The Houthis see the attacks in the Red Sea as part of a broader political project that goes back decades.
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Attempts to resolve the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute over the past decade have reached a deadlock. The dispute has prompted numerous international interventions, including by Gulf Arab states, which have issued political statements and led mediation efforts. The significance of Gulf involvement was highlighted by the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa’s June visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (in addition to Kenya) to discuss how to resolve the GERD dispute. Gulf Arab states’ interest in resolving the crisis stems from their growing interests in the Horn of Africa, strong political and economic ties with the three river basin countries involved, and experience in mediating conflicts in the Horn of Africa.
Political disputes over the Nile among Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia have been part of the regional discourse for decades. However, tensions have grown since Ethiopia began building the dam in April 2011. Egypt has repeatedly rejected the construction and filling of the GERD, fearing its negative implications on its water security since the Nile provides over 90% of Egypt’s water supply. Egypt is also concerned with Ethiopia’s growing control over the river’s flow as its highlands are the main source of the Nile’s water. On the other hand, Sudan fears the dam could affect the livelihoods of around 20 million of its people. Egypt and Sudan’s opposition to the GERD is also triggered by concerns related to climate change and population growth prompting both countries to actively try to slow down the process of filling the dam. Ethiopia, on the other hand, aims to fill the GERD’s reservoir by 2023 to generate more electricity.
Numerous attempts have been made to settle this dispute, but none has led to a deal that would satisfy the interests of all three countries. Having strong ties with Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia and a growing interest in the region, the Gulf states have expressed an interest in a resolution that would appeal to all parties. Some Gulf states are even playing a mediating role to try to resolve the dispute, particularly Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, which have a track record in mediating conflicts in the Horn of Africa. But, while they are working to resolve the dispute, there is a degree of divergence in the positions of the Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman have expressed support for Egypt and Sudan, claiming that the two countries’ water security is integral to Arab national security. However, they have expressed support for dialogue under international supervision to reach a resolution that would satisfy all parties to the dispute.
Saudi Arabia Draws on Ties and Mediation Successes
Saudi Arabia welcomed the agreement by Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to return to talks about the GERD discussed at the July 2020 Bureau of the African Union Assembly and has shown interest in mediating the dispute. After holding meetings with Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Sudanese officials, in February, Saudi Minister of State for African Affairs Amhed Al Qatan said the kingdom would hold a summit to address the crisis. Saudi Arabia is drawing on its strong political and economic ties with Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia as the kingdom seeks an active role in mediating the conflict.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with Egypt have strengthened since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power following the 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned government in Egypt. Since then, the two countries have been on the same side of multiple regional disputes, including the boycott of Qatar and supporting General Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army. Saudi Arabia also has strong economic ties with Egypt. In 2018, trade volume between Egypt and Saudi Arabia amounted to $7.3 billion, while Saudi Arabia’s direct investment in Egypt was $3.4 billion. In 2019, Saudi investments in Egypt reached $54 billion.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with Sudan have likewise strengthened since Sudan joined the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in 2015. Riyadh has provided substantial aid to Khartoum while also increasing investments. In March, Saudi and Sudanese officials met to discuss boosting Saudi investments in the Red Sea, and Saudi Arabia committed to invest $3 billion in a joint fund with Sudan.
Saudi Arabia has also maintained strong economic and political ties with Ethiopia. According to Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia is one of its main export destinations. Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, noted that the number of Saudi investments from 2000 to 2017 in Ethiopia significantly surpassed those of the kingdom’s Gulf neighbors. Additionally, most of Riyadh’s investments in the Horn of Africa are in Ethiopia. Trade volume between the two countries from 2012 to 2018 totaled around $6.5 billion dollars. And in 2019, Riyadh agreed to loan Addis Ababa $140 million toward infrastructure and energy.
Gulf Investments in the Horn of Africa (2000-17)
Saudi Arabia’s interest in the stability and security of the Horn of Africa is evident in previous diplomatic efforts in the region. In September 2018 in Jeddah, hosted by King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace deal formally ending two decades of hostility. One day later, the presidents of Eritrea and Djibouti also met in Saudi Arabia for talks on their border dispute. The kingdom also launched the Council of Arab and African States in January 2020. The initiative was signed by eight countries, including Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Egypt, aiming to address smuggling and piracy across the Red Sea to support stability in the region. Saudi Arabia has the successes it has had in such regional peacebuilding initiatives to build on in its efforts to mediate the GERD dispute, which could also further solidify its influence in the region.
