Parsing the Red Sea

2018, By James Barnett – Public Interest Fellow in Washington, DC.

The $5 billion GERD project has been underway since 2011 and promises to be a significant milestone in Ethiopia’s economic development. While Ethiopia was the world’s third fastest-growing country in the world from 2000 to 2016, the majority of Ethiopians still live well below the poverty line and the country continues to suffer from a dearth of infrastructure and electricity. Cognizant of this, Addis Ababa has sought to utilize its environmental endowment—three of the four major tributaries of the Nile originate in Ethiopia—to power the country and become an exporter of electricity to the region. The GERD, which looks set to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, would be of unquestionable benefit to Ethiopia’s economy.

What the dam means for the other economies of the Nile basin is less clear. No country has come out more aggressively against the project in recent years than Egypt. To this day, the Nile provides 90 percent of Egypt’s water supply and agriculture employs roughly a fourth of the Egyptian workforce. Estimates have varied drastically over how much the GERD would affect the flow of the Nile in Egypt. Some Egyptian agronomists have argued that the nation could lose half of its farmland if the GERD were to become operational, while others have suggested that closer cooperation between Cairo and Addis could mitigate any potential ecological fallout. But even if the GERD’s economic effects on Egypt prove manageable, the Nile carries tremendous symbolic significance to ordinary Egyptians.

To understand the current controversy over the GERD, one must first recognize that not only has the Nile been the lifeblood of Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs, but also that Egyptian relations with their neighbors upstream have historically been colored with a mixture of suspicion and condescension. The dominant political ideology of early 20th-century Egypt, for example, was that of secular “Pharaonic” nationalism, which presumed the nation to cast a civilizing presence over “black Africa.” Egyptian foreign policy may be less paternalistic in the 21st century, but historical considerations still contribute to a skepticism of Egyptian intentions in many African capitals.

The GERD, which would fundamentally alter Egypt’s relations with its neighbors upstream by empowering (and literally powering) Ethiopia and Sudan, has unsurprisingly provoked concerns across the Egyptian political spectrum, in ways that contain eerie echoes of Egypt’s past. Sadat threatened war in 1979 if any African nation altered the Nile’s flow. The Islamist government of President Mohammed Morsi sounded Nasserist in its 2013 announcements that while Egypt would be a helpful partner in Ethiopia’s development, the country would keep “all options open” to avoid losing any water. Sisi, for his part, has stated that “No one can touch Egypt’s share of water.” Sisi is well aware of the nationalist significance of geography. He faced intense backlash last summer when he agreed to transfer two uninhabited islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia.

All this said, there have been signs of progress over the past six months. A new round of trilateral talks was announced for early April. Furthermore, as construction nears completion, the dam may be a fait accompli, a bitter pill Cairo must swallow. But even if Sisi’s rhetoric is less bellicose than Morsi’s, Ethiopians do not believe he is necessarily more amenable to the project than Morsi was. Sisi maintains a more respectable image on the international stage than his controversial and bombastic predecessor, but he is nonetheless a military dictator with a track record of hard power approaches to regional conundrums. Indeed, with Egypt’s domestic situation so volatile, drama over the dam could prove a tempting distraction in the wake of next week’s elections (which will be less than free and fair) or any subsequent controversy.

But would military action really be on the table? Does the Egyptian army want to get embroiled in a foreign escapade when they can hardly keep a lid on a deadly Islamic State-affiliated insurgency in Sinai? Cairo has had to rely on Israeli aircraft to handle the jihadists within their borders, according to a recent New York Times investigation, an embarrassing revelation for a military government that still champions its (largely mythical) legacy of decisive combat with the IDF in 1967 and 1973.

Yet while some form of strike, direct or indirect, is unlikely, Egypt’s neighbors are hardly reassured. Egypt has considered military action on the GERD before. Government officials of both Islamist and secular parties were caught on camera in 2013 mulling the possibility. Ethiopian officials suspected that a foiled March 2017 attack on the dam was the work of  Eritrean rebels operating with Egyptian backing. Whatever Sisi is thinking, the past few months have been tense in the region. A Qatari newspaper reported in early January that Egyptian forces had moved into an Emirati base in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s main adversary (the two countries are still effectively at war over a disputed border). The rumors were a cause of concern for Addis Ababa, but the alleged deployment was seen more as a show of force to Sudan, with whom Egypt has a long history of fraught relations.

