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ISPI MED This Week | The Blue Nile Dam: An Arab or African Issue?

The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we turn the spotlight on the Nile, where the dispute between Ethiopia and downstream countries over Addis Ababa’s plan to further fill his “Renaissance” dam is increasingly pressuring Arab states to mediate among quarrelling stakeholders.


On June 15th, upon a request from Egypt and Sudan, the Arab League held an extraordinary meeting in Doha (the first such gathering Qatar has hosted since the restoration of diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and its allies) on the disputed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In fact, tensions are rapidly soaring over Addis Ababa’s intention to complete the second phase of the filling of the dam’s reservoir without a legally binding instrument mutually agreed upon with Cairo and Khartoum. Historically, the Blue Nile water governance has been a source of political contention between the three basin countries. For Ethiopia, completing what will be Africa’s largest hydropower plant embodies the country’s hopes for power generation and economic development. At the same time, it will be a remarkable result for a country frustrated by eight months of dire civil war in the Tigray region. Marked by famine and atrocities, the conflict has also sullied the international reputation of the country’s president, Abiy Ahmed, whose political stance is under scrutiny since the June 21 parliamentary elections. Conversely, Egypt sees this project as a direct threat that could undermine its security and status in the region, while Sudan is concerned for its own dams and water stations along the Nile. The previous round of talks — held in April under the African Union brokerage — stalled after Addis Ababa refused the two downstream countries’ demand to involve international mediation to help settle the dispute. In Qatar’s capital, representatives of the 22-member league states issued a communiqué, calling for the UN Security Council to take all the “necessary measures” to start an “active negotiating process” to reach a deal among stakeholders involved in the dispute. Nonetheless, Ethiopia’s authorities have rejected the resolution in its entirety, blaming Egypt and Sudan for “unnecessarily politicizing” negotiations around the dam and turning an “African problem” into an Arab issue. As a result, the latest effort by downstream countries to reach an agreement on filling the GERD risks another deadlock, which in turn could open the way to a further rekindling of tensions in this highly volatile context.


Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the Arab League meeting on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam.

 

The rivalry between Egypt and Ethiopia goes beyond the Nile issue

“From the Doha summit, the first hosted by Qatar since the 2017 blockade, two main points concerning the GERD issue emerged. The first is the pressure that Egypt has exerted on the Arab League to back the international (UN) commitment to launch new talks after the collapse of those promoted by the African Union. The second point of concern is that the Egypt-Sudan duo is willing to accept a temporary and partial deal with Ethiopia to govern the filling and operating of the GERD. The rivalry between Egypt and Ethiopia goes beyond the Nile issue. Indeed, Cairo’s renewed southern projection has opened up competition between the two regional powers. On the backdrop remains the UAE which enjoys great leverage on the three disputants. The strategic shift resulting from the withdrawal of troops in Yemen has favoured new Emirati diplomatic initiatives in the Horn. However, the conduct of the ongoing war in Tigray and the intransigence to accept Emirati mediation on GERD have gradually cooled the relationship between Abiy Ahmed and Abu Dhabi. On the UAE side, there is annoyance due to Ethiopian intransigence in dealing with the border dispute with Sudan, of which Abu Dhabi had been active in mediating. The Emirates most probably wish to pressure Abiy in the hope of persuading him to sit at the negotiating table. A step Abiy would probably do after the upcoming election (scheduled for June 21). This would pave the way for an agreement – that would be difficult to reach – and would reinforce the UAE’s image as a mediator, especially with its US ally.”

Federico Donelli, Postdoc Researcher, University of Genoa

 

Civilian and military authorities: the twofold foreign policy of Sudan

“Under Omar al-Bashir’s rule, Sudan sided more with Ethiopia: after initially being against the dam, in 2012 al-Bashir declared his support for the project. Since the overthrow of the regime in April 2019 and the first filling of the dam in July 2020, Sudan has aligned itself strongly with Cairo. This is unsurprising given that Egypt – with the UAE and Saudi Arabia- supported the military faction that overthrew al-Bashir and which is now governing Sudan in an uneasy partnership with civilian authorities. The leaders of Sudan military and paramilitary forces have developed strong ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE through their involvement in the Saudi coalition in Yemen, providing most of the “boots on the ground”. Sudanese civilian authorities do not appear to have equally close ties, instead courting the US and Europe for support. There are now two concurrent Sudanese foreign policies, one of which is heavily militarized and currently at play around the issue of the GERD.”

Anne-Laure Mahé, East Africa research fellow, Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM)

 

Despite the stalemate, the African Union’ s role remains crucial

“Addis Ababa’s rejection of the June 15th Arab League resolution – calling for a UN Security Council intervention in the dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over the filling of the GERD – undermines all prospects for a direct involvement of the United Arab Emirates as a mediator in the regional conflict. As a strong partner of Ethiopia, Abu Dhabi was deemed able to play a constructive role in overcoming the diplomatic stalemate: however, Abiy Ahmed is standing firm on his ‘African solutions for African problems’ position, blaming the Arab League’s initiative as an attempt to ‘Arabize’ a purely African issue. After the failure of the 2019 mediation by the US, accused to steer the process in favour of Egypt, Addis Ababa has adopted an unyielding stance, refusing the active engagement of non-African players in the negotiations. Despite the blockade of the current AU-led diplomatic initiative, the African Union is still the only actor who can legitimately play a diplomatic role in the dispute for Ethiopia. However, the recent frictions between the federal government and the continental body over the launch of an independent commission of inquiry for alleged human rights violations in Tigray – misguided and lacking a legal basis, according to Ethiopian authorities – risks compromising the role of the AU as an impartial and unbiased broker for Addis Ababa, while further isolating the country in the regional and international arenas, with serious implications on the political settlement of the GERD issue.”

Camillo Casola, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI

 

Beyond the conflict, the potential of the wider Red Sea region

“The wider Red Sea region, including the Nile basin, Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula, is becoming an increasingly important space for competition and cooperation. Tension in the Nile basin over Ethiopia’s hydropower plans undermines the potential for regional cooperation, although a negotiated outcome on Nile waters is ultimately more likely than a military conflict. Perhaps more importantly, Sudan’s political transition has led to a more assertive position from Khartoum on Sudanese interests in the Nile talks and in the Red Sea. This will make the competition for economic opportunities such as port investments, including from Turkey and the Gulf States, more complex.”

Jason Mosley, Associate Senior Researcher, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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