How Ethiopia's Red Sea deal could impact Israel, Egypt, and the UAE
On 1 January 2024, Ethiopia and Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, signed a controversial agreement granting Addis Ababa access to the Red Sea.
Under the agreement, Somaliland agreed to lease 20 kilometres of its coastline to landlocked Ethiopia for 50 years in return for promises to recognise its independence.
This arrangement will provide Ethiopia unhindered access to the Red Sea, enable it to use the Berbera port for export-import activities, and build a naval military base.
Dubbed a 'historic' agreement by Ethiopia, this marks a strategic shift for Addis Ababa, which lost its direct sea access following Eritrea's declaration of independence in 1993. Post-separation, Ethiopia primarily relied on Eritrea's Assab Port but lost access during the conflict between the two nations from 1998 to 2000, prompting a shift to Djibouti's port to facilitate its trade.
The Somali government has denounced the deal as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Somalia's strong objection included recalling its ambassador from Ethiopia while Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud signed a law nullifying the port deal.
"If Ethiopia were to become a major maritime force in the Red Sea, it could significantly increase its influence and importance to certain countries, such as the UAE, Israel, and the US"
Significant public and political opposition within Somalia has also emerged. Prominent figures have expressed serious concerns about the agreement's implications for Somalia's sovereignty and regional stability.
The Arab League, of which Somalia is a member, has supported Mogadishu against Ethiopia, accusing Addis Ababa of attempting to violate Somali sovereignty and labelling it as a violation of international law and a threat to Somalia's territorial integrity.
The European Union also issued a statement directed at Ethiopia, emphasising the importance of respecting the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Somalia. The US State Department issued a statement expressing its concern regarding the agreement and urging all stakeholders to engage in diplomatic dialogue.
Ethiopia has long had ambitions to gain independent access to the sea. In a statement to the Ethiopian parliament last October, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed emphasised that sea access is an existential matter for his country.
He referenced a statement by a 19th-century Ethiopian military leader, Ras Alula, who declared that the Red Sea is Ethiopia's natural border, asserting that Addis Ababa will secure its sea access by any means necessary, including force. Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia have denounced the Ethiopian claims.
The Emirati role
In response to the rising criticism against their agreement, Ethiopia and Somaliland recalled the fact that several countries signed agreements with the internationally unrecognised Somaliland, including developing its port, and no such concerns were raised at the time. The response cites the UAE without explicitly naming it.
The agreement is expected to strengthen the security, economic, and political partnership between Ethiopia and Somaliland, and insert Ethiopia as a powerful player in the Red Sea region dynamics. The agreement raises questions on a possible Emirati role given Abu Dhabi’s exceptional relation with Somaliland and its newly rising ties with Ethiopia.
The UAE has played a significant role in the development of the Port of Berbera in Somaliland, highlighting its strategic interest in the Horn of Africa. In May 2016, DP World, a Dubai-based maritime trade conglomerate, signed a $442 million agreement with the government of Somaliland to develop the Berbera Port as a regional trade hub. This project not only involves the operation of the port but also the establishment of a free zone as part of the development.
The UAE also committed to building a military base next to the city’s airport and its seafront, which it was said at the time, would be used to fight the Houthis. In March 2018, Ethiopia acquired a 19% stake in the Berbera Port project.
The UAE's involvement in the Horn of Africa, particularly through DP World's initiatives, aligns with its strategic objectives to establish cooperative governments along the Red Sea corridor. This is crucial for the UAE's maritime security strategy and its investment ambitions in the region, particularly in the Ethiopian market.
The UAE's foray into Africa, including developments in Somaliland, was seen as a part of a wider rivalry among Middle Eastern powers, with the UAE seeking to expand its influence in contrast to other regional powers like Qatar and Turkey, who have great influence in Somalia. Although the UAE decided to halt the work in the military base in Berbera later, Abu Dhabi’s influence in Somaliland remained high.
"The UAE's involvement in the Horn of Africa aligns with its strategic objectives to establish cooperative governments along the Red Sea corridor"
Egypt has articulated its stance on the Ethiopia-Somaliland sea access agreement, underscoring the need to respect Somalia's unity and territorial integrity. Egypt’s President Sisi asserted Cairo’s firm position to stand by Somalia against the agreement.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement highlighting the necessity of fully honouring Somalia's sovereignty and its right to utilise its resources. This emphasis on Somalia's territorial integrity reflects Egypt's concern about potential regional instability that could arise from the agreement.
