Zigzag Diplomacy: Ethiopian-Qatari Diplomatic Relations and their Implications By Aklog Birara (Ph.D.)

June 12th, 2013 Print Print Email Email

Given its ideal geopolitical location, Ethiopia’s trade, economic, cultural and diplomatic ties to North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and South Asia and beyond predate Egyptian civilization. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that has had very close links and interactions to all of the world’s major Abrahamic religions, namely, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is not only this that makes the country unique. Ethiopia is the country of the First Hijra in the history of Islam and the oldest Muslim settlement in Africa. This did not happen through invasion or forcible occupation. It occurred at the request of the Prophet Mohamed and at the willingness and welcoming of the Christian Ethiopian Emperor a t the time. What is remarkable is that the historic tie between the Arab and Islamic world on the one hand and Ethiopia on the other was cemented by a Christian, peaceful, relatively stable and unified Ethiopia that was gracious and kind enough to cheerfully give refuge to the family of the Prophet Mohamed and his followers. History tells us that, in 615 AD, when faced with persecutions, the Prophet “instructed his followers to flee Mecca and cross the Red Sea and find a safe haven in the neighboring Ethiopian Christian Kingdom.”

As a consequence, Ethiopia’s relations with the Arab world in general and with Islam in particular can be characterized as relatively unique and full of promise. Equally remarkable and noteworthy is the fact that, at the time, Ethiopia had access to and influence in the Red Sea, a fact that was subsequently rejected by some Arab governments. Nevertheless, this promise in relations between Ethiopia and the Arab and Islamic world assumes recognition of national interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity and the unique cultural, social, political, economic, security and other attributes that characterize countries regardless of their level of development, ideological tendencies and religions. What matters most is the world that is unfolding in front of us.

Except for a five year interlude emanating from Italian Fascist aggression and occupation that interrupted its remarkable history of continuity, Ethiopia is the only continuously independent country in Africa and, arguably, the origin of humankind and one of the oldest civilizations in the world. It is also a mosaic of varied ethnic groups and home to three major religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. A substantial Jewish population who resided in the Ethiopian highlands for thousands of years was resettled in Israel in the 1980s. Its cultural imprints persist. In their 2012 book, Abyssinian Christianity: the first Christian Nation, Mario Alexis Portella and Abba Abraham Buruk Woldegaber, present a powerful and profound argument that “Ethiopia was the first Christian Nation,” with the Ethiopian Orthodox faith decreed as a state religion in 218 AD, almost four hundred years before the country welcomed and hosted followers of the Prophet Mohamed, in 615 AD. World history is replete with references to Ethiopia. Nowhere else is this more pronounced than in the Bible in which Ethiopia is mentioned more than 40 times? The country’s special relationship with the Arab World and Islam and with Israel is, in part, linked to its strategic geopolitical position in the Horn of Africa and at the heart of the Blue Nile or Abbay River. Ethiopia’s identity and history is linked to its rivers and waterways.

Ethiopia is not part of North Africa or the Middle East. However, its trade, economic, cultural and historical linkages and interactions have been primarily with North Africa, especially Egypt and the Sudan, the Middle East, especially Israel, Palestine, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Region and South Asia, especially India. Its faith has consistently been monotheism reinforcing its links to the world’s Abrahamic faiths and to the Old Testament. In referring to Ethiopia over and over again, the scriptures, Romans, Greeks and others mention to the notion that “the Garden of Eden” may be in the vicinity of the Ethiopian Highlands and its river basins. This may or may not be the case. What is important to note is the contention that is now backed by archaeological findings in the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia that Ethiopia is among the world’s hub in the creation and evolution of humankind and of world civilization. I refer to the discovery of Lucy or what Ethiopians call Dinknesh. This augments the argument that Ethiopia is indeed one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Why is this so significant in terms of diplomatic relations with Qatar and other Arab and Islamic nations? From time immemorial, Ethiopia’s relations with the outside world have been governed and guided by its access to the Red Sea; its legitimacy and right in the use of its rivers and water basins; its unique history, culture and identity as an independent and sovereign nation; its determination to grow its national economy and join the family of developed nations; and its current resolve to defeat “terrorism” in the Horn of Africa. These national interests require cultivating relations with a variety of nations that may not necessarily be ideologically and culturally compatible. Ethiopia and Ethiopians have always fought for legitimacy and acceptance; and this will persist for ages.

