Spotlight: informing Ethiopia’s response to Middle East interest in the Horn


Economic opportunities and security interests have prompted fresh engagement in the region by states like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). The coastlines of Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Djibouti are of strategic value to the Gulf states’ role in Yemen’s bitter conflict, and for the wider projection of influence in Africa.

While their investment is welcomed, there is a chronic imbalance in power and economic weight between the Horn and the oil-rich Middle East. African states are also under pressure to choose sides following the diplomatic and economic isolation of Qatar, which other Gulf states accuse of supporting Iran and Islamist militants.

These rapid developments provide opportunities and risks for fast-developing countries like Ethiopia, which must consider how its economic and political strategy adapts to the foreign policy outlook of ambitious and wealthy Middle East nations.

Ethiopia’s size and growing economic power make it more able to compete with the Gulf states on an equal footing. But it lacks a coastline and depends on the Horn for trade routes, so must carefully monitor foreign investment in the region’s ports. The UAE, for example, has port deals in Somaliland and Puntland and military bases in Eritrea and Somaliland. Turkey has invested in Mogadishu port, and jointly with Qatar has a port investment in an island off Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sought ISS analysis that could inform its long-term response to these rapid geopolitical and commercial developments. ‘The ISS has a longstanding collaborative relationship with the Ethiopian government and is well positioned to advise on and support its response to Middle East dynamics,’ says Dr Roba Sharamo, Director of ISS Addis Ababa and Regional Representative to the African Union, Horn and East Africa. He led an ISS team that organised a closed seminar in Addis Ababa to discuss Gulf dynamics in the Horn.

ISS deepened its collaboration with Ethiopia and discussed opportunities and threats in an informed, productive way

What emerged was the need for robust tactical decisions combined with diplomatic finesse. For example, Ethiopia needs to protect its historic relationship with Djibouti while engaging new partners like the UAE, taking account of the adversarial Djibouti-UAE relationship. ‘States like Ethiopia want to protect old alliances, consult with long-term partners, and still be agile in their response to major new economic opportunities,’ Sharamo said.

The ISS assembled experts for the seminar, which was opened by Ethiopia’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hirut Zemene. Speakers included ISS researcher Omar Mahmood who covered the response of Horn states to Middle East investment and rivalry. An interactive session discussed Ethiopian responses, including the merits of a cohesive regional effort giving African governments more clout when dealing with Gulf states.

Delegates, including senior government officials and veteran diplomats, agreed on the need for a long-term outlook that carefully scrutinised the commitment and interests of states looking for a foothold in Africa.

‘The ISS highlighted where Ethiopia’s interests align with Middle East investments in the Horn, and provided early warning of future potential risks,’ Sharamo said. ‘We have deepened our strategic collaboration with Ethiopia and helped its diplomats to respond to opportunities and threats in an informed and productive way.’

Delegates noted the importance of open dialogue on foreign policy issues. ‘It was a remarkable success,’ said Professor Abdi Zenebe from Ethiopia’s Bahir Dar University. ‘The event covered a crucial topic in a relevant manner.’

The seminar was part of a wider ISS commitment to work with Ethiopia’s government, and will be followed by engagement with the region’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Due to high demand, the ISS and its partners will host a public seminar on the impact of Gulf dynamics in the Horn before the end of the year.

For more information contact:

Dr Roba Sharamo, ISS: +254 710 224400,


Picture: Port De Djibouti SA

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