(By: Yonas Abiye)
Cultural bonds are deep-rooted, strong and ancient. Indeed, they go back to the time of the Prophet when he told his family and followers to take refuge in Ethiopia when threatened by persecution in Mecca.
In return, the Prophet instructed his followers not to touch Abyssinians, Ethiopians today, except in self-defense. Islam, of course, was born in Saudi Arabia but it was in Ethiopia that its adherents were first allowed to practice it freely. There are a number of similar episodes detailed in the annals of Islamic and Ethiopian tradition. They have certainly contributed to the strengthening of relations between the two peoples.
But this week, in unprecedented manner, news that stirred controversy came out from Cairo, Egypt following a “harsh” criticism filled remark by Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, against Ethiopia, something totally unexpected by the Ethiopian government and people.
The real intent of the remark made by this senior official of Saudi has raised several questions from different sides. Was it just an echo for Egypt and Sudan being merely a messenger voice? Or really the position of the Royal Kingdom.
Last Wednesday the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Addis Ababa for the latter to give an explanation on the real notion of the remarks made by the defense minister which was made during the Arab Water Council Meeting in Cairo.
"The [Grand] Renaissance dam has its capacity of flood waters reaching more than 70 billion cubic meters of water, and is located at an altitude of 700 meters and if it collapsed then Khartoum will drown completely and the impact will even reach the Aswan Dam," the Saudi deputy defense minister Khalid Bin Sultan said at the meetings.
"Egypt is the most affected party from the Ethiopian Renaissance dam because they have no alternative water source compared to other Nile Basin countries, and the establishment of the dam 12 kilometers from the Sudanese border is for political plotting rather than for economic gain and constitutes a threat to Egyptian and Sudanese national security" the Sudan Tribune quoted the Saudi official saying.
Meanwhile, Ambassador Abdulbagi bin Ahmad Ajlan told Ethiopian officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the defense minister’s comment is neither his (the ambassador) nor the Royal Kingdom’s position.
Prince Khalid went on saying, "There are fingers messing with water resources of Sudan and Egypt which are rooted in the mind and body of Ethiopia. They do not forsake an opportunity to harm Arabs without taking advantage of it".
According to the spokesperson of MoFA, Ambassador Dina Mufti, the Ethiopian government has been alarmed after hearing the unexpected news.
After the “harsh” criticism against Ethiopia was made, Prime Minister Hailemarlam Desalegn, together with finance and economic development minister, Sufian Ahmed welcomed a group of Saudi Arabian delegation led by the minister of Finance of Saudi Arabia, Dr. Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al-Assaf.
The visit of the delegation was said to be aimed at trade and investment boosting between the two countries.
But nothing came out from the two sides as they discuss the Nile related controversy that sparked the diplomatic dispute.
On the occasion that the two countries signed two loan agreements amounting to a total of 25 million USD with the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (BADEA) and the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD.) At the same occasion, the country also signed avoidance of double taxation agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Critics said that though Saudi Arabia has a concern on the Nile issue with regards to Ethiopia’s dam project, it should not have been publicly disclosed as far as diplomatic relationship is concerned.
While the Saudi official also added that Egypt would be largely affected by this dam, which is scheduled to be completed in six years, because it only has the Nile as water resource. Constructing this dam in Ethiopia at this location has political rather than commercial motives.
“It also threatens the water and national security for Sudan,” he said.
Six months after Hailemariam assumed the premiership following the death of the late Meles Zenawi, the incident can be regarded as the major challenge that Hailemariam has been tested with so far.
There have been a number of exchanges of visits over the years by high level government officials between Ethiopia and the Royal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and a number of agreements have been signed to enhance relations. There is a Joint Ministerial Commission that is meant to meet annually to review the progress in all areas of cooperation. The Commission also has the task of suggesting new areas for cooperation and of working towards their implementation.
Trade relations have been on the rise. At present the total volume of trade stands at just over 12 billion birr but this is expected to increase significantly in both quantity and quality.
Investment is a growing area of cooperation and a growing number of Saudi investors are engaged in different sectors in Ethiopia, with a total of 369 million dollars currently involved. The largest investor is Sheikh Mohamed Al-Amoudi, the owner of Midroc, which has interests in hotels and tourism, construction, mining, agriculture, manufacturing and education. All in all there are some 69 companies, in addition to those of Sheikh Al-Amoudi. Investment is growing but taking into account the long-standing relations and strong cultural ties between the two countries, considerably more investment should be expected.
In June 2011, after Hailemariam Desalegn was appointed Deputy PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs, he visited Saudi Arabia and he was reportedly said to have had fruitful discussions with officials from the Royal Kingdom. At that time he told the Saudi Gazette at the Jeddah Conference Palace that the Kingdom had requested around 30,000 laborers including housemaids, drivers and technical staff from Ethiopia.
He said that his country would make sure all workers sent to the Kingdom were well trained. For this purpose, he added, there are a number of training centers. Hailemariam s
aid that the environment in his country was conducive to investment. “There are huge investment opportunities in mining, agriculture, tourism, construction and real estate.”
Saudi Arabia, he said, is among the top investors in Ethiopia. “Saudi businessmen have invested around SR 2 billion in agriculture in Ethiopia,” he said. He said the number of Saudi tourists has also gone up due to the ongoing unrest in several countries in the Arab world. “We (Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia) will sign three agreements for the promotion of livestock and agriculture, promotion and protection of investment and avoidance of double taxation,” Hailemariam said.
Back then the deputy prime minister said that they were working on a dam project, which would have a capacity to produce 5,200 megawatts of electricity.
With all these relations, still the question remains regarding how much Hailemariam’s administration handled the matter, would it bring a win-win solution as is the usual rhetoric or is there more determination to challenge any potential opponents as far as the country’s national interest is concerned.
Originally published on the Ethiopian Reporter, on March 2, 2013, titled "Unmasking Saudi Arabia: An enemy under a cloak of friendship??", authored by Yonas Abi.
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