Egypt and Sudan are nominally on the same side in the ongoing Gulf dispute that began this past June. Sudan expelled the Iranian ambassador from Khartoum in 2016, and has been heavily involved in Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, since it began in March 2015. Sudan has lost over 400 troops in Yemen, and has deployed elements of the infamous Janjaweed militias as part of their Rapid Support Forces in the anti-Houthi operations. But if Sudan has moved closer to the Saudis and Emiratis (primarily for economic reasons), its relationship with Egypt remains much more complicated.

Throughout the 1990s, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir allowed Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of Sudan’s Islamist movement, to open the country’s doors to terrorists from Osama bin Laden to Carlos the Jackal. Hosni Mubarak was nearly assassinated in Addis Ababa in 1995 by Egyptian terrorists of the al Jama’a al Islamiyya group who were sheltered in Sudan. While Turabi fell out of favor with Bashir in 1999, Sudan’s foreign policy has been at odds with Egypt’s in recent years as well, owing to the former’s support for regional Islamist movements. Until recently, Khartoum reportedly backed the Islamist Libya Dawn coalition while Egypt and the UAE were (and continue to be) staunch backers of the forces of Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who also receives Russian support. Tensions between Egypt and Sudan have also flared up once again in the Hala’ib Triangle, a disputed border area occupied by Egypt which both Sudan and Egypt claim based on conflicting colonial-era agreements.

Both Sudan and Ethiopia, despite a historically complicated relationship, are willing to disrupt the status quo apportionment of the Nile’s waters, particularly the 1929 agreement between Britain and Egypt (to which neither Sudan nor Ethiopia were privy). Sudan was nonetheless initially opposed to the dam until Ethiopia managed to sway Khartoum by promising to share a portion of the GERD’s power. Bashir was also convinced that the dam would help prevent unpredictable seasonal flooding.

The emerging partnership between Ethiopia and Sudan has made Egypt’s position more difficult, pushing Sisi to assure the world he is committed to diplomatic solutions. Bashir and Sisi met on Tuesday in Cairo and declared that they would work together to manage the effects of the GERD, though neither leader mentioned what role Ethiopia might play in this matter. April’s trilateral talks could bear fruit, or they may prove to be little more than diplomatic window dressing, as Egypt seeks to buy time with measures short of war. But even if a regional conflict is unlikely to erupt over the dam, we should hold off on trumpeting a new page in Egyptian-Sudanese relations as there is another crucial dimension to Egypt’s foreign policy that overshadows the GERD and cannot be so easily remedied with technical discussions of hydrology.

Take the alleged deployment of Egyptian troops to Eritrea earlier this year: The deployment has been vehemently denied by the Eritrean and Egyptian governments, but even if the story were indeed fabricated, it would be revealing in its own right. Because the story originated in Qatari media, this would mean the Qataris are going to great lengths to paint Egypt as the aggressor in its relations with Sudan.

It may seem surprising that the Qataris would have a horse in this race, but East Africa has not been insulated from the effects of growing geopolitical tensions in the Middle East. The most important development in the rising tensions between Egypt and Sudan is not the GERD, but Khartoum’s growing ties with one of Egypt’s biggest rivals, and one of Qatar’s few partners: Turkey.

From Dhows to Battle Fleets: The Militarization of the Red Sea

In December, Sudan announced that Turkey would be rebuilding the port city of Suakin as part of a $650 million dollar Turkish investment package in the country. In addition to refurbishing the Ottoman-era ruins, Turkey will be constructing a new dock for civilian and military vessels. This cultural component of the deal is hardly insignificant, as bolstering ties with Sunni peoples around the globe and restoring Ottoman cultural heritage suggests some neo-Ottomanist proclivities of Turkish foreign policy under Erdogan. But the Suakin deal is fundamentally geostrategic in nature, given the port’s military utility. Turkey already has two overseas bases, one in Qatar (with whom Ankara is aligned in the Gulf dispute) and the other in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The Red Sea’s strategic significance is not new. The 1956 Suez crisis demonstrated how desperately Europeans sought to remain proprietors of the Suez Canal while the 1967 Six-Day War began with Nasser’s blockade of Israel’s only access to the Red Sea (interestingly enough, through the islands of Tiran and Sanafir).

