The Renaissance Dam crisis and the tension in Saudi-Ethiopian relations – international sites

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Al-Monitor published an article by writer Samuel Ramani in which he addressed the recent tensions in relations between Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia and the expulsion of Ethiopian workers from Saudi Arabia against the backdrop of the Renaissance Dam crisis. The writer believes that the two countries, despite these tensions, will ensure the continuation of cooperation and relations between them. We present the following. .
On July 6, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced its support for the water rights of Egypt and Sudan, and supported a solution to the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis involving the Arab League and the African Union. This statement came one day after Ethiopia started the second filling of the dam’s reservoir and in light of the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia and the return of 40,000 Ethiopians working in the Kingdom to their country over a period of two weeks last June.
The interpretation of the Kingdom’s policy in its support for Egypt and Sudan in the Renaissance Dam crisis and the undermining of its relations with Ethiopia can be traced back to two factors: First, the Saudi position is in line with the Kingdom’s principle of Arab solidarity during regional security crises. Abdullah Musa al-Tayer, head of the Gulf Future Center in London, told Al-Monitor that Saudi Arabias membership in the Arab League forces it to ally with other Arab countries. This explains Saudi Arabias support for Egypt during the Doha meetings on the Renaissance Dam and the efforts of the Arab League to settle the dam dispute in the UN Security Council. Al-Tayer also indicated that Saudi public opinion strongly supports Egypt’s side in the Renaissance Dam dispute.
Secondly, the Kingdom’s role in playing a greater role in the Renaissance Dam crisis will strengthen its position as a guarantor of security in the Red Sea. Although Saudi Arabia became the leader of a security alliance in the Red Sea in January 2020, it played little role in preventing a crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia that would destabilize the entire region. The United Arab Emirates benefited from its balanced approach to mediate between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, Qatar recently hosted a meeting of the Arab League on the Renaissance Dam dispute, and Saudi Arabia was clearly inactive. Through its recent statements, Saudi Arabia can make Qatar the main supporter of Arab solidarity in the Renaissance Dam crisis and prove that it no longer delegates the security of the Red Sea to the UAE.
Although Saudi Arabias expanded diplomatic role in the Renaissance Dam crisis is beneficial to its standing, Riyadh is unlikely to emulate the Emirati mediation efforts. Talal Al-Faisal, a Saudi businessman and member of the royal family, told Al-Monitor that the Kingdom will not play a mediating role in the Renaissance Dam crisis unless it guarantees the success of its mediation. Although Saudi Arabia played a pivotal role in facilitating the 2018 Ethiopia-Eritrea peace agreement in Jeddah, Faisal believes that Riyadh will not be seen as an impartial mediator in the Renaissance Dam crisis and cannot play a large role as it did between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
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Ethiopia strongly opposes Saudi Arabias efforts to involve the Arab League in the Renaissance Dam crisis, as it believes that the dispute over the Renaissance Dam is technical and should not be internationalized. On July 5, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeki Mekonnen sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council, in which he condemned the participation of the Arab League and emphasized the effectiveness of the African Union to host the tripartite negotiations. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry also described the intervention of the Arab League as “unwelcome interference” after the latter raised the dispute over the Renaissance Dam in the Security Council. Ethiopian media accused the Arab League of racism by undermining the influence of the African Union on an African issue and claimed that Arabs are conspiring to control water resources in the Middle East and North Africa.
Despite the vitriolic rhetoric that accompanied the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam crisis, it is unlikely that there will be a long-term disruption in Saudi-Ethiopian relations. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s first trip outside Africa to Saudi Arabia was in May 2018, and Saudi investments in the manufacturing, tourism and energy sectors have accelerated since Abiy Ahmed took power.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia have a specific ceiling, and this is reflected in the behavior of the two countries. Despite the kingdom’s alliance with Egypt, it did not put pressure on Ethiopia to stop filling the dam. Teshum Burago, an Ethiopian journalist and political analyst, told Al-Monitor that the Arab League’s statements about the Renaissance Dam are being formulated in Cairo “without pluralistic action and do not carry political weight.” Borago notes that relations between Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia have been strengthened after Riyadh supported Egypt on the Renaissance Dam, and Borago saw that evidence of this is what Saudi Arabia allocated millions of dollars to ease pressures on the Ethiopian currency. On a similar note, Idris Ayat, a specialist in Gulf-African relations based in Kuwait, told Al-Monitor that Saudi Arabia did not use its position as Ethiopia’s fourth largest exporter and third largest investor in the Ethiopian economy to influence Ethiopia’s policy towards the Renaissance Dam.
Ethiopias foreign policy decisions on regional crises are also conservative in comparison to its rhetoric. Ethiopias handling of the Fashqa border dispute with Sudan could reflect the way Ethiopia deals with Saudi Arabia. Dawit Yohannes, an expert at the Institute for African Security Studies in Addis Ababa, told Al-Monitor that Ethiopia has avoided opening a new military front against Sudan, despite Khartoum’s pro-Egypt stance on the Renaissance Dam and the incursions on its borders. Yohannes predicted that Ethiopia would “choose its battles” and work to preserve its relations with Saudi Arabia and reduce Saudi bias toward Egypt.
Moreover, the departure of Ethiopian workers from Saudi Arabia is unlikely to lead to lasting friction in bilateral relations. Borago noted that Saudi Arabias previous expulsion of Ethiopian workers had no effect on the relationship between Riyadh and Addis Ababa, and concluded that Saudi Arabia expelled the workers to appease the nationalist sentiments of Saudi citizens. As a result, Borago asserts, “the two sides view their long-standing political, economic, historical and diplomatic relations as more extensive than the treatment of immigrants.”
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As the third anniversary of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea approaches in Jeddah, Saudi-Ethiopian relations are facing the most difficult moment in the era of Abi Ahmed. While disagreements over the Renaissance Dam and the treatment of Ethiopian workers in Saudi Arabia will continue to fester, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia are likely to maintain their cooperation in the coming months.Prepared by: Ibtihal Ahmed Abdelghani
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