Ethiopia and the Arab Overture, part 2

NBE Blog

By Tesfu Telahoun Abebe – I concluded the first part of this series by introducing Ahmad ibn Majib, (?1432-1500?) the Persian Gulf’s legendary ‘Lion of the Seas’.

Hailing (arguably) from the al-Qwassim tribe of present day Ras al Khaima and by extension to the UAE, he is also claimed by Oman, among others. Always controversial, even the story about Majib helping Vasco da Gama (I apologize for the relevant typo in part 1) find the route to India is hotly contested.

Also, was he just a brilliant, good willed sea farer or was he the leader of a fleet of pirates? Was he both? We do know for sure that he was a poet of the seas as his voluminous writings attest. “A teacher-the captain or commander of the ship must be pious and just, never oppressive, always obedient to Allah, properly mindful of Allah in ALL HIS ACTIONS.”

However, his famed poetry and strict piety do not impress my pan-African mind set as records show that enslaved East Africans-Ethiopians included-were among the ‘goods’ on ibn-Majib’s ocean crossing dhows.

Be that as it may, ibn Majib and other Bedouin Arab seafarers before and after him empowered their ruling emirs and sultans with some of the finest technology of the time-intimate knowledge of sea routes, prevailing currents and tropical weather systems.

The otherwise impoverished, quasi-settled and territorially minor emirates and sultanates were able to project hard and soft power far and wide, swiftly dominating key positions on East Africa’s coastal peripheries. Their main rivals were the Ottoman enemy, the erstwhile Portuguese and much later, the British Empire.

It was with a similar but even more comprehensive maritime advantage that Portugal became a preeminent super power. The Arabian shoreline running south-southeast from the Qatari peninsula to the Straits of Hormuz and the Omani coast was referred to as the ‘Pirate Coast’.

This British conceived description stuck for nearly three centuries, a period during which the British lionized East-West trade under a self bequeathed royal ‘charter’ in 1559.

It was only in 1820 that this still controversial name was changed to the ‘Trucial States’. This came about following the phased signing of a series of agreements (1820, 1843, 1853, 1892) and known as a ‘perpetual treaty’ between Great Britain and nine emirates and sultanates.

The 1892 document made the nine territories into British protectorates, a status that ended in 1971/72 as seven of the nine emirates created the UAE while Bahrain and Qatar opted for their own sovereignty.

The stipulations were that the British would provide protection from the hated Ottomans while the Trucial States would cede territory only to the United Kingdom, terminate raiding British and allied western shipping in the Gulf but more importantly on the sea routes to the British occupied Indian subcontinent.

The 1843 treaty also gave tacit approval for the Arab’s to gain largely unchallenged access to Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. As the British exploited India so did Arab profiteers, slavers and eventually, direct Arab colonialism in Africa.

The African continent’s human and natural resources-often plundered- supplemented Arabian economies which until petroleum came to the rescue in the early 20th century, relied on meager earnings from pearl diving, date farming and fishing.

As successive African kingdoms and statelets on the Indian Ocean coast fell to either Ottoman or Arab rule spearheaded by Omani sultans, Ethiopia as usual managed to preserve its sovereignty. Yet, while the then great Ethiopia has been comfortable to remain in obscurity and endemic poverty, the UAE has come a long way from its origins as a muggy backwater.

Awash with ever-increasing wealth on lavish display, the UAE effectively dominates regional trade activities. The emirate exerts an influence far larger than implied by a population of less than 2 million. This power is at play in Ethiopia with the UAE already splashing out over 4 billion USD counting. What does the emirate want from Ethiopia? – this is surely not a free meal.

(I’ll explore this crucial aspect in the final part next week)