Renewed attempts to reach a breakthrough over Ethiopia’s River Nile dam faltered on April 4, as Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reiterated his warnings of a conflict. Tensions are therefore extremely high over the ongoing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with Addis Ababa vowing to proceed with the second-stage filling of the dam in July. Egypt and Sudan are concerned that the dam could cut off their access to the Nile’s waters, and therefore perceive it as a national security threat.
On February 2, Arab League secretary-general Ahmed Aboul Gheit affirmed the bloc’s support for Egypt over the Nile, saying that Ethiopia “must deal rationally” to protect Egypt and Sudan’s rights in the dispute. Nonetheless, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken a somewhat divergent stance over the Nile dispute. Not only has it promoted itself as a mediator, but it has also shown more sympathy towards Ethiopia’s position over the Nile.
An Emirati Ministry of Foreign Affairs delegation visited Sudan and met officials in the Sudanese ministries of foreign affairs, irrigation and water resources in Khartoum on January 13, to facilitate reaching an agreement on the Ethiopian dam and break the stalemate in negotiations.
Then, on March 23, Sudan’s transitional government announced it had accepted Emirati mediation proposals over both the dam and the disputed Al Fashaga region, after a Sudanese delegation met Emirati officials in Abu Dhabi on February 26. Although Al Fashaga is within Sudan’s internationally recognised borders, Ethiopian farmers have long settled there, cultivated the land, and paid taxes to authorities in Addis Ababa. Tensions have further escalated since last November after Sudanese troops moved into the territory, which have sporadically clashed with ethnic Amhara militias, though Addis Ababa has distanced itself from these groups.
In March, Sudanese sources stated that the UAE had made progress in resolving the Al Fashaga dispute with Addis Ababa. They added that Ethiopia encouraged the UAE to find a resolution with Sudan over the Nile dispute prior to the second-stage filling. Ethiopia has been more willing to engage with Sudan over the Nile dispute, as it sees Egypt’s stance as more provocative.
Egypt is concerned that the UAE’s initiative could side-line it in the negotiations and ultimately benefit Ethiopia. Abu Dhabi’s attempts to work with both Khartoum and Addis Ababa would also undermine Cairo’s demands over the Nile dispute, and prevent it from taking a leadership role over the Nile. In a bid to strengthen its ties with Khartoum, Egypt signed a military cooperation agreement with Sudan on March 2.
Mediating the dispute can aid the UAE’s longstanding attempts to establish clout in the Horn of Africa region, as it also seeks greater sway over the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Bab el Mandeb. Given that Abu Dhabi has secured billions of dollars’ worth of investments in Ethiopia and has established solid ties with Sudan’s transitional government, it is in prime position to mediate the GERD crisis. In 2018, it managed to mediate in the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which further bolstered its diplomatic capabilities.
Additionally, as Abu Dhabi has recently faced setbacks in the Horn of Africa, such as in Somalia, it probably aims to boost its influence by taking a leading role in mediating the GERD crisis. On February 21, Somalia’s central government once again criticised alleged Emirati influence in the Somali peninsula, accusing it of stirring unrest. This followed the cancellation of an Emirati military base in Somaliland last year, with the UAE establishing strong ties with the autonomous central government.
Along with the ongoing souring of relations with Somalia, the UAE also dismantled its military base in Eritrea in February, which it used for its military efforts in Yemen. This move was part of Abu Dhabi’s realignment of its foreign policy under the Biden administration, which seeks to de-escalate violence in Yemen, and would therefore pressure any Emirati bellicose foreign policy actions there.
Another threat to the UAE’s influence is Turkey’s growing soft power in the Horn of Africa. Ankara has also substantially boosted its investments in Ethiopia, adding to its previously strong ties with other governments such as Somalia. Given that Ethiopia has even invited Turkey to mediate with Sudan over the al Fashaga border crisis, this may also be a factor in trigger competition from Abu Dhabi.
Meanwhile, the UAE’s courting of Ethiopia could see its relations with Egypt strain. Since Abu Dhabi backed Egypt’s military coup in 2013 which saw Sisi come to power, the relations between two countries have been solidified by a shared opposition towards the Muslim Brotherhood. However, some differences are now emerging, including over the war in Libya, as both staunchly supported Khalifa Haftar and attempted to counter Turkey, yet Cairo had diverged in this regard by supporting Aguila Saleh as Haftar’s replacement.
Egypt has also warmed to Turkey, having sought rapprochement in recent months, while the UAE is more hesitant to follow suit. Cairo, like Saudi Arabia, has also shown more willingness to re-engage with Qatar, following the Al-Ula Summit on January 5, which saw a resolution of the Gulf crisis. However, Abu Dhabi has shown less willingness to fully normalize relations with Doha. Furthermore, Egypt favours the United States as the mediator in the Nile dispute, which would effectively give Cairo more of a leadership role, meaning the UAE’s attempts to mediate would probably cause more friction between them.