It is a gift from geography for your country to enjoy a strategic location that affects trade movement and to figure in security calculations. At the end of the day, however, what really matters is how this gift is handled and invested.
The strategic location may transform from a blessing into a curse if sound policies are not available to fortify the country from major regional and international powers. During the long-gone time of two major world powers, small countries used to pay the price for siding with this camp or that. They were also paid hefty sums to defect from one camp to the other.
In the mid-1980s, much was said about refugee camps on the Sudanese-Eritrean border. I was dispatched there by Lebanon’s An Nahar newspaper to see for myself the suffering there. I used to tell myself that the media exaggerated the reality there, because it was hard to believe that a child could starve to death because he could not find a drop of milk or crumb of bread.
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I toured the camp and came across a man searching for a grave in which to lay to rest the body of a small child. Dispelling my doubts, he confirmed to me that the child had starved to death. Similar scenes were repeated at the camp throughout the day. That day taught me that a regime should be judged based on the amount of food and work and education opportunities it provides its people, not on its loud slogans and claims of victories.
I recall another incident in which Eritrean movements invited a number of journalists to attend a conference they were holding on Eritrean soil they had dreamed of liberating. The journalist were to accompany the Eritrean fighters to infiltrate Ethiopian territory amid the lingering threat of air strikes.
We stayed there for several days and witnessed first-hand the tragedy the people have to endure when living under the shadow of oppression and poverty. We believed that day that the Eritrean war for independence would be endless like the Palestinian dream for independence.
The Ethiopian-Eritrean summit in Jeddah is a major victory for diplomatic, economic and security calculations. It is also an important step forward in achieving stability in a turbulent worldGhassan Charbel
The strategic location of the Horn of Africa made it a constant presence on the agendas of major and regional countries. The countries of the Horn of Africa overlook the Indian Ocean and control the southern entrance of the Red Sea. This means that the region is vital for energy and trade shipments.
The Red Sea ports are also vital for the economies of Arab Gulf countries, as well as their national security. Moreover, the Horn of Africa countries also control the sources of the Nile River, meaning the stability of Egypt’s economy and security. The region has long suffered from major international meddling. The best example of this was the 1977 Ogaden War between Somalia and Ethiopia.
In order to save Addis Ababa from certain defeat, the Soviet Union dispatched its military aides, weapons and 18,000 Cuban soldiers and 2,000 soldiers from “comrade forces in Aden.” The Soviet intervention that day changed the course of the war, exactly how Russia’s recent intervention in Syria changed its war.
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The Horn of Africa has also long suffered from the scars of border wars and conflicts because each country there sought to destabilize its neighbor and host opposition figures. The Ethiopian-Eritrean war broke out in 1988 and left more than 100,000 people dead.
As the fighting raged on, poverty became more rampant, refugee numbers began to mount and economies started to weaken, leaving the youth to chose between poverty, militias, extremism or the dream of immigration.
Major countries competed to establish a foothold in the Horn of Africa. The most recent one to do so was China, which is launching a major effort to expand in Africa as part of a wider offensive across the globe.
This economic attack falls under its “Belt and Road” initiative and was accompanied by Beijing exercising greater political clout and increasing its military spending. Iran is also trying to breach the region, directly or through Houthi missiles.
Given the above, we can understand the historic developments that took place in Jeddah, which witnessed the signing of a permanent peace deal between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki under the direct sponsorship of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Choosing Jeddah as the location to sign this deal is recognition of the success of Saudi Arabia’s peace efforts, as well as those exerted by the United Arab Emirates. The truth is that the arrival of a young and wise leader to a position of power in Ethiopia was one of the main reasons that helped push forward this drive for peace.
It is clear that Ahmed is seeking a policy of resolving his country’s internal and foreign problems in order to achieve a qualitative shift in cooperation to develop the economy and achieve prosperity and stability.
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It was not easy to make concessions to persuade Afwerki to join this new drive, but the course of events cannot be altered without taking difficult decisions. The Ethiopian-Eritrean summit in Jeddah is a major victory for diplomatic, economic and security calculations.
It is also an important step forward in achieving stability in a turbulent world. The prime minister of Ethiopia has emerged as a new and prominent player in the battles of the future, not the past.
History will note that Ahmed and Afwerki set prosperity as a priority over claiming victory against the other. Afwerki realized that victory against poverty, unemployment and lack of modernity were more important than a victory against Ethiopia, while Ahmed had realized early on that prosperity protects internal and foreign stability.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan’s Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.