Ethiopia and the Arab overture

NBE Blog

By Tesfu Telahoun Abebe – Relations between Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula have blossomed ever since the political changes in Ethiopia which thrust the charismatic yet embattled Abiy Ahmed into power.

Ethiopia has by and large maintained at worst cordial and at best warm relationships with most if not all of the countries in the so called Arab World. It has managed to steer clear of intra-Arab entanglements and has even posed as a distant and impartial mediator. Ethiopia also enjoys very strong and growing ties with Israel, a nation which, like the Arab states, shares ancient bonds with Ethiopia.

Furthermore, though fraught with a mutual wariness, Ethiopia has achieved a certain level of detente with erstwhile rival Egypt and Cairo seems to have finally come to terms with the inevitability of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Ethiopia has also maintained a consistently courteous yet distant relationship with Iran, although this is nowhere near the levels of diplomatic, political and military cooperation during the imperial eras of the respective nations.

This three-part series aims to explore Ethiopia’s current relationship with a region which impacts the African nation in numerous ways-good and bad.
It will examine whether Ethiopia is a mere pawn in a rich man’s game or a key player in a dynamic yet turbulent region. Also, given Ethiopia’s increasingly Cody ties to certain Arabian states, can it maintain its carefully crafted neutrality which has enabled it to befriend Sunni, Shia and Jewish countries at the same time.

The so called Arab World sputtered on through decades of political if not economic stagnation right up to the also so called Arab Spring of 2011.

That sweeping sandstorm of change brought about popular revolutions and counter-revolutions, civil wars, wars by proxy and increased tensions among the region’s disparate ethnic, religious and geo-political divides.

For better or worse, willingly or otherwise, the respective ‘leaderships’ of most middle eastern states have somehow yanked themselves out of comfortably lubricated complacency and stagnation. Not only are they more acutely sensitive to the demands and grievances of their citizens but they have also been reaching out beyond their immediate region.

Nowhere is the resurgence of Arab strategic engagement as evident as it has been in Africa and particularly in the Horn of Africa sub-region. And, if we zoom in even closer, all eyes-Arab that is-are focusing on Ethiopia.

It would be an understatement to say that Ethiopia and the (Eurocentric defined) general Middle East know each other well. Too well, in fact, many on both sides of the Red Sea would agree.

With the possible exception of the launch codes for thermonuclear warheads, few things are as jealously guarded as trade secrets and other forms intellectual property.

Computer program source codes, satellite encryption keys, chemical and material sciences formulae and other sophisticated technologies are among the critical elements which allow powerful companies and states to maintain their political and economic edge over ever inquisitive and probing rivals and wannabes.

This holds true for legacy brands such as Coca-Cola, Chanel and Alka-Seltzer as it does for contemporary companies like Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. Their success is entirely dependent on the continuing inaccessibility of the formulas and codes which power the core product(s) they so profitably sell globally. This has always been true throughout history.

Turn the clock back to the early 15th and up to the late 18th century and we find that the most sought after commodity were navigation maps. He (never she) who possessed accurate maps and charts literally ruled the known world.

The Portuguese efficiently and often brutally utilized their virtual monopoly in the knowledge of maritime navigation and the secrets of long distance seafaring.

However this knowledge was also available to the Bedouin Arab tribes which lived along the coast of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. In fact, it was one such seafaring Arab who actually showed Vasco da Gama how to best sail to India.

Vancouver da Gama was the father of Cristovao da Gama. This gallant young man was to meet his end in Ethiopia while fighting alongside Emperor Gelawdiyos against Ahmed ‘Gragn’. Referred to as ‘lion of the sea’ his full name is in itself a story:

Shihab al-Din Ahmad ibn Majid ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Umar ibn Fadl ibn Duwayk inn Yusuf ibn Hassan Ibn Husayn ibn Abi Ma’laq al-Sa’di ibn Abi Rakaib al-Najdi. This fantastic name has thankfully been shortened to Ahmad ibn Majib and even just Majib.
(Continues next week)