Historically, the domain that is Ethiopia extended far beyond the Red Sea, and during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s internationally recognized geopolitical space or sovereignty extended from the Northern tip of present day Eritrea on the Red Sea to the town of Moyale on the Kenyan border and to areas adjacent to today’s Southern Sudan and the traditional boundary with Northern Sudan. Accordingly, Ethiopia had access to the sea; it had a relatively sophisticated navy and Assab served as the primary seaport for Ethiopian trade with the outside world. Today, Ethiopia is one of the largest landlocked countries in the world. This is one of the areas of diplomatic uneasiness between Ethiopia on the one hand and the Arab world on the other. The fact that Ethiopia had served as safe haven for the “family and followers of the Prophet” has not necessarily served Ethiopia well, many Ethiopian experts so argue. Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi and other Arab governments supported secessionists including Eritreans and this has a lingering and adverse impact in Ethiopia’s relations with Arab nations.

Since the introduction of Islam in the seventh century, Ethiopia has served as a model of peaceful and mutually respectful home for Christians and Muslims. Similar to Christians, Ethiopian Muslims hail from all ethnic groups. They live and work in almost all corners of the country and share the distinctive attribute of belonging to Ethiopia as Ethiopians. It is this commonality of belonging to one country above and beyond religion that helped Ethiopians to defend themselves in unison against foreign aggression for more than 3,000 years. Many Ethiopian and foreign experts contend that it is this distinctiveness in the evolution of Christianity, Islam and Judaism as well as other cultures and values that offer Ethiopians their own unique national identity as people. I refer to the argument that the Christian, Judaic and Muslim faiths have evolved as distinct creations of Ethiopians and must retain their unique identities in the future.

Ethiopia continues to be a predominantly Christian country. According to the Ethiopian Government’s 2007 census, Christians account for 62.8 percent; Muslims for 33.9 percent; Animists for 2.6 percent and others for 0.7 percent of the Ethiopian population. Of the Christian population, 18.6 percent belong to the Protestant and 0.7 percent to the Catholic faiths and the rest to the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. The country is therefore diverse both in terms of faith and ethnicity. Ethiopians and other independent observers opine that the Arab and Muslim world is still uneasy in accepting Ethiopia as a predominantly Christian country, with a substantial Muslim population that is fairly well integrated into the fabric of Ethiopian society. This uneasiness creates mutual suspicion.

Ethiopian-Qatari diplomatic relations are, therefore, essentially, mirror-images in the long and uneasy relations and interactions among Arab nations on the one hand and Ethiopia on the other. By and large, these relations are shrouded in long-held and culturally embedded mistrusts, suspicions, intrigues, hidden agendas, competition and rivalries for influence, ambivalences and misgivings that predate Egyptian civilization under the Pharos.

Consequently, neither Ethiopia nor the Arab World has taken full advantage of the enormous potential for economic and trade links between and among countries that share geographical proximity, history, culture and complementarities that would benefit their respective societies in the long-term. The lag in realizing the full potential benefits that would accrue from mutually respectful diplomatic, economic, trade and other ties emanates from the respective evolutions of the two sides as distinct socioeconomic, political and cultural entities that seem antagonistic to one another and should not be. Ethiopia is one of the most ancient countries in the world with a distinct civilization of its own. It is the only independent black African country; and is, arguably, the first “Christian nation state” in the world. At the same time, Ethiopia is home to Christians (the majority faith in the country), Muslims (almost a third of the population according to the Ethiopian government’s 2007 census), Jews (most immigrated to Israel) and other faiths. Most experts agree that these faiths have evolved uniquely and distinctly as “Ethiopian” and have coexisted side by side peacefully for more than one thousand years. Ethiopia possesses a heterogeneous population of more than 80 ethnic groups with distinct languages, values, history and cultures. Arab countries are much more homogenous. These and other contrasts are critical to note and understand when one assesses relations between Ethiopia and other countries, including Qatar.

