How Ethiopia’s New Leader Is Reshaping Relations with the Middle East and East Africa

Abiy Ahmed is moving fast and building things. The youthful leader of East Africa’s largest country pushed through enormous reforms in the space of weeks, reshaping Ethiopia and its relations with the region and the Middle East. Just a few months ago, Abiy was not well-known even in Ethiopia. But three years of mass protests against the government – over land confiscation, economic stagnation and political rights – resulted in the surprise resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn in February after six years in power. The ruling party chose Abiy, who is 42, as the new prime minister, a determined man seeking to make serious reforms.


Barely two months later and even his supporters have been surprised at the sheer scale and speed of his reforms. Within days of becoming prime minister he released thousands of prisoners, many of them political, and called on opposition parties in exile to come home. He pushed through the lifting of the state of emergency that had existed for nearly two years, and sacked senior figures among the intelligence and military staff, two powerful elements of the deep state. He has pledged to privatize the national airline and telecoms company, opening up Ethiopia’s state-run economy.


And that was just at home. So far, Abiy has visited six foreign countries, four of them Arab. His first was Saudi Arabia, where King Salman agreed to free nearly a thousand Ethiopians from the kingdom’s jails. Abiy then went to the UAE, where he was greeted by Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Abiy’s chief of staff tweeted that Sheikh Mohammed had agreed to free all Ethiopian prisoners in the UAE.


But it was his state visit to Egypt on June 11 that could prove most consequential. Central to his visit to Cairo was resolving Egypt’s objections to the building of the Grand Renaissance Dam, a huge project that once completed will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam and which Cairo is concerned will cut its share of the Nile’s waters. Tensions over the dam have rumbled for years and even sparked fears of a military conflict. But last week, both Abiy and Egyptian president Abdel Fatah El Sisi sounded conciliatory and signaled a breakthrough.


The Grand Renaissance Dam is a pivotal part of the development strategy of Ethiopia; once completed it should provide enough power for the entire country, with excess for export. But the dam is also part of the country’s foreign-policy strategy. At the moment, the country exports electricity to Sudan and Djibouti. In time, Ethiopia intends to export to South Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and even Tanzania, with which it does not share a border – thereby drawing almost every one of its neighbors into a closer embrace.


The exception to Ethiopia’s electricity diplomacy is Eritrea, with which Addis Ababa has a long and fractious relationship. Now Abiy says he will implement a peace agreement in full, which could finally end the simmering conflict.


These reforms could have far-reaching consequences. Over the past decade, Ethiopia has registered one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and the fastest in Africa. If the government is truly committed to liberalizing the economy and shedding the interventionist model it has pursued for decades, the economy could grow even faster.


In particular, Ethiopia needs foreign investment. Although Ethiopia has benefited from grand infrastructure projects funded by Chinese companies, there is little private-sector investment, and the flagship Grand Renaissance Dam bond issue failed to attract much interest. A liberalized economy would be a genuinely radical change.


Peace with Eritrea would allow better access for the landlocked country to the Red Sea – a railway line to Djibouti opened in January, but Ethiopia has a much longer border with Eritrea. More consequentially, it would deprive Eritrea’s government of its excuse for the compulsory military service that has driven tens of thousands to escape abroad – migrants from Eritrea regularly die seeking to cross the Mediterranean into Europe or the Gulf of Aden into Yemen and the Arabian Gulf countries. Relations with the Gulf states would help the status of the tens of thousands of Ethiopians who work there.


Moving so quickly, however, means Abiy has ruffled many feathers. For Abiy, the son of a Muslim father in a predominantly Christian country, the depth of his support in the ruling party has not yet been tested. He has taken on elements of the military and security establishment as well as the business elite.


He appears to be banking on three elements for his survival: his position as a representative of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromos, who have previously not had a prime minister from their midst; his relationship with foreign countries, in east Africa and with Arab heavyweight countries Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and public perception of him as a reformer.


Certainly, securing the release of so many Ethiopians imprisoned abroad played well with the public – and Abiy, fully understanding the optics of situation, made sure the former prisoners flew home from Egypt with him on the presidential plane.


If he pulls off such audacious reforms, the changes will be felt across East Africa and as far away as Cairo and the Gulf. The only issue is that these reforms – complex but necessary, long-delayed and long overdue – may still not go far enough. Ethiopians, overwhelmingly young, are in a rush for change, as the protests demonstrated. But Abiy, even as he moves at breakneck speed, may still be moving too slowly for East Africa’s largest and most restless population.


Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

AFPPHOTO/Zacharias Abubeker