What has changed in the Middle East is not the value of geography, but the regional order. The Gulf blockade, the drama with Saad Hariri last November, and relatively muted responses from most Arab states on Trump’s announcement about the Jerusalem embassy all reflect a new geopolitical reality in the region. Whether you blame the Iraq War, America’s paper tiger in Syria, the current Administration’s handling of the region, or some combination of the above, one thing seems clear: America’s footprint in the Middle East is diminished compared to a decade ago, while Iranian influence has expanded dramatically. The middle powers of the region—Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia—are fighting to carve out their space in the void and, in the case of the latter two, roll back Iranian influence at all costs. Meanwhile major changes in global energy markets, namely the U.S. shale revolution, suggest that looking ahead, the Persian Gulf will be of less strategic significance to Washington than it traditionally has. Not surprisingly then, the Arab states have begun to question some aspects of traditional U.S. commitments to the region.

Cognizant of this, the Trump Administration seems to have given its regional partners, and specifically Saudi Arabia, more freedom to push their agenda in the Middle East than previous administrations. In a sense, this approach echoes that of the Cold War, when the United States limited its strategic objectives and outsourced most aspects of regional security to allies in the Middle East. For better or worse, Trump sees Mohammad bin Salman as that type of partner: MBS is tough on Iran, more sympathetic to Israel (at least in private) than previous Saudi monarchs, and he supports (or at least won’t get in the way of) efforts to eradicate ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That he recognizes the oversized heft of ijma’ and Wahhabi clergy in his monarchy and has set to “modernize” Islam also helps legitimize him in the eyes of some well-meaning if gullible Western commentators.

The atrocious humanitarian situation in Yemen has prompted bipartisan outcry, but on Tuesday the Senate nonetheless rejected limiting Trump’s ability to support the Saudi-led coalition. The only real difference at present between Trump and MBS, perhaps, is over Pakistan, where the former’s frustration with Islamabad’s harboring of terrorists is at odds with Saudi Arabia’s long-standing relationship with the world’s only nuclear-armed Sunni power. But so far, this divergence has not fundamentally undermined the budding partnership between an ambitious young leader eager to shepherd his country’s rise to regional hegemony and an “America First” President who campaigned on a pledge to do more in the Middle East with less American blood and treasure.

To be fair, that the Gulf states are aggressively pushing to consolidate regional influence is nothing new. Saudi aspirations of grandeur have been manifest since the state’s founding, when Ibn Saud and the Ikhwan pushed the Hashemites out of the Hejaz in 1924 and assumed the mantle of custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques. More recently, disagreements with the Obama Administration over how to curtail Iran’s expansionism prompted the Sunni powers of the region, and specifically the Saudis and Emiratis, to attempt an aggressive rollback of Tehran’s influence in the face of perceived U.S. withdrawal. The result has been a frightening degree of geopolitical conflagration—with obvious sectarian overtones—burning through the Middle East for several years. Yemen is but one site of this conflict, but it is the one that is most relevant to East Africa.

The Houthi conflict has underlined the importance of the Horn of Africa as a region from which the Saudis and Emiratis can project power into Yemen. If Iran were to obtain a foothold in Southern Yemen through the Houthis, they could potentially blockade both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab, the access points to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea respectively, holding hostage the significant share of global GDP that is shipped through those lanes each day. This would be a nightmare for the Saudis and Emiratis, and their efforts in Yemen represent a willingness to prevent Iran from gaining such leverage at all costs. Turkey, meanwhile, views the Red Sea as an area of historical influence as well as one of tremendous strategic and economic opportunity.

Turkey and the Gulf States take somewhat different approaches to the Horn of Africa based in part on structural differences in their economies. Turkey’s economy is more diversified than the Gulf economies and is traditionally dependent to a large extent on Middle Eastern markets. With ongoing turmoil in these markets (including Iraq and Syria, where multiple pipelines flow into Turkey), and the possibility of EU membership effectively off the table, Turkey is looking to expand its investments on the peripheries of its historical sphere of influence, including East Africa. In short, Turkey’s significant military presence in the Horn of Africa is balanced with robust economic engagement. Turkey has been ahead of the curve in recognizing the strategic importance of Somalia, for example: In addition to their military base which trains Somali forces, Turkey opened its largest embassy in the world in Mogadishu in 2016. Turkish Airlines is the only international carrier with regular service to Mogadishu. And during Somalia’s horrific 2011 famine, Erdogan flew to Somalia to raise awareness as ordinary Turks donated en masse to famine relief efforts.

