The state media never gets tired of telling us how the Arabs are grateful that Ethiopia hosted the “First Hijrah” – the relatives and followers of Prophet Mohammed who took refuge in Ethiopia from persecution back home.

It reiterates this version of the story whenever it is reporting about the warm relationship with Arab nations and the influx of investors from the region. But, that is not the whole truth.

An equally, if not more, influential version of the story credits the then Ethiopian king for his hospitality. Whereas, it describes the state of Ethiopia as one which stood in the way of Islamic expansion or, as some would say, the first land that “betrayed Islam” and “a land of the ultimate heresy” – Irtad. An interpretation, which, although appearing contradictory to the Prophet’s dictum, is prevalent among Arab elites, and that includes the House of Saud, the royal family of 4,000 plus princes that rules Saudi Arabia and owns most of its oil reserves, driving its legitimacy through a radical clergy.

This religious-come-political view was presumably running in the mind of the Saudi Deputy Defence Minister, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, when he spoke in Cairo, Egypt, this week, at the Third Arab Water Council, for which he is an honorary President.

In the most blistering remark made by an Arab official in decades, Prince Khalid said “Egypt is the most affected party from the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, because they have no alternative water source compared to other Nile Basin countries.

The establishment of the dam 12Km from the Sudanese border is for political plotting, rather than for economic gain and constitutes a threat to Egyptian and Sudanese national security” he added.

He went on to say “there are fingers messing with water resources of Sudan and Egypt, which are rooted in the mind and body ofEthiopia. They do not forsake an opportunity to harm Arabs without taking advantage of it.”

Indeed, neither the Council nor this particular session is about Ethiopia, but about the Arab water problem. The most water-scarce region which gets the bulk of its fresh water from non-Arab countries, in particular from rivers flowing out of Turkey and Ethiopia.

It is understandable that they needed to confer on the matter, as their problem is projected to get worse, due to decades of mismanagement, with regards to their ground water resources, population growth, the effect of the 2007 drought and global warming.

Most Ethiopians take for granted that Arab nations take a highly partisan position on the utilization of the Nile water. However, as much as we do not trust them, we are used to diplomatese, to the extent of doubting historical accounts of how many times they stood in our way.

What surprised most Ethiopians is not that the Prince described Ethiopia as an enemy of the Arabs, but that he dared to say it in public.

The million-dollar question among Ethiopians last week, then, was why a Saudi and why now?

Prince Khalid is not a nobody, and there are no previous reports of him making public relation blunders. He is the owner of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper and a son of the late Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Sultan bin Abdulaziz.

His daughter’s recent marriage to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s son and the wedding guest-list, indicates that his place is in the inner circle. Indeed, his self-promotion efforts during the 2009 Saudi bombing of Yemen, which he led and could have been his ticket to the top had it succeeded, was seen as a clear indication of his ambitions.

He also authored a personal biography, portraying himself as a military strategist and requested to be promoted to Defence Minister, as far back as 2001. In short, he is not some rambling oil oligarch, but a Prince with eyes on the soon-to-come royal succession and the promotional opportunity it brings.

Again, it does not seem likely that his remarks were taken out of context, though the full version of his speech, which would be further informative, is not yet available. During the speech, as indicated by reports from his government’s news agency, the Prince wondered “whether binding and firm legislations alone would achieve justice when it comes to distribution of water resources, or whether such measures are not enough and should be militarily backed”, adding that – “Arab countries should join forces because power is one of the three effective methods to end water crisis.”

It does not seem plausible that a man of his stature and ambition was speaking at the behest of his Egyptian hosts. This is especially so considering the gravity of the matter, on which even the Egyptians are reserved. The script was certainly written back in Riyadh.

Indeed, the Saudis have an interest in the Prince’s speech, as it kills two birds with one stone, with regards to cementing the anti-Iran coalition of the Sunnis, which the Saudi’s count on. A blistering remark against Ethiopia uplifts the Egyptians, whilst disguising the more natural target of the Council, the Turks, who, unlike Ethiopians, are less willing to share the waters from the Tigris-Euphrates river system to downstream Arab countries.

However, what gave rise to these hostile remarks is their discontent with Ethiopia’s policies and their perception of the current state of affairs.

As much as Ethiopians fail to appreciate the benefit of Saudi Arabian investments, the latter see it as if they are doing us a favour. In fact, their imperial aspirations and sense of superiority is contained by Ethiopia’s encroachment on NGOs and personalities with ties to them. Not to forget the expulsion of five of their citizens, as recently as last June, allegedly related to a terrorist plot.

The Saudis would have swallowed their pride, in previous years. Even if they may not expect the EPRDF to change course, quiet diplomacy would have appeared the only feasible game.

But now, following the absence of Meles Zenawi, they seem to feel that they can take a shot with public provocation.

If Ethiopia is on auto-pilot, as the prevailing attitude among most Western diplomats goes, then, Addis Ababa will tremble. It may even retreat.

If not, the Saudis will only have to simply retract their statements. They know the Ethiopian government is too economy-conscious to escalate the matter beyond proportion.

The House of Saud, no matter how opaque its decision making may be, is not mysterious this time around. It is doing the bidding for anti-Ethiopian forces, consciously or not, by testing the strength of the new leadership in Addis Ababa. It seems to think that there could be no better way to do that than by creating a mini-diplomatic crisis.

What we do not know is how effectively the Ethiopian ruling p
arty will react.

Predictably, the EPRDFites would like to underplay the implications of the Prince’s remarks. They rarely share their confusion and dilemma until they figure it out. Even when it is something beyond their control and not a fault of their own making.

However, this is not one of those moments where their traditional self-control works. They should understand the value of acting decisively, with limited information, at this time more so than at any other time. A measured response, even the type that Meles would have taken, would be perceived as weakness now.

Friends and enemies are watching. How Ethiopia is perceived, no matter what the reality may be, to have managed this drama will highly impact its stature in the region for years to come.


* A version of this article was published on Daniel Berhane’s weekly column "Saudi Arabia: An Honest Friend or Pretentious Foe?" – March 3, 2013 originally titled "Custodian Dilemma".

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Daniel Berhane