While Ethiopia’s geographical location in the Horn of Africa has provided it the geopolitical space to play a bridging role between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and beyond, it is part of mainstream Africa. It is not and cannot be an Arab country. It is these historical realities that prompted successive Ethiopian governments to advance Pan-Africanism and the formation and evolution of the African Union, whose headquarter is in Addis Ababa. Until the secession of Eritrea, Ethiopia was a maritime country with access to the Red Sea. Today, it is one of the largest land-locked countries in the world. A significant area of challenge in the relations between Ethiopia and Qatar is the extent to which the later understands and appreciates Ethiopia’s long-term security and economic interests with regard to access to the sea. Although Qatar is geographically tiny, with an estimated 1.8 million people, its influence is enormous. It is a homogeneous, enormously rich Arab and Muslim country, with per capita income per annum of $88,000, one of the ten richest countries in the world (Forbes and IMF). In contrast, Ethiopia, one of the oldest civilizations in the world and the second most populous in Africa is, at the same time, one of the poorest on the planet, with a per capita income of $370 (the World Bank and IMF 2012 estimates). As the largest aid recipient in Africa, Ethiopia is capital poor; and Qatar investible financial capital rich, with a Sovereign Wealth Fund in excess of $200 billion per year. On the surface, there is a match between a capital starved Ethiopia and a capital rich Qatar that is determined to diversify its economic assets while expanding its influence and reach in Africa. However, this possible match between Ethiopia’s needs for capital and Qatar’s enormous financial wealth is insufficient to describe the warming up of relations between the two countries. It is vital to remember that the two countries broke diplomatic relations in 2008. Why did this happen? What changes occurred since?

Ethiopian scholars, general society and successive governments have been and continue to be suspicious of the Arab World, including Qatar. This is because of strong perceptions and evidence that they are “inimical” to Ethiopia’s national unity, territorial integrity, access to the sea, rapid growth and development and stability. There is a strong perception that Arab support to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) led by Isaias Afewerki was instrumental in the secession of Eritrea and in the loss of Ethiopia’s legitimate and rightful access to its seaports, especially to Assab. This is one of the areas of contention that will persist regardless of diplomatic overtures. In this connection, the strong and close tie between the Qatari and Eritrean governments has been a source of concern among Ethiopian policy makers for several years. Rightly or wrongly, the question had persisted whether or not Qatar was using its substantial financial wealth to promote stability and peace in the Horn or whether its considerable monies and other support to the Eritrean government, opposition groups stationed in Eritrea as well as to fundamentalist groups in Somalia were intended to for the purpose of promoting instability in the region? Ethiopian and other African experts feel that the Qatar model of pouring millions of dollars in conflict prone and ridden regions such as Eritrea, Darfur, Somalia, Mali and others does not address the fundamental social, political and economic causes of conflict in these places. They also contend that oil and gas rich Arab Muslim countries finance fundamentalism in the Horn, including Ethiopia; a point of view on which there is anecdotal evidence. On the other hand, they contend that the fundamental objectives of fairness, justice, equity, political and social pluralism and sustainability within countries are often overlooked by outside stare actors and powers such as Qatar, China, the West and others.