Qatar (with whom Turkey is more or less aligned in the Gulf dispute) has a relatively small military footprint abroad but is, to put it simply, very rich. This has allowed it to exert its influence in the Horn of Africa through humanitarian and development assistance, including relief efforts in Somalia during last year’s drought. In contrast to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, like Qatar, can rely on global energy markets to buoy their economies for the near future, and are therefore less concerned than Turkey with economic investment or commercial ties in East Africa. The Saudis and Emiratis do provide economic assistance to the region (and heaven knows the Saudis have funded more than a few Wahhabist mosques in East Africa) but their interests are predominantly security-related.

In 2015, the Saudis secured access to the airfields at Camp Lemonnier, the largest U.S. permanent base in Africa with roughly 4,000 troops, in order to better prosecute their operations in Yemen. Djibouti’s relations with the Saudis and Emiratis soured shortly after the Yemen intervention began, but while the Emiratis were effectively pushed out of the country, Saudi Arabia mended ties in 2016 and plans are reportedly underway for a Saudi base in the country. Djibouti leverages its geography and relative stability to earn assistance from a slew of international powers in return for access to bases on the Bab al-Mandeb. In addition to the American contingent at Lemonnier, Djibouti also hosts French, Japanese, Spanish, and Italian troops.

The UAE has taken a slightly different approach to shore up its influence in the region, working with sub-state authorities rather than going through internationally recognized governments to secure bases and influence. The UAE appears to be backing southern secessionist rebels in Yemen against the Saudi-backed and internationally recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi (Emirati-backed forces even clashed with Saudi-backed forces at Aden Airport last May). At the same time, they have established air and naval bases in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland and are investing heavily in the semi-autonomous Somali state of Puntland. The UAE also maintains a base in Eritrea’s port of Assab across the waters from the Yemeni port of Mocha, relying heavily on Eritrean airspace and coastline for their operations in Yemen following the expulsion of Emirati troops from Djibouti in 2015.

The UAE’s decision to circumvent Mogadishu and work directly with a breakaway state and a regional governments in Somalia have earned them the ire of both Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government, and also of those Somalis who wish to see a united, if federated, state. The hashtag #UAEHandsOffSomalia has been trending on Somali Twitter for months in response to what many Somalis see as Emirati attempts to undermine their country’s territorial integrity.

Both the Saudis and the Emiratis have attempted to woo Somalia in the Gulf diplomatic row by leveraging financial assistance to the country. When the crisis began in June, Riyadh reportedly offered Somalia $80 million if it broke ties with Qatar and threatened to withhold all financial aid if President Mohamed (known as “Farmajo” to Somalis) failed to do so. Somalis didn’t need to be reminded that their livestock exports, a mainstay of their underdeveloped economy, could be threatened by a Saudi or Emirati embargo, as the two countries receive more than 80 percent of Somali livestock. The Emiratis, again working behind Mogadishu’s back, convinced the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland, Galmudug, and Hirshabelle to announce their support for the Saudis and Emiratis, pushing Farmajo into another series of spats with the regional governments. The Somali federal government has remained neutral despite these pressures, which officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as effectively taking Qatar’s side (that Farmajo’s clique has strong ties to Qatar only reinforces this view). Farmajo no doubt fears that his nation’s feeble democracy, riven by clan and regional disputes and under constant attack from Al Shabaab, is expendable in the game of Gulf geopolitics. Somalis haven’t forgotten how during their country’s civil war in the 1990s, the Saudis and Qataris reportedly funneled cash and arms to the notorious warlord Mohamed Farfah Aidid, a man better known for his bold attacks on U.S. aircraft than for any unifying national vision or democratic tendencies.

Finally, there is Egypt. Egypt fears Turkish and Qatari support for Islamist movements in the region, from Libya to Gaza. Erdogan was a strong supporter of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government and has backed Qatar in the Gulf dispute. Hence Sisi’s concern over Turkey’s growing presence in Sudan, a country with a long history of backing dangerous Islamist movements in the region. Egypt’s fear that the Sudanese might reclaim the Hala’ib Triangle, which lies on the Red Sea, is amplified if Sudan is hosting Turkish soldiers on its soil.

