The Constitution of Eritrea (Article 13) proclaims that the foreign policy of this state located in the Horn of Africa “is based on respect for state sovereignty and independence, as well as on strengthening the interests of regional and interethnic peace, cooperation, stability and development”. However, until recently, the practice of foreign policy of the Eritrean leadership showed for the most part hostility and aggressive actions towards its neighboring countries (Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia), attempts to interfere in their internal affairs and to make territorial claims. This course ultimately led to the international isolation of Eritrea, the imposition of sanctions by the UN Security Council on Asmara, which worsened the already very difficult socio-economic situation in the country. Under these conditions, the leadership of Eritrea began to build relations with its neighbors, to stop the practice of supporting opposition groups, including armed ones, operating in neighboring countries. At the same time, the course was taken to develop ties with the Arabian monarchies, primarily with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Eritrea has the most difficult relationship with Ethiopia, of which it was a part until 1993. In 1998-2000, between the two countries there was a large-scale armed conflict, which was hardly suspended, and the parties formally continued to be in a state of war. Eritrean-Ethiopian relations in 2000–2018 characterized as “relative” or “unstable peace between two enemies, regularly disturbed by low intensity collisions”. All these years, both countries have been preparing for the inevitable continuation of the confrontation, increasing their military potential, and strengthening their own borders. Officially, the conflict was based on a dispute over ownership of some border territories, however, if one look deeper, “its roots are in the long process of common and separate development of the territories that are now two independent states, in the problems of the internal political and economic development of both countries”.
The situation began to change radically after Prime Minister A. Ahmed came to power in Ethiopia in April 2018, who initiated a reconciliation process between the two countries. As for the President of Eritrea I. Afwerki, he most likely considered the possibility of achieving peace with Ethiopia “as the most reliable way to maintain power”.
On July 8, 2018 A. Ahmed arrived in the Eritrean capital Asmara, where he held talks with President I. Afwerki, and on July 9, the two leaders signed a joint declaration on peace and friendship. The main provisions of this document were as follows: the state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is over. “A new era of peace and friendship has begun”. Both governments will make every effort to strengthen close political, economic, social, cultural, military cooperation. Transport, trade, telecommunication links between the two countries, as well as diplomatic relations are resumed. “Decisions on the borders between the two countries will be implemented” (on this issue, Ethiopia made concessions to Eritrea, abandoning claims to the disputed areas). It was stated that “both parties will work together to ensure peace, development and cooperation throughout the region”. In Asmara, the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s visit was called “historic”. On July 14, I. Afwerki arrived in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa with a return visit. In August 2018, Eritrea reopened its embassy in Addis Ababa, and in September, Ethiopia resumed its diplomatic mission in Asmara. In the same month, border crossing points were opened between the two countries.
On September 16, 2018, the President of Eritrea I. Afwerki and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia A. Ahmed signed a peace treaty in Saudi Jeddah, which officially ended the conflict between the two countries. The ceremony was held under the patronage of Saudi King Salman. It was attended by the KSA Crown Prince M. Bin Salman, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh A. bin Zayed Al Nahyan and UN Secretary-General A. Guterres. According to available information, the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea was signed after the promise of receiving loans from KSA and the UAE.
In connection with the signing of a peace treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the UN Security Council in November 2018 decided to lift the arms embargo on Eritrea, lift the ban on travel to the country and to cancel the assets freeze imposed by Security Council resolutions in 2009-2013.
Let’s note that the Ethiopians and Eritreans perceive the reconciliation between the two countries is ambiguous. And this process itself does not always go smoothly.
Difficult relationships persist between Eritrea and Sudan. In 1994, the two countries signed a declaration on ensuring non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, which Asmara repeatedly violated, supporting the Sudanese opposition. In 1999, countries resumed peaceful relations, but Sudan allowed the Ethiopian Armed Forces to use its territory and airspace during the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, and Eritrea renewed its support for the Sudanese opposition. In the 2000s relations between the countries have seriously improved. In October 2011, the then President of Sudan, O. Al-Bashir, officially announced the end of hostility between the two countries. In 2013-2014 the parties signed a number of agreements in the field of trade and economic cooperation.
Eritrea’s relations with Djibouti have not yet returned to normal, although Asmara has refused territorial claims on her eastern neighbor, which has repeatedly led to border conflicts.
After the commencement of the military operation in Yemen in March 2015 against the supporters of the “Ansar Allah” movement (the Houthi) by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the KSA and the UAE took steps to drag the Eritrea, which was actively in contact with the Houthi, on their side. This was done by offering favorable economic preferences. Thus, delivery of cheap Saudi fuel was arranged in Eritrea and emergency financial assistance was provided (according to experts, this is about hundreds of millions of dollars). The KSA naval base was deployed on the territory of Eritrea, which became possible after the signing of a military partnership agreement with Saudi King M. Ben Salman by President I. Afwerki in April 2016. As for the United Arab Emirates, this country was given the opportunity to use on lease terms for a period of 30 years the port of Assab and the airfield near it to provide logistics for coalition forces in Yemen. To date, the UAE has completed the reconstruction of the port of Assab, and created a military base on the territory of the airport Assab. Combat aviation of the UAE Air Force systematically uses this base to attack targets in the south of Yemen and in Libya. A logistics point of the UAE Navy is being built. In general, KSA and the UAE are planning to gain a foothold in Eritrea for a long time, and their presence is not associated only with the Yemeni crisis.
Eritrea is building relations with Somalia. In the autumn of 2018, the President of Somalia, M.A. Mohamed, visited Asmara, and in December 2018, the President of Eritrea, I. Afwerki, visited Mogadishu. Following the visit, the presidents of the two countries declared their intention to cooperate in the fight against terrorism, and also agreed to develop bilateral trade. Earlier, the Somali authorities accused Eritrea of supporting the extremist Islamist movement “Al-Shabab”, which operates in the country and is associated with Al-Qaeda (banned in the Russian Federation).
Along with the development of relations with the official authorities of Somalia, Eritrea maintains contacts with the self-proclaimed state entity Somaliland. In March 2019, an Eritrean delegation consisting of Foreign Minister O. S. Mohammed, and the adviser to President I. Afeworki, Y. Gebreab, visited the capital of Somaliland, where it was stated that Eritrea is seeking to develop closer cooperation with the government of this territory. Experts believe that «behind this visit and the exchange of “courtesies” the invisible diplomatic presence of the KSA and the United Arab Emirates is clearly visible, which thus react to the increasing influence of Qatar in Somalia and play a map of the approach of Eritrea to Somaliland as a counterweight. That is, with a direct competitor to Mogadishu».
Eritrea’s cooperation with Egypt is actively developing. The Egyptian military contingent has been located in Eritrea since January 2018. At the same time, President I. Afwerki visited Cairo, where he held talks with President of Egypt, A.F. As-Sisi. The main issues discussed were the expansion of trade and investment relations between the two countries, as well as regional and international issues. In Cairo, they note that “the location of Eritrea near the southern entrance to the Red Sea makes it a very important country for Egypt, and that is why the Egyptian presence in Eritrea is a necessity of national security, but not a matter of choice”.
Institute of the Middle East.
On changes in the military-political situation in the Middle East and North Africa (July 15 — 21, 2019). Annex.