Growing unrest in Ethiopia and what it means for Gulf food security

Awad Mustafa
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The Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation announcement on Feb. 14 may risk food security across the GCC.

Ethiopia is one of the main exporters of meat products to Gulf countries and investments in billions have been made by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait in agriculture development.

Desalegn’s resignation came after continuous protests by two of the largest ethnic groups in the country, the Oromos and the Amharas.

According to Economics and Country Risk Senior Analyst Dr. Christopher Suckling from London-based IHS Markit, the key grievances of protesters are due to ethnic identity issues and political representations.

The Oromo and Amhara are the two largest ethnic groups in making up 61.4 percent of the 83 million population.

The Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front have dominated decision-making within the government and represent the dominant party within the government coalition, said Suckling.

“Desalegn will remain prime minister until a successor is appointed. He stated that resigning was necessary in order for the government to resolve grievances motivating civil unrest in the Amhara and Oromia regions,” Suckling said.

The grievances stem from land grabs by businesses affiliated with ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRFD) coalition member, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), uneven redistribution of economic benefits under the flagship Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), and limited Oromo and Amhara representation in senior central government posts, he added.

“The leadership said that it would undertake “corrective measures” but did not offer specific proposals,” he added.

Resigned ethiopian Priminister (Reuters)
Resigned ethiopian Priminister (Reuters)

What this means for GCC food security

Food imports account for 90 percent of GCC consumption, and Ethiopia represents one of the largest exporters to the region for meats. It also exports gold.

Ethiopia has the lion’s share in delivering fresh goat and sheep meat to UAE and Saudi markets, specifically alongside Australia and India.

The country provides in average 80 tons of meat during Ramadan and 50 tons during the non-fasting months for the UAE and Saudi markets, according to the Ethiopian Meat Producers-Exporters Association.

While the UAE is the leading destination for Ethiopia’s meat exports with 60 percent share, Saudi Arabia has a share of 38 percent and the rest is exported to other Middle East countries, the association said.

According to an IHS Markit report, Ethiopia is currently facing government instability which has an effect on agriculture, manufacturing, mining and oil and gas sectors.

AFP A woman from the Suri tribe carries firewood on her head in Ethiopia's southern Omo Valley region, near Kibbish Ethiopia.
AFP A woman from the Suri tribe carries firewood on her head in Ethiopia's southern Omo Valley region, near Kibbish Ethiopia.

What is the next move?

Despite domestic instability inevitably affecting exports and food security in the Arab Gulf countries, IHS analyst Chris Suckling believes that the ruling EPRDF coalition is likely to agree on a consensus candidate from the Oromo tribe during its congress scheduled for March.

The candidates at present are Abiy Ahmed, head of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) secretariat and incumbent Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu.

“Ahmed’s appointment would ensure that the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) remains the EPRDF's most influential member, while the government will approve new legislation to facilitate foreign participation in energy and infrastructure development.” Said Suckling.

Furthermore, disloyalty in the military is likely to be prevented and cycles of civil unrest in the Amhara and Oromia regions will not worsen.

Appointing an Oromo prime minister would be unlikely to placate either the Oromo or Amhara grassroots opposition.

However, Ahmed is popular with Oromo youth and works closely with the TPLF’s elite on various parliamentary working committees.

“Ahmed also founded the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), an Ethiopian government intelligence agency responsible for collecting and monitoring signals intelligence,” said Suckling.

While Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu is a potential successor, he lacks grassroots support and his appointment would probably prove divisive, Suckling said.

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