The increased Arab and Turkish presence in East Africa represents a geopolitical shift that will have transformative effects outside of the conflict in Yemen. But looking forward, the most significant developments in the Red Sea have their origins further east in Asia. The Chinese opened their first permanent overseas base last year in none other than Djibouti. Imagery analysis suggests the base could hold most vessels in the Chinese navy. Earlier this month, General Thomas Waldhauser, chief of AFRICOM, stated in testimony before Congress that China may have cajoled Djiboutian President Omar Guelleh into cancelling a contract with the Dubai firm that manages Djibouti’s largest commercial port, anticipating that Guelleh may turn the port over to the Chinese. A permanent presence in Djibouti, coupled with China’s expansionist activities in the South China Sea, would help Beijing establish a 21st-century maritime Silk Road, with immense economic and strategic implications. Furthermore, as India works towards a “blue water” navy, we should expect that Delhi will try to play catch up with China in the region.

Greater Indian engagement with East Africa could certainly help counterbalance China’s influence across the continent, but such a seismic geopolitical shift would not be without complications. India has deep historical and cultural ties to East Africa: Early Swahili civilization was heavily shaped by migration and trade from the subcontinent, businesses in East Africa’s largest cities are often run by the descendants of Indians who migrated in the colonial era, and Indian soft power—from Bollywood programming to Bajaj auto rickshaws—is visible throughout the region. Still, Narendra Modi’s BJP seems to believe that Hindu nationalism is the foundation of India’s rise to global power. Whether or not that ideology is reflected in Delhi’s foreign policy could affect India’s ability to engage with a region that is largely Sunni, especially as Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s staunchest allies, looks set to remain a relevant force in the region.

More Than Client States: The East African Perspective

In assessing the complexities of Red Sea geopolitics, there is always a risk of imposing a simplistic and arbitrary division between the dominating “Arab” or Middle Eastern camp and the “African” camp of weak, exploited nations (never mind the fact that Sudan and Somalia are members of the Arab League or that the former is a majority-Arab nation). What little media coverage there has been of these developments has often framed them as something akin to a 21st century “Scramble for Africa,” evoking images of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 when the European powers arbitrarily carved up slices of the continent on maps that neglected to note the existence of any indigenous nations. This allusion is misleading for a number of reasons, one obviously being that no Arab or Turkish official seems to be seriously considering a large-scale nation-building effort anywhere in East Africa (color me skeptical that the average Saudi prince has much interest in mediating disputes between sub-clans of the Darod in Jubaland).

Such a comparison misses the mark in other ways, however. For one thing, we often forget that colonialism was hardly such a straightforward affair for Europeans in the first place: there were plenty of Cajamarca-like encounters of disproportionate devastation, but also quite a few of the Maji Maji, “Mad Mullah,” and Mahdist variety that proved shocking setbacks to the colonial powers (to say nothing of the Battle of Adwa, a stunning victory over the Italians that still shapes Ethiopian identity and foreign policy). More importantly, there is a greater degree of strategic parity today between East African states and the so-called middle powers of the Middle East than there ever was between most European colonial powers and African peoples. East Africa is anything but a blank landscape on which one can simply plop a base without regards to the local politics. Middle Eastern states looking to engage in the region are faced with an often-labyrinthine geopolitical situation that can easily foil the best-laid plans of skillful statesmen.

Sudan may seem reckless for leasing a strategic port to Turkey while also doubling down on its support of Saudi-Emirati efforts in Yemen, but Omar al-Bashir has a long history of playing multiple sides against each other and disappointing those who suggest that his cavalier behavior is unsustainable. His ICC warrant notwithstanding, Bashir has begun a campaign of international rehabilitation that seems to be paying off. After Bashir eliminated the last vestiges of his country’s support for international terror (such as expelling the last Hamas elements from the country) and made largely superficial improvements to his country’s humanitarian situation and democracy deficit, the State Department granted partial sanctions relief and announced its willingness to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism should progress continue. Neither Sudan’s intermittent but brutal counterinsurgency in South Khordofan and Blue Nile provinces, nor its alleged use of chemical weapons in Darfur as recently as 2016 seem to preclude improved ties with the European Union either. Sudan is still presently dependent on investment from the Gulf following years of sanctions and a loss of three quarters of its oil with South Sudan’s secession in 2011. But if Bashir can keep Sudan clean of any connections to international terrorism, he can presumably count on a gradual warming of relations with the West. Such rapprochement would bolster his economy and strengthen his international standing, putting Khartoum in a better position to dictate the terms of its relationships with Egypt, Turkey, and the Gulf powers.

