Countries do not behave like individuals and ignore each other…

Countries do not behave like individuals and ignore each other for an eternity, simply because their leaders harbour mutual distrust. They have all but permanent enemies, as the adage would have it.

The bilateral relationship between Ethiopia and Qatar, the tiny state in the Middle East with a loud voice through a globally accessible satellite television channel, illustrated this maxim better. The visit, last week, by Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani (Sheikh) to Addis Abeba, the first of its kind by an Emir of Qatar, redirected the relationship to new heights, in light of a background of tension that forced Ethiopia to sever its diplomatic relationship five years ago.

Ironically, the Emir came to Addis Abeba after having an audience with Eritrea’s Issayas Afeworki, a week earlier, in Doha.

Ethiopia’s arch foe, Issayas, has long been a source of tension in the relationship between Qatar and Ethiopia, gossip noted. He might have convinced Qatari leaders at some point, besides historical ties, when Qatar supported his group during the period of insurgency, that he was a power to be reckoned with in the Horn of Africa region.

The regime in Eritrea is known to have complex and precarious relationships with countries with conflicting interests in the region, gossip noted. It has a history of being friendly to Israel, and its archenemy Iran; and solicited financial support from Saudi Arabia, across the Red Sea, and was hugely supported by its regional rival, Qatar.

The latter two were once locked in a diplomatic tussle, after Saudi’s government pulled its Ambassador to Doha, in the early 2000s, following protests on how Al-Jazeera was covering the affairs of Saudi Arabia. The two were trying to expand their sphere of influences and support bases in the Middle East and beyond, including countries in the Horn of Africa region, such as; Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia and, indeed, Eritrea.

Issayas’s Eritrea used this rivalry cunningly, particularly in its hostility towards Ethiopia. The gulf between Ethiopia and Qatar expanded further after they sent troops to Somalia to topple an Islamist group it deemed a threat to its national security, and Eritrea used it as a place for a proxy war against its larger neighbour. Although Eritrean leaders always denied their support to Al-Shabaab, they nonetheless have been open on their support to Hassan Dahir Awes, a former Colonel in the government of Sied Barrie, who declared war on Ethiopia.

The United States, in particular, has been wary of Eritrea’s “unhelpful” role in supporting Awes, who was up against his one-time political allay, Sheik Sharif, who was eventually mildly supported by Ethiopia. Qatar had deprived support to Sharif, due largely to its bad relationship with Ethiopia.

It was with against a background of such regional politics the Emir came to Addis last week, leading a high level delegation that signed six memorandums of understanding, four of which were related to shaping up the countries’ trade and economic relationships. It is seen, in the gossip corridors, as a compelling move by Qatar in recognition of who really matters in the Horn of Africa region, in its effort to make its mark felt.

But, away from the flashing cameras and large meetings between Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the Emir, there was also a private audience held by the two respective delegates, gossip disclosed. Indeed, it was not to be the first meeting between the two individuals, for Hailermariam was the first Ethiopian senior official to have travelled to Doha, after he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, and given the tough job of fiing Addis Abeba’s relations there by his predecessor.

Now a Prime Minister himself, he was asked a pointed question by the Emir to let his country resume using the Port of Assab for its international trade, gossip disclosed. It is the first time a top most senior dignitary of a foreign country has raised the issue of Assab since Ethiopia went to war with Eritrea, claims gossip.

Although some in the power corridor downplay the Emir’s request as one raised casually, Hailemariam was described politically astute in his response, claims gossip. He has left the room open, but described his country’s desire to diversify its access to the sea as being as wide as it could possibly get, gossip disclosed.

Published on April 14, 2013 [ Vol 13 ,No 676]



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