In 2008, the Ethiopian government led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi broke diplomatic ties with the government of Qatar accusing it of “being a major source of instability in the Horn of Africa,” meaning supporting the Eritrean government and Al-Shabaab ( an extremist and terrorist group) in Somalia. Eritrea’s first and only President, Isaias Afewerki and a major adversary to the Ethiopian government had befriended Qatar and was a frequent visitor of the country. His government benefited from Qatar’s largesse and diplomatic clout, arguably at the ‘cost of Ethiopia.’ The tense and dangerous relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea to which Qatar and others contribute persist and will most likely continue until new and genuine modalities of peace and reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea take place. Many Ethiopians find it ironic that, the Qatari government that opposed and helped to topple dictators in North Africa, most notably, Gadhafi of Libya, would at the same time support such dictators as Afewerki of Eritrea. It is this seeming inconsistency in foreign policy on the part of the Qatari government that makes its diplomatic initiatives in Africa rather questionable and, as one African expert put it, “unreliable.” The Ethiopian government’s decision to break diplomatic relations with Qatar reflects long-held suspicions among Ethiopian policy-makers and civil society that the Arab world has ‘consistently’ tried to undermine Ethiopia’s unity, territorial integrity and sustainable development. At the center of this accusation and suspicion is the long war with Eritrea; the support offered by the Egyptian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Gulf State and other governments that ultimately led to Eritrea’s secession and Ethiopia’s loss of access to the sea.

Most Ethiopians, intellectuals and many government officials do not make clear distinctions between various Arab governments and their attitudes towards Ethiopia. There is a tendency to lump all of them together for good or for bad. Qatar’s off and on diplomatic relations with Ethiopia may be a victim of this suspicious culture. This may be unfair but the perception persists. For example, on February 26, 2013, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Khalid Bin Sultan unleashed a brutal, inflammatory, unwarranted and undiplomatic attack against

Ethiopia’s decision to build the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Abbay River (the Blue Nile) saying, “Egypt is the most affected party because they have no alternative water source compared to other Nile Basin countries and the establishment of the dam 12 kilometers from the Sudanese border is for political plotting rather than economic gain and constitutes a threat to Egyptian and Sudanese security.” Although the Saudi government distanced itself from this statement that is clearly confrontational and inimical to Ethiopia, the barrage against Ethiopia’s interest reinforces a political tradition that has prevented Ethiopia from utilizing the Blue Nile to develop its economy, irrigate its vast lands and feed its growing population. The Eritrean government that Qatar supports opposes Ethiopia’s right to build the Renaissance Dam; and one wonders where Qatar stands on the same issue.

The diplomatic reengagement between Ethiopia and Qatar is a positive development for both. Following the passing of Prime Minister Meles in 2012, Hailemariam Dessalegn, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, took the initiative to restore diplomatic relations with Qatar. In welcoming the Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabar al-Thani to Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Prime Minister welcomed the diplomatic thaw on November 5, 2012 and gave the following remarks. “We are in a time where we can flourish and strengthen our relationship and our relationship is based on mutual trust as well as a good heart.” Four years earlier, this “mutual trust” evaporated and Meles accused the Qatari government of meddling in and destabilizing Ethiopia and the Horn. The perception then, and among civil society now, is that as a strong supporter of the Eritrean government, Qatar had undermined Ethiopia’s legitimate and rightful access to its seaport of Assab (Ethiopia invested heavily and claims the port as its own). It is not clear to most observers of the Ethiopian and Qatari rapprochement whether anything of substance has changed to restore mutual trust at all. Perhaps, Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabar al-Thani’s statement in Addis Ababa that “We believe peace brings development and these countries in this part of the world (meaning the Horn of Africa) need a lot of development” is most timely and appropriate. Peace is essential for development.

With an Ethiopian ruling party government reported and World Bank and IMF accepted growth rate of 11 percent per annum, Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. At the same time, it remains to be among the poorest in Africa. It has immense natural resources, especially irrigable and other farmlands, minerals, hydroelectric potential, a consumer base of 94 million people, a strategic geographical location that serves as a hub of the newly emerging, youth-led, fast growing and changing African continent. China, India and other non-traditional trade and economic partners are active in the country. The Ethiopian government is investing heavily into infrastructure, especially hydroelectric power generation and irrigation. It has leased out hundreds of thousands of the most fertile farmlands to thousands of individuals and firms from 36 countries. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopia’s indigenous people in farmland rich regions such as Gambella, the Omo Valley and others have been forced out of their ancestral lands to make room for domestic elite and foreign investors. Resentment against land grabbers, including domestic ethnic elites as well as Saudi Arabia, India and others is growing. Although Ethiopia is relatively stable, it is beset with internal political, social, religious and other divisions and political repression.

