OP-ED: Analyzing the UAE’s Strategic Investments and Maritime Involvement in Ethiopia, an Inland Nation: Vision or Ambition?

Op-ed: Analyzing The Uae's Strategic Investments And Maritime Involvement In Ethiopia, An Inland Nation: Vision Or Ambition?

OP-ED: The UAE’s Strategic Investment and Maritime Engagement in Landlocked Ethiopia: Vision or Ambition?

The rise of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a major player in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, cannot be attributed to chance or mere goodwill. The deliberate and strategic efforts by the Emirati leadership to invest heavily in the region highlight a vision that combines diplomacy and economics.

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To understand the appeal of Ethiopia, it is important to recognize its large population and abundant labor force, making it a significant consumer market. With its diverse economy and vast agricultural potential, Ethiopia has long been seen as a powerhouse in Africa. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the UAE views Ethiopia as a strong partner, not only for immediate economic benefits but also for long-term strategic alliances.

The UAE’s involvement in Ethiopia goes beyond infrastructure projects, investments in energy and agriculture, and diplomatic initiatives. While there is an apparent economic motivation, there is more to the story. The fact that landlocked Ethiopia is investing in a navy raises questions about the waters it intends to protect. Many Somalis expressed concern when former President Mohamed Farmaajo announced Ethiopia’s plans to invest in four ports in Somalia.

At the core of the UAE’s engagement in Ethiopia is the need to safeguard its interests in the Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb Strait, a critical chokepoint for global trade. Ensuring stability in the Horn of Africa directly contributes to maritime security for the UAE, given its proximity to these vital waterways.

However, viewing the UAE’s involvement purely as a transactional endeavor would be oversimplifying. The nation has consistently utilized its soft power globally, forming partnerships based on mutual respect and shared values. Ethiopia is no exception. By funding projects that have a positive impact on society, such as education, healthcare, and sustainable agriculture, the UAE is positioning itself as a holistic partner in Ethiopia’s growth story.

Although the UAE’s intentions appear clear and strategic, the relationship comes with challenges. Ethiopia’s volatile political landscape, ethnic tensions, and ongoing dispute with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam add complexity to the partnership. The UAE must navigate carefully, balancing its ties with other regional powers and ensuring that its investments do not unintentionally contribute to internal conflicts.

The UAE’s involvement in Ethiopia reflects its global aspirations and its vision for a more integrated and stable Horn of Africa. It is an ambitious endeavor with challenges, but if managed skillfully, it could open a new chapter in East-West relations, with the UAE and Ethiopia at the center. Only time will tell if this partnership will thrive as a lasting bond or if geopolitical tensions will steer it in a different direction.

The UAE’s decision to sign a maritime agreement with landlocked Ethiopia may raise eyebrows initially. However, a closer look reveals deeper motivations rooted in geopolitical strategy and the shifting power dynamics of the region.

While Ethiopia lacks a coastline, it has historically sought access to sea ports for trade, heavily relying on its neighboring countries. The agreement with the UAE symbolizes Ethiopia’s pursuit of greater autonomy in the maritime domain. By partnering with the UAE, Ethiopia positions itself to potentially shape future port development and logistics in the region.

Furthermore, the UAE’s involvement sends a message to other regional powers like Turkey and Qatar that it remains a formidable player in the Horn of Africa, regardless of direct access to the sea.

It would be a significant oversight to disregard Somalia, given its strategic location near the Red Sea and its long coastline. The UAE has had economic and political involvement with Somalia historically. However, differences have emerged over time, including Emirati ventures in regions like Somaliland and Puntland, as well as differing views on the Qatar-Gulf crisis, straining the bond between Mogadishu and Abu Dhabi.

Engaging with Somalia requires a delicate balance, considering the dynamics between the federal government and regional states. Additionally, the perception of foreign interference could be counterproductive in a nation where nationalism is deeply rooted.

Taking a geostrategic viewpoint, the larger geopolitical game also comes into play. The UAE, along with other global actors, closely monitors China’s increasing presence in Africa, particularly in ports and infrastructure. Ensuring a friendly partner in Ethiopia who can counterbalance or influence regional port development is a move that looks beyond immediate gains and focuses on the broader strategic landscape.

The UAE’s strategic maneuvers in the Horn of Africa highlight the importance of looking beyond surface-level analysis. In international relations, symbolism, long-term vision, and geopolitical considerations often guide decisions more than straightforward economic benefits. The success of the UAE’s strategies hinges on the evolving dynamics of the region and its ability to navigate the complex political landscape of East Africa.

The people and the Federal Government of Somalia closely observe these developments, recognizing Somalia’s integral role in the growth strategies of the Horn of Africa. Somalia is essentially the heart of the region.

-Ismail D. Osman: Former Deputy Director of Somalia National Intelligence & Security Agency (NISA) – Writes on governance and security in Somalia, Horn of Africa Security and Geopolitics. You can reach him at osmando@gmail.com or @osmando

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