On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s traditional art of diplomacy was on display in Jeddah: The once-warring African countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea signed an agreement that ended their conflict, which had raged for decades. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki signed the peace accord, which has been promised ever since the leaders signed the Joint Declaration for Peace and Friendship on July 9, normalizing ties between the long-time enemies.
Jeddah was the right venue as it has enjoyed a long and very close historical relationship with the two countries and many of its residents hail from Eritrea and Ethiopia. The city has also witnessed several diplomatic breakthroughs over the decades, starting with the Treaty of Jeddah, which was signed in 1927 between King Abdul Aziz bin Saud and Great Britain.
When fully implemented, the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal will have far-reaching consequences for the two countries and for the region. Jeddah can play an important role in any economic development push that could result from the agreement. Already, some of its businesspeople have extensive investments in Ethiopia, which can be scaled up and extended to Eritrea, which is closer and more familiar.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have worked for some time to end the conflict, which goes back to at least 1962, when the government of Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea. A war of independence, which lasted about 30 years and cost thousands of lives, ensued. In 1991, Eritrea regained its independence but its relationship with Ethiopia never normalized, as the two countries skirmished over border disputes and entered into a fierce regional rivalry, hampering the development of both.
Both countries lost by that conflict, which has, until now, prevented access by landlocked Ethiopia to Eritrea’s extensive coastline along the Red Sea and its several large natural ports. At the same time, the small population of Eritrea (about 5 million) lived in isolation, unable to trade and engage with its much larger neighbor, with which it had enjoyed a long common history.
The new agreement promises to end all of that. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the signing as a “historic event.” He praised the mediation role played by Saudi Arabia and “the courage, the vision and the wisdom” of the two African leaders, “who had the capacity to overcome enormous resistance from the past and open a new chapter.” He then waxed poetic: “This means there is a powerful wind of hope blowing across the Horn of Africa.”
"With economic development kick-started by Eritrea-Ethiopia peace deal, the Horn of Africa could be a magnet for economic migrants instead of a fertile land for violence and cross-border crime."
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Guterres is right. The Horn has great potential, which has not been realized because of border disputes, civil wars, corruption and mismanagement. Its instability has scared away investors while attracting terrorists, pirates and human traffickers.
The Gulf countries have a long history of engagement with the Horn of Africa, going back centuries. Some investors have had very successful experiences, but others were challenged by its unstable environment. In 2013, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) started developing a collective strategy toward the region. The late Saud Al-Faisal, then Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, proposed that the GCC develop a comprehensive, integrated approach to the Horn , incorporating economic, cultural and security aspects. In June 2013, the GCC foreign ministers, meeting in Jeddah, agreed to the proposal and to keep the Horn of Africa as a permanent item on their agenda.
The GCC strategy in the Horn identified key current and future partners and areas of potential cooperation. It included the signing of agreements and developing plans of action with key partners. Recent agreements and plans have established paths for collective work wherever feasible and efficient, but also encouraged and facilitated direct bilateral state-to-state and state-to-bloc cooperation wherever that approach was more productive. The GCC has proposed such arrangements with both Eritrea and Ethiopia, and signing the Jeddah deal will hopefully energize those efforts.
Typical GCC agreements and joint plans of action with Horn states and regional organizations cover several areas, including political and security dialogues focusing on political consultations and countering terrorism and extremism; economic cooperation (such as trade and investment promotion, energy, and tourism infrastructure); business-to-business partnerships; and people-to-people and cultural exchanges and education.
The peace deal signed in Jeddah on Sunday should make GCC engagement with the Horn of Africa easier and more productive. It was no secret that the Eritrea-Ethiopia rivalry and sometimes open conflict hampered security efforts as well as trade and investment. Now the two countries, with the help of regional and international actors, can address security issues more effectively. Terrorists, pirates and extremists cannot play one country against the other. Eritrea and Ethiopia can join forces to combat the scourges of terrorism and instability.
Economically, the two countries could integrate their resources to become an important regional player. With greater access to the Red Sea, Ethiopia could more easily reach markets overseas, especially in the GCC, and receive imports.
If the Jeddah agreement becomes the beginning of a trend, other Horn conflicts could be more easily addressed, such as the Somali civil war, Eritrea-Djibouti differences, and South Sudan, as well as terrorism, piracy and human trafficking. With economic development, the Horn could be a magnet for economic migrants instead of a fertile land for violence and cross-border crime.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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