The UAE has not issued a statement supporting any specific country, so its position is not as clear as that of other Gulf states. It has, however, joined its Gulf neighbors in stating its support for a diplomatic dialogue among the three countries that ensures the water security of all parties. The UAE has also expressed interest in playing a mediating role. In January, a UAE official delegation visited Sudan to assist with an agreement on the GERD and offered to mediate talks. Two months later, Sudan announced its support for the Emirati mediation proposal.
The UAE enjoys strong relations with Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Politically, the UAE and Egypt have aligned on various issues including limiting Turkish influence. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s ties with Egypt have grown stronger since 2013. In 2019, the two countries agreed to create a $20 billion investment fund that supports economic and social projects in Egypt and the UAE. And in March, the UAE’s ambassador to Egypt expressed Abu Dhabi’s interest in boosting all areas of cooperation with Egypt, specifically doubling the UAE’s investments.
Abu Dhabi and Khartoum have also increased ties since Sudan joined the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war. The UAE has since made significant humanitarian aid donations to Khartoum and has recently pledged $50 million for economic growth projects across Sudan.
Additionally, the UAE has strong political and economic ties with Ethiopia. Trade between Addis Ababa and Abu Dhabi between 2010 and 2019 totaled around $450 million.
Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has a history of diplomacy and mediation in the Horn of Africa. In 2018, the UAE’s strong ties with both Eritrea and Ethiopia helped Abu Dhabi broker the peace agreement between the warring neighbors. The UAE seemingly led the mediation efforts and urged the international community to endorse the peace deal. More recently, the UAE offered to mediate the violent dispute over the fertile al-Fashaqa area between Sudan and Ethiopia by proposing agricultural schemes for Ethiopians to cultivate 25% of the land. However, Sudan rejected the Emirati initiative in April, and the UAE withdrew from mediating the dispute in the interest of preserving its relationship with both countries.
The UAE’s track record of promoting stability in the Horn of Africa and its strong ties with Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia have helped Abu Dhabi to play a mediating role in the GERD dispute. Additionally, the UAE’s involvement is expanding its influence in the Horn of Africa.
Qatar Looks to Restored and Sustained Ties
Qatar is also looking for a role to play in mediating the GERD dispute but has not expressed support for any one party in the dispute. And prior to January, Doha’s relationship with Cairo was tense as Egypt was among the countries boycotting Qatar. However, Qatar and Egypt have quickly worked on restoring their ties and have expressed interest in developing their relationship. In May, Egypt’s president and Qatar’s foreign minister met in an effort to increase coordination and cooperation between both countries.
Despite regional animosity toward Qatar from some of its Gulf neighbors and Egypt, Sudan was able to maintain strong relations with Doha. In 2020, Qatari exports to Sudan reached $37.36 million. Sudan’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, remained neutral regarding the boycott, which helped Sudan sustain its ties with all the Gulf Arab countries while also receiving significant amounts of aid from them.
In 2008, Ethiopia’s prime minister accused Qatar of supporting instability and terrorism in the Horn of Africa due to Doha’s backing of the al-Shabab Islamist militant group in Sudan and the Eritrean government. Five years later, however, the two countries restored their diplomatic ties, and, in 2016, they signed 11 agreements and memorandums of understanding for cooperation.
Qatar has also engaged in peacebuilding efforts in the Horn of Africa. Qatar aided in brokering the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2011, hosted the International Donor Conference for Reconstruction and Development in Darfur in 2013 where it pledged to raise $7.2 billion, and took part in the final signing ceremony of the peace agreement between Sudanese armed movements and the transitional government of Sudan in 2020.
Qatar’s growing relations with Egypt, diplomatic ties with both Ethiopia and Sudan, and role as a mediator in conflicts in the Middle East and Horn of Africa have helped position Doha to play a more active role in the GERD dispute today. Qatar already hosted a discussion in Doha among Arab League foreign ministers in June aimed at finding a resolution that would involve the United Nations Security Council. This resolution, however, was quickly rejected by Ethiopia.
Solidifying Gulf Influence
While some Gulf Arab states have expressed support for Egypt and Sudan, some are also taking a more active role in mediating the dispute, utilizing their strong ties with the three parties involved. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have experience in brokering negotiations in the Horn of Africa, which increases their credibility as mediators in the GERD dispute. And the significance of Gulf involvement is accentuated by requests from the United States and the three river basin countries for their participation. The Gulf states have substantial economic and political stakes in the Horn of Africa that they are looking to maintain and expand by carefully positioning themselves as neutral actors. Their mediation efforts could solidify their influence in the Horn of Africa, making them indispensable allies for countries in the region.
is a former research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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