Without including Ethiopia in the Red Sea Council, whether as an observer or better yet a full member per the respective precedents set by the Arctic Council vis-à-vis China/India and Finland/Sweden despite none of them being littoral states, suspicions about that group’s motives will persist.
State Minister Misganu Arga told the Ethiopian News Agency that “We have the right to be included in the Red Sea Council as most of our trade transactions are made and our ships pass through the Red Sea corridor. Any activities that are underway across this area might affect our interest. While other nations from far away are claiming interest in the area, a country (Ethiopia) that is located only 60 to 100 kilometers from the seacoast should not be denied interest. This is not right.”
His has a valid point too, and it’s more relevant than ever as Ethiopia steps up its quest to regain direct and full access to a Red Sea port through peaceful means. Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed explained the reasons why to parliament last month in a nearly hour-long speech that can be watched here with English subtitles. Those who haven’t followed this issue can review the following analyses to bring themselves up to speed since the rest of the present piece assumes familiarity with this subject:
The Red Sea Council that Minister Misganu referred to in his latest interview was created in January 2020 and is officially known as the “Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden”. It comprises all the littoral states and is supposed to function as a comprehensive regional integration platform. Accordingly, its members cooperate on issues of relevance to their collective interests, particularly economic and security ones.
For however well-intentioned its goals may be, some of its members’ motives will always be viewed with suspicion so long as this group continues to exclude Ethiopia, which is the world’s most populous landlocked state whose stability is directly dependent on the Red Sea. The Council could easily put these concerns to rest by at least offering that country observer status, which would dispel speculation that some of its members have an ulterior zero-sum agenda that they want to advance at Ethiopia’s expense.
To be clear, all groups have the right to include or exclude whoever they want for whatever their reasons may be, but continuing to keep Ethiopia out of the Council perpetuates concerns about its true intentions. Instead of conforming with the multipolar trend of the times by functioning as an inclusive organization that’s open to all those who share what’s presented to be its members’ purely peaceful interests, it’s remained exclusive and closed, which lends credence to speculation about its real agenda.
This state of affairs doesn’t improve the Horn’s regional security dilemma between its coastal and hinterland states, but kindles suspicions by making it seem like some of the first group are colluding to contain Ethiopia through these means. That’s why it’s imperative for Ethiopia to at least be offered observer status in the Council so that it can finally participate in some of the group’s activities which involve the region upon which its security is directly dependent.
The precedent set by the Arctic Council proves that Ethiopia’s observer status or even full membership in the Red Sea Council is reasonable even though it’s a non-littoral state. Finland and Sweden are full members in the Arctic Council despite lacking direct access to its namesake ocean, while China and India are observers even though they’re located very far away from that body of water. Those four and the others that participate in this group all have legitimate (mostly economic) interests in the Arctic Ocean.
With this example in mind, there’s no reason why the Red Sea Council can’t at least offer Ethiopia observer status, not to mention full membership. Continuing to exclude it in spite of the precedent set by the Arctic Council, which counts far-away China as an observer despite its New Cold War rivalry with that body’s founding American member, arguably perpetuates concerns about the Red Sea Council’s true intentions. This state of affairs only worsens the Horn’s security dilemma to everyone’s detriment.
If the political will is present to dispel related speculation about some of its members’ motives, which of course can’t be taken for granted but could be encouraged by the group’s de facto Saudi leader exerting positive influence over intransigent members, then a three-step policy could easily resolve this problem. The first thing that would have to be done is to invite Ethiopia and the UAE to join the Red Sea Council, the latter of which also has stakes in that body of water due to its investments in Yemen and Somaliland.
This informal expansion of that group would confirm its inclusivity and pay respect to those closest non-littoral states with legitimate interests in the Red Sea. Sometime afterwards, or perhaps in coordination with this first step, the second one would then broaden the number of observers to include those countries with military bases in the region. That would bring the EU (via France and Italy), China, Japan, and the US into its ranks. India should also be invited as an observer too due to its growing importance.
Once this is achieved, the final step would be for the Red Sea Council’s full and observer members to mediate a pragmatic agreement whereby Ethiopia could finally regain direct and full access to this body of water, which could be facilitated by some of them extending security guarantees to Djibouti. This supplementary proposal aligns with the latest suggestions for resolving the NATO-Russian proxy war in Ukraine and the latest Israeli-Hamas war, and in this case, it could preemptively avert a war in the Horn.
Speculative fears about Ethiopia’s supposedly secret plans to invade and then annex parts of a coastal country in pursuit of its recently stepped-up plans to obtain a Red Sea port would be dispelled if a collection of responsible regional stakeholders guaranteed Djibouti’s or whoever else’s security. To be clear, such concerns have no basis in reality, but they’re still sincerely believed by some while also being dishonestly exploited by others for divide-and-rule purposes as well as to discredit Ethiopia and PM Abiy.
This same collection of stakeholders could also extend equivalent security guarantees to Ethiopia in order to assuage possible concerns that whatever coastal country/countries receive such promises won’t take advantage of them to provoke a conflict in order to compel those states to intervene in its support. Those stakeholders that already have military bases in the region (i.e. the diverse group in Djibouti and the UAE in Yemen) are the most natural guarantors for this proposed deal.
Without including Ethiopia in the Red Sea Council, whether as an observer or better yet a full member per the respective precedents set by the Arctic Council vis-à-vis China/India and Finland/Sweden despite none of them being littoral states, suspicions about that group’s motives will persist. The Horn’s security dilemma might then worsen and lead to a conflict by miscalculation, which all responsible stakeholders should seek to preemptively avert, ergo why Ethiopia should be invited to join the group.