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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Providing a bridge between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been a significant achievement for the UAE

The long-term strategic goal of a string of modern trade hubs along the western Red Sea has taken a sudden leap forward, writes Damien McElroy

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed with Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia (L) and Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea (R). Hamad Al Kaabi / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi 
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed with Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia (L) and Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea (R). Hamad Al Kaabi / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi 

Almost a decade ago, in the cool surrounds of the Italian-built presidential palace in Asmara, there was one line of questioning that went nowhere with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki: why did his country shut itself off from the world because of the dispute with Ethiopia?

It was, however, clear that the liberation hero and president of the Red Sea state was frustrated with the stand-off. Even then, he evinced no passion for the division of the Horn of Africa in the way it had long been split.

But the rapid thawing of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which seemed to come out of the blue, has caught many by surprise.

The opportunity created by the new entente is vast. Already Mr Isaias has granted Eritrea’s neighbour the long sought-after promise of access to the port of Assab on the Red Sea.

As in most momentous diplomatic breakthroughs, it pays to look at the chemistry that created the agreement.

It is now clear that the moment when the UAE sealed an agreement to open up Assab was a turning point. The port had been a backwater since the end of the Cold War but has deep roots into the interior.

With its logistics expertise, the UAE has been keen to unlock the potential of the Horn of Africa’s seaboard. The conflict in Yemen has raised the strategic importance of the relationship significantly.

Eritrea has been isolated from global trade and within its neighbourhood. Much of that was down to the character of its president, who has embodied the country since its independence in the 1990s.

A neat man in a smartly tailored jacket, the Eritrean president in 2009 was a very self-contained figure. The palace reception rooms bore little or no personal imprimatur. The building was quiet and chilly.

Diplomats based in the capital briefed that the key to dispute was not the differences between Eritreans and Ethiopians. The ties that linked the leaderships were key. It was rumoured, in fact, that the president was a blood relative of his rival, Meles Zenawi, then Ethiopia's prime minister.

While also authoritarian, Mr Meles had in contrast the knack of securing the backing of the world – particularly the development donors who lavished billions on a country that was proven so vulnerable in the 1980s famine.

Mr Meles and Mr Isaias were both ethnic Tigrans who could not bridge their differences. Vast conscript armies stood either side of the high altitude ridges along armistice line. A border commission verdict handing back the town of Badme in 2002 failed to bring reconciliation.

The death of Mr Meles six years ago changed the parameters of the dispute.

Since then the Eritrea president has struck up a deep rapport with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Relationships were forged with the UAE leadership. A sense of new beginnings was engendered.

Then in April came the vital ingredient – a change of leadership in Ethiopia. The new prime minister Abiy Ahmed was brought up by Christian and Muslim parents, his roots in the south of Ethiopia. Crucially he ascended through the ranks of the Tigrayan-dominated intelligence services before going into politics and rising through the ranks of the ruling coalition.

It took street protests to finally lift Mr Abiy to power but having broken the Tigrayan grip on power, he has wasted no time. In just a few short weeks, Mr Abiy has kicked away the last principles of the Meles era.

Not since the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie decided to annex Eritrea, triggering a 32-year armed struggle, has there been such a significant shift in the regional balance of power.

Ethiopia is landlocked. It has made a significant leap in self-sufficiency over recent decades but cannot get over the basic lack of access to the sea.

It is clearly in the interest of the government in Addis Abba to diversify its supply lines beyond the current reliance on Djbouti. Even under the previous leadership, Ethiopia had teamed up with the UAE in an investment in the autonomous Somaliland.

Providing a bridge for Mr Abiy to connect with Mr Isaias is already a significant achievement for the UAE, The long-term strategic goal of a string of modern trade hubs along the western Red Sea has taken a sudden leap forward.

Overcoming the hurdles presented by the Mogadishu authorities failure to open up Somalia to trade is bound to be facilitated by the momentum further north.

There has been a lazy tag line for Eritrea among commentators and think tank researchers. The country has been written off as the North Korea of Africa. As a visitor to both countries, the fallacy was that Asmara was just another Pyongyang.

Diplomacy with North Korea has hogged the headlines in recent months. So far, dealings with Eritrea have achieved far more.