Civil and religious freedoms have been repressed and political competition is non-existent. Corruption and illicit outflow of funds are widespread. Muslims and Christians have been protesting for greater freedom and autonomy without much progress. The stalemate in relations with Eritrea continues and there is uneasiness with regard to relations with the Sudan and Egypt, arising in part due to misunderstanding of the potential impact of the Great Renaissance Dam, one of the largest civil works project in Africa today. Interestingly, the vast majority of Ethiopians within the country support the project and have contributed their salaries and invested heavily by buying bonds to finance this project. For this reason, it will be unwise to underestimate the enormous public sentiment and support for the project.

Those in the Ethiopian opposition feel that the most important contribution that the Qatari government could make in support of Ethiopia and its people is to use its most popular media, Al-Jazeera to publicize the plight of a substantial segment of the population for fairness, equity, the rule of law, justice, religious and civic freedom, anti-corruption and empowerment. The fact that both Ethiopia and Qatar have close ties to the United States and the West might provide Qatar the leverage its needs to advance sustainable peace without which sustainable and equitable development will remain elusive both in Ethiopia and rest of the Horn.

The Ethiopian public, especially Ethiopian youth, was enamored with Al-Jazeera’s pioneering role in promoting and reporting on the “Arab Spring” when other media was literally absent from the scene. Ethiopia today is home to one of the largest political prisoner population, including prisoners of conscience, in the world. Many have been imprisoned under the government’s Anti-Terrorist laws; this law is intended to accuse any peaceful dissident who struggles for freedom and justice, including spiritual and religious leaders. The Ethiopian government is quick to react against and censor any independent reporting whether it is Qatari, American, German or Ethiopian. This is the reason why Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Muslim protests was blocked as “interference in the internal affairs” of the country, a government practice applied to the Voice of America and to the German Amharic program a number of times. In each case, the government accuses independent media that exposes human rights violations as “destabilizing.”

In this author’s view, the single most important contribution that Qatar and Western governments could and should make in support of Ethiopia’s long-term interests, peace, stability and its sustainable and equitable development is to promote and defend the rule of law; and to defend and institutionalize freedom of the press, civil, political and human rights. The Ethiopian people and the entire Horn of Africa deserve to live without fear of their own governments and leaders.

Given peace, stability, accommodation of the needs of its diverse population and mutually beneficial relations with its neighbors and countries in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, Ethiopia possesses geopolitical and demographic advantage unmatched by many other states. This enormous potential suggests urgency in getting the political and economic governance of the country right. Ethiopia’s population of 94 million–the second largest in Africa– will reach 278 million by 2050, the tenth largest in the world. This dramatic demographic shift will have profound economic and political impact not only in the Horn but also in the rest of Africa and the Middle East. This in itself foretells the need for positive and constructive changes in the relations of countries in the Horn of Africa, including accommodating Ethiopia’s need of access to the port of Assab. Ethiopia’s legitimacy to such access is as firmer as is its ability and right to use the waters of the Nile for its development without harming others. Given sound resolution of the issues identified, there is no doubt in my mind that Ethiopia will emerge as a leading economy over the coming 25 to 50 years. The key variable is its ability to resolve its current political crisis and resolve to establish inclusive and participatory governance. In the event, Ethiopia will no longer be a food aid dependent nation. In fact, it will benefit the entire Horn, North Africa and the Middle East in the decades ahead. A prosperous Ethiopia will also serve as a beacon of peaceful coexistence among its religious groups, especially Christians and Muslims.

