? The Arab League is a regional organization with 22 members at present. All of Eritrea’s neighbors on the African Red Sea coast, including Djibouti, Sudan, and Somalia are full members of the regional organization. As an observer at the Arab League, Eritrea can go to some of the meetings but not all.
The Arabic language is not a stranger in Eritrea. Arabic is one of the two official languages of Eritrea and is widely spoken on the coast. It’s also the lingua franca in parts of the lowlands and Western Eritrea. But as with joining any regional organization there are some pros and cons that need to be weighed carefully.
When Eritrea became a dejure independent state in 1993 there were expectations in some quarters that it would join the continental-wide organization African Union (then OAU) and regional organizations such as the Arab League and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). There were some editorials in Arab newspapers when Eritrea joined the OAU but not the Arab League upon becoming a UN-recognized state in the early 1990s. Relations were lukewarm to somewhat difficult with the Arab world in the 1990s, especially following the maritime clash with Yemen over the Zuqur-Hanish archipelago. The conflict with Yemen was quickly resolved and the resulting arbitration decision from the Hague delimited Eritrea’s maritime borders and territorial sovereignty on the Red Sea.
Eritrea’s membership in the other regional organization known as IGAD, heavily influenced and dominated by Ethiopia from top to bottom, has been nothing but a complete nightmare for Eritrea. Eritrea’s membership in IGAD was used against it to pass sanctions on it. Essentially, IGAD states provided cover for Susan Rice, the then US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and made it look like the sanctions regime was an African initiative. The sanctions IGAD states proposed were much tougher than the ones that actually passed. Basically, IGAD states tried to push Eritrea and its economy over the cliff for no good reason. So much for regional brotherhood! Since then, I have always felt that Eritrea needs membership in another regional organization to counter IGAD’s destructive and biased influence. It has been lonely for Eritrea on the international scene because it rarely receives any support from regional organizations.
Historically, Israel was nervous about Eritrea becoming a member of the Arab League because it was always afraid of being squeezed from the south. This fear Israel had was always an exaggerated one. Firstly, Arab states can launch a naval blockade of Israel all on their own without Eritrea’s help. Secondly, the State of Israel has now enjoyed friendly relations with the State of Eritrea for nearly 26 years and knows that Eritrea is a responsible international actor. Thirdly, most Arab states have started to realize that Israel is not going away anytime soon and have changed their behavior towards it. For instance, Saudi Prince Abdullah in 2002 proposed a peace plan which, for the first time, offered Israel full recognition and normal relations with Arab countries if it met certain conditions.
The knock against the Arab League is that it is a deeply divided and ineffective organization when it comes to addressing any of the multitudes of problems plaguing the region. Some say the failures of the League have been greater than its successes.
Eritrea has always enjoyed strong relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar going back to the days of the armed struggle for independence. Relations with Saudi Arabia were lukewarm at times, but they have strengthened a great deal since the ascent of King Salman to the throne. Eritrea is now a vital member of the Saudi-led anti-terrorism coalition.
In January 2017, President Isaias explained that Eritrea had been asking Saudi Arabia to play an expanded role in the region when it comes to addressing terrorism and instability but her pleas were not met with action until the ascent of King Salman to the throne. King Salman’s strategic outlook on the region is very much aligned with Eritrea’s.
In May 2017, President Isaias further explained that Egyptian-Eritrean ties were developing at a rapid pace in all sectors and that both countries were ready to strengthen their multi-dimensional cooperation. Given the massive military force Egypt can bring to bear around Ethiopia, the strengthening of Egyptian-Eritrean relations has made Ethiopia nervous. President Isaias also added that diplomatic efforts and cooperation agreements with the GCC and Red Sea basin countries were not aimed at short-term benefits but were broad-based and long-term oriented. President Isaias has developed a reputation for playing the long ball and having a clear strategic vision.
Over the last few years, Eritrea’s relations with the Arab world’s most influential countries – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and United Arab Emirates – have taken a quantum leap. A quantum leap is the only way to describe it.
There is growing recognition on Eritrea’s part that the region’s problems whether they're related to economics, terrorism or the security of the Red Sea can only be solved if all the littoral states pool their resources together, contribute according to their abilities, and address the multitude of challenges facing them.
There is a political generational change going on in the Mideast. Young Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are looking to build their militaries by investing in their defenses and diversifying security cooperation with countries in the region so as to avoid overreliance on the United States military as a guarantor of their sovereignty. Eritrea has its own contributions to make in this area and is positioned to take advantage of the benefits of collective security and defense through the agreements it has signed with the rising Gulf Arab regional powers.
Eritrea’s geopolitical orientation as well as its choice of strategic partners in the economic and foreign policy sphere has begun to look north and east. Trade with Ethiopia is non-existent. Most of Eritrea’s imports come from the Middle East while most of its exports (gold, livestock…etc) also go to the Middle Eastern countries. All one has to do is look at the airlines that have serviced the Eritrean market over the years: Saudia Airline, Qatar Airways, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Sudan Airways, Yemenia, Fly Dubai…etc and you get a sense pretty quickly who Eritrea is connected to. With the exception of South Africa, which does significant trade with Eritrea, most of Eritrea’s trade is conducted with neighboring Middle Eastern and some Asian countries.
The Arabic language has room to grow in Eritrea but it can grow very quickly since Eritreans are adept at picking up the language with relative ease.
TPLF officials have talked openly about their desire to bring Eritrea to its knees. TPLF has done everything it can to see Eritrea isolated and disconnected from the region politically and militarily. The strategic partners Eritrea found and the cooperation agreements it signed with the regional Gulf Arab powers has thrown a monkey wrench into TPLF’s plans for strangulating Eritrea. Eritrea’s traditional defense policy is to rely solely on its own national capabilities. Given the ongoing hostility from Ethiopia and the big powers, however, Eritrea is correct to look for strategic defense partners in the region.
The question becomes what’s the best way for Eritrea to continue playing a regional role, strengthen ties with countries in the region, and safeguard its sovereignty? Is it through individual cooperation agreements with countries or by becoming part of the regional organization itself? To the extent that there are any formal criteria for joining the Arab League, Eritrea can meet them. Eritrea’s observer status may have been a “test case” for future membership. The only downside to membership in the Arab League for Eritrea is the League likes to make decisions by consensus and the Arab world is always divided. But it is worth taking the risk at this point. Why not? Not being a member of a supportive regional organization has been a clear disadvantage for Eritrea thus far.