Ethiopia and the Arab overture – conclusion

By Tesfu Telahoun Abebe – I would like to start off the third and final installment of ‘Ethiopia and the Arab Overture’ by momentarily digressing to momentous events occurring across our western borders. I applaud and salute the great people of Sudan on finally achieving a golden opportunity to reverse the ravages of over three decades of despotic and genocidal dictatorship.

The agreement to install a civilian majority administration came at a cost but the sacrifices have not been in vain. The historic accord is also welcome good news to the African Union and to Ethiopia, both of which played instrumental roles throughout the negotiations.



Ethiopians should be aware that the successful outcome was based on the basic framework and parameters recommended by prime minister Abiy Ahmed and competently guided by his special envoy.

It was and is incumbent on Ethiopia to play a constructive role in any crisis affecting a neighboring nation since consequences of inaction are unpalatable to all. Such proactive diplomacy strengthens Africa’s sense of unity and also serves to remind numerous foreign actors that pan-African solidarity if not well, is at least alive. Would more of Africa’s seemingly intractable problems be solved by Africans! I wish Sudan all the best of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous future. Kudos to all!

Arab eyes have always cast a covetous eye on their closest African neighbors across the Red Sea. However, this age-old hankering has intensified during the last decade and especially since the onset of the war-turned-quagmire in impoverished and emasculated Yemen. Although different Arab (and others) states have varying agendas and levels of involvement, the stand out interventionists are Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the UAE.

The UAE will mark 50 years of unified statehood in 2021 while KSA will mark the 100th year of its establishment in 2022. Like most contemporary Middle Eastern and African states, the UAE and KSA are ‘colonially engineered’ political entities. In relation to the antiquity in history of the uninterrupted existence of the Ethiopic state they are mere infants.

And yet, as Ethiopia stagnated and eventually withered into its current landlocked and ethnically stratified impotence, the UAE and KSA have risen to prominence and influence, propelled by the bounty of oil and increasingly egotistical rulers.

So what do they want from Africa and particularly from Ethiopia?

Numerous writers and observers of Arab and Horn of Africa dynamics agree that the lead Arab powers (UAE and KSA) seek the following three objectives:

*secure allies and malleable partners against their equally interventionist rivals; mainly Turkey, Qatar and Iran, in the larger game for hegemony and religious supremacy.

*secure rearguard supply routes and logistical positions and military bases especially in regard to the war being waged on Yemen.

*secure readily available and well watered, fertile crop land to meet their domestic food requirements

While I fully concur with the above I must also add a no less important, fourth objective.
This is the growing dependence of wealthy Arab states on cheap and abundant labor. Each year hundreds of thousands of young and largely uneducated Ethiopians cross the Red Sea both through legal channels as well as illegal migrant workers.

The ancient slave routes have transformed into an organized industry with recruitment and employment agencies. There are websites specifically dedicated to obtaining East African-mainly Ethiopian-workers chiefly women for domestic service jobs.

Systemic persecution and mistreatment, poor working conditions, low and frequently tardy pay-if at all, are the lot of migrant domestic workers. Each day at Bole International, several bodies of Ethiopian women are repatriated to be sent unceremoniously to their rural villages.

And yet, poverty in Ethiopia is so intolerable that girls (and boys) still leave in huge numbers for a harsh yet somehow better life in an Arab desert. Such is our condition that in our dealings with the UAE, KSA and any other Arab state our bargaining positions are compromised by our impoverished situation.

In fact, after 27 years of organized looting of the nation by what must rank as Africa’s most ruthless kleptocracy, Ethiopia is at its weakest point-diplomatically, economically and politically. In the give and take reality of geopolitics, one must negotiate from a position of strength or settle for whatever is on the table.

Such as it is, I would not have perceived the Arab overture as a threat. Were all things equal or at least comparative, Ethiopia would actually benefit from the relationship.

Be that as it may, Ethiopia and Africa in general should keep in mind that the Arab states are a fickle bunch who quarrel easily and make up just as quickly. It would not do to befriend one over the other as they will inevitably make up down the road.

Ethiopia should avoid as it commendably has so far, entanglement in Middle East affairs. Also, there needs to be a recognition by the PM Abiy administration that there is a fine line between drawing foreign investment and preserving sovereignty.

By all means let’s engage with the Arabs and indeed all nations of the world. But let’s be wise about it so that we will never give more than we receive and they don’t get more than they give.