Regional organizations are only formed through groupings of countries that are geographically close to each other and share many factors including cultural ties, peoples, and other resources. The Horn of Africa States is one such region, which has a common heritage, shared peoples and cultures, geographical proximity, and have, indeed, cooperated for millennia, except for the past hundred and fifty years, when the region was divided into the current constellation of countries – the SEED countries, not of their will but through the will of non-regional parties.
The region not only failed to re-affirm its regional-ness but went through a traumatic period when the countries of the region were on several occasions at each other’s throats. Thus, the region over time lost its cohesiveness and cooperation, and till the date of this piece, remains on the single-state format of organization where each country works on its own developmental path without taking into consideration the natural cohesion and solidarity expected of such a region. In the process, the countries of the region have remained, effectively, with little power to manage the long coast of the region and its marine resources, including its geostrategic location.
No wonder, we hear of the largest country in the region, Ethiopia, lamenting its lack of coast and access to a sea. It is also most unfortunate that it does not even attempt to create a regional cooperation infrastructure where all could benefit from the resources of the region, where some have access to the sea while others have energy and water resources and hence agricultural products, and where some have highlands and plateaus, while others have lowlands and beautiful beaches. It is a region where some of the countries are more administratively inclined while other countries are more business-oriented. It is a region where some countries have larger economies while others have smaller but growing economies. It is a region where some of the countries are as fragile as any country can be while others are still intact while facing terrible forces attempting to dismantle them.
The region must face the challenges that it faces including ensuring public acceptance of its governance infrastructures, having a common approach to foreign parties that seem to be competing over their heads in the region’s territorial waters, and working on integrating the region’s economies, while maintaining each country’s sovereign status and integrity.
The waters of the region whether they are riverine, or marine have become significant geopolitically charged assets. Egypt and Sudan continue to challenge the HAS region over the exploitation of the waters of the rivers that rise from the region while many countries including China, the USA, and even smaller countries like the UAE appear to be challenging the region on its own marine waters.
The marine space of the region is vast and rich, geopolitically located, and handles more than 20% of global trade and 11% of West Asia’s oil and gas. It is covered by a long coastal belt of some 4,700 km containing extensive beautiful beaches, lagoons, mangrove forests, and of course, rich marine life. The region’s marine resources, unfortunately, remain unutilized even at mediocre levels. The region does not realize that the marine resources could contribute much towards the sustainable development of the region. The region’s marine resources are threatened even through foreign invasions that do not seek permission from some of the governments of the region, which makes the region weak with an inability to protect its resources from non-regional parties.
It is once again the unfortunate story of the region as the countries of the region do not cooperate and collaborate in harnessing the resources of the waters of the region and much is thus wasted. The region seems to have forgotten its ages-old maritime history when it connected Asia, Europe, and Africa as it does today. The only difference is that those of old were in full control of the region’s waters while those of today have very little to say in its waters.
It is where the need for the region’s countries to cooperate and collaborate arises so that the region can have a say in how the resources of the waters of the region are utilized. It is where the need for the region to forgo lamentations about the lack of access to a sea also arises and it is the main reason why some of the leaders should take the lead in the realization of a cooperative organization to handle the region’s economic integration including its maritime resources.
The region’s maritime waters have always been busy transporting global trade throughout recorded history and at one time, it was indeed, a center of international trade, linking the trading nations of the time including China and Far East, India, Persia, Greece, Rome, Egypt and, of course, Arabia. The significance of these waters has never diminished and will continue to be as important as they have always been.
The only factor missing in the matrix remains to be the cooperation of the countries of the region and it is high time they started to work together to harness the maritime resources of the region. The cooperation would not only involve harnessing the resources but also the security of these waters, which appear to be attracting all kinds of forces both good and evil. Resources have to always be protected. The Horn of Africa States should not allow another scramble for its territories and waters from the so-called international community, which in effect are predators and not genuine.
The only country in the region without access to the sea is Ethiopia and it would have been better if it took over the lead to create a Horn of Africa States platform to enable the region to become economically integrated, instead of embarking on lamentation about the lack of access to the sea. The country would be welcomed, and the economy of the region would rise together, and no one would be left behind. Ill-advised forceful persuasion or even blatant force as purportedly pronounced by Ethiopia would only delay the region’s cooperation for another longer period and hence would adversely affect any gains made so far. All the goodwill, so far achieved, will be lost, old enmities will be reignited, and the region will revert to the old antagonisms that are not necessary these days.