Reference notes

Joseph Emanuel Blayechettai, the Hidden Mystery of Ethiopia, 1926 Drusilla Dunjee Houston, Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushitic (Cushite) Empire Erlich Haggai, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia: Islam, Christianity and Politics Entwined, 2006 Graham Hancock, The Sign and the Seal: the quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, 1993 Erlic, Haggai, the Cross-and the River: Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Nile. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder. 2012. Haggai brings to the debate on the Nile a feature often ignored by most experts on the Nile, namely, the broader cultural, historical, religious, and other relationships between Egypt and Ethiopia that reveal commonalities. One commonality is the Coptic faith. Ethiopia is predominantly a Christian country with strong links to the Egyptian population that belongs to the Coptic faith. This long tradition in the evolution of this faith and Ethiopia’s capacity to accommodate all three major faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam portend potential for mutuality. It requires recognition of Ethiopia’s uniqueness and contributions.

Rahman, A. Majeed, the Geopolitics of Water in the Nile Basin. Global Research. July 24, 2011. Rahman points out the danger of war in the event that a win-win solution that will serve all parties cannot be reached. In my view, the NBI provides a good framework for further negotiator. Arab countries cannot afford to inflame a situation in which no one would win.

Than, Ken. Ethiopia: why a massive dam on Nile? National Geography News. July 14, 2011

Sarah Field of the Heritage Foundation, Qatar’s influence in the Sahel, February 12, 2013

  1. Ibrahim Al Eritry
    | #1

    Well, can I say the article is specially written to get attention of the Qatari leadership and to convince them to persuade Eritrean people and their government to put a price for Assab to give to Ethiopia.

    what a shame, It would have been otherwise, that the leadership of Ethiopia should abide by the rule of law and vacate the occupied lands of sovereign Eritrea and start the course of good neighborhood relations. If Assab is the main concern of the writer, Eritea has maintained its promise at the time of independence and Ethiopia was utilizing it as properly by paying local currency the Birr. Now that Ethiopia have to decide if it wanted to create a condusive atmosphere in the grate region of the horn of Africa and choose from the services that are available from Kenyan ports to Somalian Djibuti and Eritean ports. It is a free market and the one who provides the best services and best rate that benefits Ethiopia can serve the need and all can live in peace and harmony. Other than that dreaming of unthinkable is just a day dream and the best it to think logical.

  2. Gragn Ahmed
    | #2

    I pretty much enjoyed reading the article. It touches many issues. But misses some important problems. The problems mainly come from past systematic exclusion of Islam and Muslim and deliberate manipulation Muslim count as even evidently acknowledged as one third. I believe Muslim Christian number is about equal. Unless we resolve outstanding issues talking about Assab will not be useful. Partly Muslims are to blame for this ignomous neglect. Muslims should never stop their voice and in fact can help Ethiopia keep its integrity. The usual Coptic dominated Ethiopia will never be able to come in harmony with Arabs. there is too much inconvenient truth.

  3. Hitman
    | #3

    Dr. Aklog Birara thank you so much for not wasting my internet perusal time.The piece is well-balanced,well-informative,well-researched and above everything else, well-written.When I read the lengethy pieces or in the form of scholarly tracts posted in Ethiopian web site I feel like somewhat waterboarded most of the time.The inane comment from some segements of society like the above commentatar from Saud-Arabia is what the English called delicately and delightfully cretin at a time when in fact knowledge is power. In other words, fringe agenda does not get us anywhere.

  4. Anonymous
    | #4

    So many inaccuracies by the ‘Doctor’:

    1) Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world, not Abyssinia ‘Ethiopia’.

    2) Fascist DERG Ethiopia with billions of dollars in military aid tried to strangulate Eritrea, who had zero support and had to rely on their own to win their independence. This is well documented.

    3) You say Ethiopians distrust Qatar because of their close relationship with Eritrea. Then you say Ethiopia should work with Qatar because it is rich. So which is it? Make up your mind.

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