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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

Former rivals hail UAE's role in bringing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki were given the Order of Zayed at Abu Dhabi summit

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki were honoured with the UAE’s highest civil honour when the former rivals met in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, conferred the Order of Zayed on both leaders at the Presidential Palace in the capital.

It followed a remarkable detente between the two African nations after years of conflict and underlined the UAE's role in bringing both sides together.

Sheikh Mohammed on Tuesday said the agreement would lead to a brighter future for both countries.

"We have an utmost trust that this move will enhance the bilateral cooperation and coordination between the two neighbouring countries. And will fulfil their citizens' aspirations to achieve peace, development and prosperity,” Sheikh Mohammed wrote on Twitter.

“It will [also] ensure stability and security in the Horn of Africa and the region in general."

The two African leaders, meanwhile, praised the UAE's role in establishing security and stability in the Horn of Africa.

It was a morning of ceremony at the Presidential Palace, taking place just days after Chinese president Xi Jinping departed following his landmark trip.

Ethiopian and Eritrean flags fluttered in the summer breeze across the palace grounds, while a gun-salute welcomed both leaders.

They arrived in the main atrium of the palace at about midday: national anthems were played and they then greeted senior UAE ministers including Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation along with ambassadors to the UAE from across the globe.

A summit between the three was then held behind closed doors. Following the meeting, the two African leaders praised the role of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in “sponsoring and pushing forward the peace agreement”, state news agency Wam reported. They said it would be a catalyst for positive relations that will benefit the Horn of Africa.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have spared no effort to help the two countries re-establish good relations for the sake of their people and the wider region, both leaders said.

The events over the past few weeks are a remarkable turnaround following about 20 years of conflict.

The thaw accelerated last month when Mr Abiy said Ethiopia would accept a UN-approved ruling made after a two-year war and also hand back disputed territory. This was followed earlier this month when Ethiopia and Eritrea re-established diplomatic relations and signed a declaration of peace and friendship in the Eritrean capital Asmara.

But behind the scenes, the UAE has been supporting peace efforts. In June, Abu Dhabi pledged Dh11 billion to Ethiopia during a visit by Sheikh Mohammed. It was a significant moment of support for Mr Abiy who only took up office a few months ago. Sheikh Abdullah said the agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea represents great political wisdom.

"The UAE congratulates Ethiopia and Eritrea on this historic agreement and hopes that this move will open further opportunities and development across economic, cultural and social sectors between the two nations," he said.

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Ethiopia and Eritrea relations

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The rapprochement, meanwhile, could yield positive results for a region that has been roiled by conflict, famine and mass migration for years.

Ethiopia is a country of about 100 million people and is one of the world's fastest-growing economies. Eritrea, meanwhile, has 5 million people. It gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following years of fighting.

The conflict rendered Ethiopia landlocked and Eritrea remained closed off the world. Still, both countries share a cultural heritage.

Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow at Chatham House’s Africa programme, said the pace of change in recent weeks has been remarkable.

“It’s been a whirlwind few weeks. They have moved forward very quickly and this summit further cements the growth and bond between the two leaders and nations,” said Mr Soliman.

“It also signifies the importance of this rapprochement not only for the two countries and the Horn of Africa but further afield internationally. And a mark of the role the UAE and Saudi Arabia have played in helping among other countries to bring that rapprochement about.”

The presence of both leaders in the capital also underlines the strategic importance of the Horn of Africa. Mr Soliman said the UAE role spoke to the formalisation and increasing layers of engagement in the area across security, politics and trade.

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Read more:

Eritrea's president to visit Ethiopia to cement truce

Historic peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea ends two decades of hostility

Eritrean troops withdraw from Ethiopian border

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While many challenges lie ahead, access to Eritrea's ports for Ethiopia and increased air links for Eritrea have come following the detente are a bright spot.

The two countries will even play a friendly football match in August, it was announced on Monday. The exact date is yet to be fixed but it looks to be played in the Eritrean capital Asmara, BBC reported.

But the path ahead for both countries following the warming of relations is difficult to quantify.

“We are in uncharted territory. Eritrea has been responding positively and we are likely to see some shifts occurring there … but we don’t have confirmation. Opening up the border to trade and movement of people will precipitate some change,” said Mr Soliman.

“One of the key aspects of Eritrea’s existence was the imminent threat Ethiopia posed but now that threat has gone with peace.”

The peace move underlines the strategic importance of the Horn of Africa, which the UAE has heavily invested resources in but which remains volatile, particularly Somalia.

In recent months a diplomatic dispute between the UAE and Somalia has flared, despite the emirates' funding and training of an anti-piracy unit of Somali's military.

In April, Somali stormed a UAE jet at Mogadishu airport. In response, the UAE ended part of its military training programme in Somalia.

Separately, Mr Afwerki met Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Monday in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

King Salman and Mr Afwerki discussed "bilateral relations and ways of enhancing them in all fields", as well as the "latest developments" in the region.