Egypt's position is shaped by its broader national security considerations comprising regional interests, notably the security of the Red Sea, its influence in the Horn of Africa, and its problematic relations with Ethiopia. This aligns with Egypt's longstanding interest in maintaining regional stability, essential for the security of the Suez Canal, a crucial maritime trade route and a primary source of foreign currency revenues for Cairo.
Recent developments have seen Cairo apprehensive about the UAE's activities in the Horn of Africa, which Egypt perceives as potentially undercutting its regional interests. The UAE, a significant ally of Ethiopia and Somaliland, has supported Ethiopia in various matters, including its position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a contentious issue with Egypt.
Additionally, Cairo harbours concerns that the UAE's Abraham Accords with Israel might undermine Egypt’s, political, economic, and strategic interests, particularly regarding plans to bypass the Suez Canal or reduce reliance on it.
The Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement could bolster Addis Ababa's position in the Red Sea and the Ethiopia-UAE-Israel trilateral axis, a development that Cairo may not view favourably and might actively work to counter it.
The Horn of Africa's proximity to the Red Sea entrance is of strategic importance to Israel due to its significance for maritime routes, impacting Israel's security and trade. This is a concern for Israel, particularly because of Iran's influence and the presence of Iranian arms. Israel has historically cooperated militarily and in intelligence with certain regimes in the Horn of Africa.
For instance, Eritrea reportedly allowed Israel to open a naval military base on the island of Daklah in the Red Sea. However, Eritrea's later alignment with Iran, and ultimately with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, affected its relationship with Israel.
In recent years, Israel has renewed its interest in Africa, including the Horn of Africa, driven by the region's growing economic and political importance. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visits to several African countries in 2016, including those in the Horn of Africa, underscored this renewed focus, aiming to foster cooperation in economic, political, and security realms.
"The Horn of Africa's proximity to the Red Sea entrance is of strategic importance to Israel due to its significance for maritime routes, impacting Israel's security and trade"
Israel's presence in this region was intended to establish various forms of cooperation with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This presence also aimed to oppose Iran, as well as to counter the growing influence of Turkey and Qatar in the Horn of Africa during the Gulf crisis from 2017 to 2021.
Israel’s war in Gaza in 2023 has fuelled regional tensions. Iran and its regional arms seized the opportunity to flex their muscles as part of their broader strategy to assert influence in the region with the pretext of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Last month, Yemen's Houthi militia warned of targeting all ships bound for Israel, irrespective of nationality. As a result, several ships en route to Israeli ports were targeted, prompting major shipping companies to reroute their vessels.
Houthi threats have compelled major companies to avoid the Suez Canal and the strategic Bab al-Mandab chokepoint. Instead, vessels are taking longer routes around the Cape of Good Hope to reach Europe and Asia. This rerouting increases transit times and costs, affecting both the shipping industry and the economies dependent on these trade routes. The heightened risk of disruption to global trade remains a concern as long as ships continue to be targeted.
On December 18, 2023, the United States announced the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational security initiative to protect ships and uphold the principle of freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.
However, many countries declined to join the US initiative fearing that it could be seen as another US effort to support Israel rather than protect the freedom of navigation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two major regional countries did not announce their intent to join the US initiative. Countries such as Italy and Spain distanced themselves from the announced maritime force.
The regional dynamics suggest that if Ethiopia were to become a major maritime force in the Red Sea, it could significantly increase its influence and importance to certain countries, such as the UAE, Israel, and the US. Israel, in particular, could use this new situation to strengthen its influence and enhance its security presence in response to Iran's activities in the region.
"The Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement could bolster Addis Ababa's position in the Red Sea and the Ethiopia-UAE-Israel trilateral axis, a development that Cairo may not view favourably"
However, this move could also escalate tensions and lead to broader conflicts, as Ethiopia's neighbours-Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia - have serious concerns about Addis Ababa's territorial ambitions. These neighbours also have a favourable view of Turkey and Qatar compared to Israel in the region.
Furthermore, Ethiopia's transformation into a maritime power in the Red Sea contradicts Egypt's national security considerations and regional interests. This could result in Cairo aligning itself more closely with Turkey and Qatar in Somalia to counter the growing Ethiopian threat.
Ali Bakir is an Assistant Professor at Qatar University's Ibn Khaldon Center and a nonresident Senior Fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Follow him on Twitter @alibakeer