By Sankalp Gurjar
On January 1, Ethiopia signed a deal with Somaliland for port access. As per the deal, Ethiopia will recognize the self-governing territory of Somaliland in exchange for the sea access and a military base. Ethiopia is the largest land-locked state in the world and a growth engine of the Horn of Africa. The deal will allow Ethiopia to access the Gulf of Aden.
Somalia, which claims Somaliland as part of its territory, has reacted angrily to the announcement of the deal. The agreement is seen as a breach of Somalian sovereignty and territorial integrity, even though Somalia has not been able to exert control over Somaliland since 1991. The deal has a potential to reshape the geopolitics of the Western Indian Ocean.
Strategic Importance of Gulf of Aden
Somaliland is located on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden. The Gulf of Aden has been a strategically important waterway since the opening of Suez Canal in 1869. The strait of Bab-el-Mandeb links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea and offers the shortest route to connect Asia with Europe. Since the emergence of West Asia as an energy heartland of the world, the strategic importance of the Gulf of Aden has increased significantly. The Gulf is critical for the West Asian energy exports to Europe and America. Therefore, over the years, ports located on the Gulf have acquired growing geopolitical significance.
In the recent few weeks, the Gulf of Aden and southern Red Sea have been in the news due to the spate of attacks on cargo ships launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen. These attacks and the decision of major global shipping companies to suspend transit via the Red Sea have underscored the vulnerability of the sea route via the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden. In response to Houthi threats, the US Navy, along with key partners including Britain, have deployed warships to the region. It is in this volatile strategic environment that the deal had been announced between Ethiopia and Somaliland.
The entire Red Sea and Gulf of Aden coastline, from Suez in the north to Somalia in the south has emerged as a geostrategic hotspot over the past few years. Major global and regional players have sought to establish bases in the region. And countries as diverse as the US, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have systematically expanded their military footprints.
Since becoming a land-locked state upon the secession of Eritrea in the early 1990s, Ethiopia has been in search for sea access. The deal offers a real prospect for a direct access to sea. Ethiopia did try in the past to access the port of Berbera in Somaliland through a tri-lateral deal between UAE, Ethiopia, and Somaliland. The current deal is a bilateral agreement that does not include the UAE. The agreement will diversify Ethiopia’s access points for sea and lessen its overwhelming dependence on Djibouti for international trade.
The deal has a potential to fuel uncertainty and instability in the already troubled continental and maritime space of the Horn of Africa. Sudan is in the grips of a devastating civil war; Ethiopia is recovering from its three-year long civil war; and there is no end in sight for the war in Gaza. As the attacks by the Houthi rebels are in linked to the Gaza war, safe passage for the cargo ships transiting through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea remains elusive. Therefore, a foreign military presence is set to continue in the region. Ethiopia’s entry and ambitions for regional primacy add another dimension to this evolving strategic dynamic.
In addition to the growing uncertainty on sea, the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal has a potential to trigger a conflict on land. Somalia has reacted strongly to the deal and will be under pressure to ‘do something.’ However, Somalia’s ability to launch an effective military operation against Somaliland or Ethiopia or both is limited. The country has not been able to defeat the Al-Shabaab terrorist insurgency and has struggled to establish authority across the swathes of territory under its control. A war with Ethiopia or Somaliland would inevitably divert attention away from these counter-terror operations.
Hence, Ethiopia’s longstanding quest for port access could well reach fruition – a development that has the potential to reshape the geopolitics of the Western Indian Ocean.
This article was published by Geopolitical Monitor.com