By Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy*
The UAE seems to have become the new destination for indirect negotiations between the conflicting parties in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi last month visited the UAE and met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, as did Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
But why? Or, rather, what has changed?
The date for the third phase of the filling of the new dam is approaching — a step that Egypt fears at a time when many parties have been absent from the scene. Sudan, for example, is currently preoccupied with its internal issues.
Moreover, the African Union, in light of its extreme slowness in taking decisive steps on this file, was satisfied with the role of encouraging the continuation of negotiations between the conflicting parties, specifically Egypt and Ethiopia. The UN Security Council, to which Cairo previously resorted, has also left and it seems that its decision to obligate the parties not to violate the water rights of any other nation did not make a big difference. Perhaps there is an undeclared decision from Egypt not to return to the UNSC, as there is no point in dissuading Ethiopia from its projects in this way.
Cairo also will not count on the mediation of the EU, whose spokesman Luis Miguel Bueno stressed the need for a basic agreement among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. He added that Brussels supported negotiations and consultations in this regard, saying it was an achievable goal. However, Egypt considers this to be useless talk.
Only limited regional mediation remains and perhaps it is now the turn of the Emiratis. The UAE has strong ties with Ethiopia and supports its government in many situations, especially internal issues. And its strong diplomatic history with Egypt needs no introduction, as the two countries share a consensus on many visions and positions. Indeed, since the beginning of the GERD crisis, Egypt has been waiting for the intervention of the UAE due to its influence with the rulers of Ethiopia, hoping it can persuade them to accept the Egyptian demands.
It has been reported that an arrangement is in place for Emirati mediation, but the form and method of announcing the visits of El-Sisi and Ahmed do not suggest that, as they were both announced suddenly. The only difference between them was that El-Sisi’s visit was announced as it took place, while Ahmed’s was announced after his return home, noting that it was his first foreign visit in a long time due to the repercussions of the war in the Tigray region.
What happened during their visits may be used to bring about a breakthrough in the negotiations. Sources say that the Egyptian president asked Sheikh Mohammed to pressure Ethiopia and prevent it from storing more water than Egypt can withstand before the start of the third filling and the heightened operations of the dam. These are due to be implemented in the coming days in preparation for the rainy season. The Ethiopians have also carried out engineering works on both sides of the dam that allowed for Sunday’s switching-on of the first low-operating turbine.
Perhaps the Emirati side, which supported Ahmed’s government against its domestic opposition, sought to put pressure on the Ethiopian PM in response to the Egyptian demands. It could have used economic pressures that would have a significant impact on the internal situation in Ethiopia. The UAE could also have taken advantage of the flexibility shown by Ahmed recently, especially when he indicated that the GERD would not only benefit Ethiopia, but also Sudan and Egypt too. He stressed that the dam would provide protection for Sudan against floods and water scarcity during droughts and that it would provide Egypt with water conservation, instead of wasting billions of cubic meters of water, according to Ahmed.
By responding to the Egyptian demands, the Emirati side seeks to push its relationship with Egypt forward. El-Sisi’s visit promoted the atmosphere of love between the two countries amid Emirati promises to provide new financial support and goodwill to Egypt. This comes at a time when Abu Dhabi realizes the need for Cairo’s support on regional issues.
For his part, El-Sisi did not miss the chance to confirm Egypt’s supportive position in terms of preserving Gulf security. During his meeting with Sheikh Mohammed, he reiterated Egypt’s condemnation of any terrorist act committed by the Houthi militia. El-Sisi also stressed Egypt’s support for all measures taken by the UAE to deal with such acts.
The Egyptian president added that Cairo is keen to develop close bilateral cooperation and coordination for the benefit of the two brotherly peoples and the Arab nation. Sheikh Mohammed, in turn, stressed his great appreciation of the strategic and pivotal role that Egypt plays, under the leadership of El-Sisi, in protecting Arab national security and defending the issues of the Arab nation. He also commended Egypt’s tireless endeavors to establish security, stability and development in the region, based on the importance of its role and centrality on the regional scene.
This great rapprochement between Egypt and the UAE may yield greater fruits than expected, not only regarding the GERD, but also in many regional issues.
- Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy