Foreign powers have always been drawn to the Horn because of its proximity to the Red Sea, which controls access to the Suez Canal. In recent years, Gulf states have revived their centuries-old connections. China has invested heavily, pouring billions into Ethiopia in spite of its lack of physical resources, and establishing a military base in neighbouring Djibouti. Beijing also financed and built a semi-functional railway between Djibouti and Addis Ababa, helping strengthen Ethiopia’s link to the sea following its loss of Eritrea.
Yet political actors in the Horn have never been passive victims of external interference. Instead, they have sought to profit from foreign interest by pitting one external actor against another.
The commercial hub of Djibouti, formerly French Somaliland, is a case in point. Situated on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a chokepoint separating the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea, it now hosts the military bases (for a price) of the US, China, Japan, France and Italy. In 2006, Dubai-based DP World constructed a container port in Djibouti only to have it seized in 2018.
Meanwhile, along the African Red Sea coast there has been a scramble for coastline with Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Ethiopia itself taking stakes in competing ports.
As if all these shifting allegiances were not enough, Ethiopia has undergone a political earthquake. In 2018, after years of unrest, Abiy Ahmed became prime minister, promising democracy, a more open economy and peace with Eritrea. Since then, the US has seen a chance to prise Addis Ababa away from what it regards as China’s malignant influence. It has held out the prospect of big investments if the government goes through with market reforms. Under pressure from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Washington is also urging Ethiopia to sign a water-sharing agreement to allay Cairo’s fears over the Nile.
Mr Abiy has a restive, fractured state to contend with. Soon he will need to fight a difficult election that was postponed because of Covid-19. The last thing Ethiopia’s leader wants is to appear weak in the face of external pressure. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be filled, water-sharing agreement or not. In the Horn of Africa, outside interference only gets you so far.