Similarly, two other significant actors in the greater East Africa region, Kenya and Ethiopia, are emerging—if troubled—economic powerhouses. While the Middle Eastern powers have militaries and economies of varying strengths, none of the nations have the military capabilities, financial resources, or political will to get dragged into a protracted conflict or state-building effort in the region, especially when there’s plenty of chaos in the Middle East to keep them distracted. The Gulf’s “little Sparta,” for example, may have elite special forces, but these could only go so far in managing Somalia’s multifarious internal conflicts, which the Emiratis would be wise to avoid. This all suggests that Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf states will contain themselves to small footprints across the Horn of Africa and that their ability to leverage economic investments into political influence might be more limited than they would like to think.

The question, then, is whether the relevant East African nations can sufficiently keep their own affairs in order to avoid becoming toothless client states of the Middle Eastern powers. Sudan still faces intermittent conflict within its borders. Khartoum will also have to maintain relatively cordial relations with South Sudan—and some semblance of a state will have to exist in South Sudan—to reap the full benefits of pipeline transit fees that are integral to its economy. Neither of those scenarios are inevitable by any means, and in the meantime, Al-Bashir’s belated implementation of austerity measures have led to price hikes and shortages that have seen protests rocking Khartoum.

Ethiopia, for all its remarkable progress in development and its budding industrialization, faces a grave and violent internal crisis that fundamentally calls into question the sustainability of its state model. Somalia faces a long and arduous path ahead in forging a functional and legitimate state, while Eritrea remains internationally isolated and economically deprived so long as it maintains its repressive state model and long-running conflict with Ethiopia. Other than a border dispute with Eritrea, Djibouti seems relatively quiescent in its foreign policy and seems unlikely to protest more foreign bases so long as it has shoreline to offer. But as China’s influence in the country grows, President Guelleh may find it harder to open his doors to those nations that Beijing finds disagreeable.

Kenya, while not a Red Sea nation, has nonetheless long looked to shape developments in neighboring Somalia and draw commerce away from the Horn of Africa in favor of its ports. The country has yet to fully overcome its recent electoral crisis, and despite recent gestures of reconciliation, Nairobi’s politics remain fractious. The long-term economic prospects are accordingly uncertain, despite the country’s tremendous potential. The continued threat of Al-Shabaab throughout the north of the country also threatens investment in the massive Lamu port under construction near the Somali border, while Kenya has been losing out on key infrastructure projects to neighboring Tanzania..

Connecting the Dots

The geopolitics of the Red Sea defy easy categorization or convenient narratives. For Western observers hoping to make sense of it all, oversimplification is a constant temptation, but one that must be resisted. What we are seeing in the Horn of Africa is not a new wave of colonization, nor a coming war between East African and Middle Eastern states over control of the Red Sea. Rather, we must understand that while the historic developments in the Red Sea may be the result of evolving power dynamics in the Middle East, they are also shaped by African geopolitics.

Just as the GERD dispute shows Egypt’s inability to control the actions of its neighbors upstream, the Middle Eastern states inching into the Horn of Africa must navigate complex political realities that we in the West often dismiss as insignificant in the realm of international politics—if  we don’t ignore them altogether. Our analysis of the region must be colored not only by events in the Persian Gulf or Afrin, but also by disputes between regional governments in Somalia, evolving relations between Oromo and Amhara communities in Ethiopia, and bread riots in Omdurman, to take just a few examples.

My Somali friend likes to remind me that for all of his country’s problems, every outside power that has attempted to remake Somalia in their own image has left hanging their head in despair. “We Somalis alone decide our future,” he says, “for better or worse.” The Sheikhs of the Gulf may soon learn that lesson.

Published on: March 23, 2018

James Barnett : Public Interest Fellow in Washington, DC.

James Barnett is a Public Interest Fellow in Washington, DC.


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