Radio Erena: 25 February 2020
The visit of President Isaias Afwerki to Riyadh on 17 February seemed more like an urgent ‘convocation’ than a scheduled visit by a head of state. Three things gave it that awkward shape. First, it came after President Isaias’s scathing criticism of the Saudi sponsored Council of Red Sea Littoral States. Secondly, this criticism came after the Eritrean Ministry of Information’s bitter attack on the Saudi Minister of African Affairs, Ahmed Qattan. Finally, Saudi Arabid did not react to the criticism publicly. Rather, it opted for a face-to-face talk with the president. Therefore, it sent him a private Jet to fetch him immediately for a meeting with the Saudi monarch.
Not mentioning Saudi Arabia by name, president Isias said, “Irrespective of its power or wealth, one country cannot shoulder the obligation of the littoral states. The legal provision must be clear.” Elaborating on the different point of views of Red Sea States relations, Afwerki disclosed that Eritrea presented an 11-point concept paper which outlined the platform and the mechanism of the would-be organization. Yemane Gebrab presented the concept paper in a meeting in Riyadh on 21 April 2019. The concept paper called for a judicious march towards establishing the Council of Red Sea, with a particular emphasis on common policy accord and permanent institutional structure. Having its own concept of the skeleton and flesh of the would-be council, Saudi Arabia purposely ignored the Eritrean proposal.
Riyadh decided to carry on the creation of the council without listening to junior partners. The council should be there to confront Iranian and Turkish influence as the Saudi Minister for African Affairs said. The Eritrean president’s grudge is explicable within this context. On 6 January, Saudi Arabia declared the establishment of the Council of the Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Under immense pressure from General Al Sisi, Eritrea reluctantly joined the Council, only to show its discontent a month later.
The Difficult Neighborhood
The distrust and restlessness in Eritrean-Saudi relations date back to the cold war era. During that time, the Kingdom had real concerns about the Communist oriented Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF) which was led by president Isaias himself. The concerns were aggravated with the existence of communist Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam and also by the staunch ally of the former Soviet Union: the Democratic Republic of Yemen or D.R.Y.
To weaken EPLF, Saudi supported the rival Eritrean Liberation Front, (the Revolutionary Council) and two other pro-Arab Eritrean nationalist factions with the backing of her ally in Khartoum Jaffar Numeiri. In 1982, Saudi Arabia sponsored a unity agreement of the three Eritrean factions. The agreement worsened the existing situation with EPLF which was engaged in fierce battles against Ethiopian troops in Eritrea.
Ten years later, during the Referendum of the Independence of Eritrea, Saudi Arabia exerted efforts to press Asmara into a coalition government. President Isaias categorically rejected the move. To further consolidate mutual distrust, a flashing surprise swept Riyadh when Asmara ignored the candidacy of the Saudi ambassador, intelligence officer Abdallah Bahabry, who engineered the 1982 unity agreement between the EPLF archrival factions. Opting for another ambassador, Saudi Arabia presented the government in Asmara with a demand to establish a Saudi academy, similar to the ones in Washington D.C, and London. Alas, the authorities ignored the demand.
In 1994, Eritrean security units raided the offices of the Saudi Relief Organization in Asmara, taking the Eritrean staff to prison and deporting the Saudi operatives. In August 2005, while many heads of states participated in the funeral of King Fahad, Eritrea sent the Secretary-General of the ruling party, Al Amin Mohamad Said, to the event. At the same time, Saudi investments in livestock and fish exports in Eritrea came to a sudden halt.
To sum up, shifting political sands in the region have distanced Eritrea from Saudi Arabia. In the early 2000s, Eritrea, to the dismay of Saudi Arabia, kept close relations with Iran, who became a next-door annoyance to Riyadh. During the reign of King Abdullah (2005-2015), Eritrean-Saudi relations were clinically dead. The war in Yemen and the need for military basis in Assab, in addition to the Saudi-Qatari crisis, blew some breath in the bilateral relations.
Remarkably, the reasons behind establishing the Red Sea Council of States are circumstantial and they may disappear with the changing winds of events. Moreover, the member states are intrinsically heterogeneous: Eritrea has bad relations with Djibouti, whereas Somalia keeps close relations with Turkey, which is a concern to Eritrea, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia combined. No solid political ideology binds the members’ states. Security concerns alone are not solid grounds for serving the divergent interests of the member states. The alliance will surely need to pass the test of time.
By Fathi Osman