UAE, Turkey, and Iran: Why rival powers are backing Ethiopia's government

Youngsters walk next to an abandoned tank belonging to Tigrayan forces south of the town of Mehoni, Ethiopia, on December 11, 2020.
5 min read
14 February, 2022

The war that started in November 2020 as a conflict between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the Tigray Regional Government has turned the country into an arena where many regional and international powers are active.

Like a Pandora's box suddenly opened, the conflict has borne many geopolitical surprises, but one of its most important ironies is the reported use of drones and weapons supplied by competing powers in the Middle East, who seem to have agreed on their support for Ethiopia’s government.

UAE, the first player

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has intervened in the Ethiopian war since it began, with leaders from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) accusing Abu Dhabi of targeting Tigrayan forces in November 2020 with drones stationed at its Assab military base in Eritrea.

In the wake of the Ethiopian withdrawal in the face of the advancing Tigrayan forces in the summer of 2021, an Emirati air bridge supporting the government was monitored. This comprised more than 90 flights between the two countries in the period between September and November 2021.

Satellite images identified Emirati drones at Harar Meda Airport in Ethiopia and at a military base in Deirdawa in the east of the country.

"The war has turned the country into an arena where many regional and international powers are active"

The UAE’s intervention was an extension of its strategy to build an allied political and security system across the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, most notably following Houthi gains around Bab al-Mandab at the beginning of Yemen’s conflict.

Abiy Ahmed’s election as Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018 further accelerated an alliance between Addis Ababa and Abu Dhabi.

That same year, the UAE-sponsored Eritrean-Ethiopia peace agreement pledged to support the Ethiopian treasury with three billion dollars, and made huge investments in various sectors.

From this perspective, the possibility of the Tigrayans seizing power in Addis Ababa was a threat to these political arrangements, and Emirati investments, especially since the TPLF view Abu Dhabi with hostility after its role in their first defeat in November 2020.

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Turkish drones in the Habesha sky

The visit of the Ethiopian prime minister to Ankara in August 2021 represented a turning point in the relationship between the two countries, which had become estranged in parallel with the development of Ethiopian ties with the UAE-Saudi axis.

During the visit, a package of agreements was signed that included “military cooperation”. Indeed, according to the Turkish Defence Industries Corporation, the value of Turkish military exports to Ethiopia increased from just $234,000 in 2020 to nearly $95 million in 2021.

Although in July 2021 the Turkish embassy in Addis Ababa denied that it had supplied drones to Addis Ababa, reports alleged the participation of Bayraktar TB2 drones in military operations in Ethiopia’s conflict after Ahmed’s visit to Ankara, which were not denied by either side this time.

This development is an extension of the Turkish approach in the region described by Jason Moseley, a Research Associate at the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. “Turkey has adopted an interventionist attitude in the regional crisis, with the consequent rebalancing between soft and hard power in favor of the latter,” he wrote last year.

The war started in November 2020 as a conflict between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the Tigray Regional Government. [Getty]

In fact, Turkey saw drone support for the Ethiopian government as a strategic gain, bolstering its reputation in the African military and security market after it had proven its success in an African war arena, with growing demand for this type of weapon.

Ankara’s participation also indicates that Turkish construction companies could make a significant contribution to the reconstruction of infrastructure in the areas destroyed by the war

Preventing Ethiopia from sliding into a civil war protects Ankara’s large investments inside the country and ensures that the ensuing chaos does not spread into neighbouring Somalia, the most important centre of Turkish influence in the African continent.

Additionally, Turkish support for the Ethiopian government appears to be a strategic necessity due to Ankara’s fears of the Tigrayans, who Ethiopia has accused of being supported by Egypt.

In this sense, Ankara’s ties with Ethiopia are related to the exchange of support between the two countries, which is taking place in the context of their conflict with Egypt.

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Iran seeks an opportunity

In a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, on 7 December 2021, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael accused Iran, along with the UAE and Turkey, of providing the Ethiopian army with weapons, including drones.

Prior to that, the US government had accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) of providing drones to Ethiopia, and on 29 October 2021, sanctions were issued by the US Treasury Department.

According to investigative websites, Iranian drones have been seen in Ethiopia and 15 flights from two airlines linked to the IRGC have been monitored from Iran to the Harar Meda military base in Ethiopia.

Both the Iranian and Ethiopian governments have not yet commented on these reports.

The sharp dispute between Ethiopia and the United States over the war in Tigray, and Washington's continuous pressure on Ahmed’s government, who has framed the conflict as a colonial attack on Ethiopia’s unity, has apparently brought Tehran and Addis Ababa closer.

Iran sees the Ethiopian PM’s need for military equipment as an opportunity to expand its strategic presence in a country that is historically an ally of the United States and Israel.

"Ultimately, all three powers are trying to exploit a moment of Ethiopian weakness to create or consolidate their influence"

This level of Iranian engagement demonstrates the importance of the Ethiopian arena for Tehran, and indicates Iran's desire to enter the burgeoning military and security market in Africa.

However, the most important prize for Tehran is a return to Ethiopia, which is situated close to Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa, after losing its influence in recent years with allies Eritrea and Sudan following Emirati-Saudi pressure, and the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum after popular protests.

Ultimately, all three powers are trying to exploit a moment of Ethiopian weakness to create or consolidate their influence.

The weight and extent of their involvement are best indicated, perhaps, by consultations the US envoy to the Horn of Africa, which has historical influence in Ethiopia, has been having with Middle Eastern capitals to try to find a solution to the Ethiopian crisis.

Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in the African Affairs

Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli