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Ethiopia – Qatar: Diplomatic Reset

By Sani Awol
Tigrai Online Nov. 21, 2012

Ethiopian and Qatar Prime Ministers
HE the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn

Earlier this month, on the 5th of November, the Qatari Prime Minister was on a working visit in Addis. At that date, he was in the National Palace in Addis Ababa pledging Qatar’s readiness to strengthen bilateral ties and the Qatari Emir’s keenness to see Qatar investments in Ethiopia. In actuality, it was a resumption of bilateral ties rather than strengthening an existing one.

It has been about four years since Ethiopia severed its diplomatic ties with Qatar. Ethiopia was forced to take this harsh measure after repeated acts of "direct and indirect assistance to terrorist organizations" by the Gulf nation, including "the output of its media outlets" to that effect. The latest factor for severing ties was an apparently fictional ‘documentary’ video relaying ONLF’s claims that was aired months earlier in Al-Jazeera. It is known Al-Jazeera became an international media after hundreds of millions finance from the Emir of Qatar. In addition to these, though the then statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t state it explicitly, Qatar’s unprincipled ties with the Eritrean strongman Isaias Afeworki was presumably a factor.

At the time some doubted the prudence of Ethiopia’s move. However, as the concerned department of the Foreign Ministry indicated at the time, in response to a criticism by a local newspaper, Qatar’s diplomatic activities and its media outlets are part of that nation’s ambition to be a key regional political and economic player. Thus, sending a strong signal is necessary to make them reconsider their moves. These claims were proved beyond doubt last year by how Al-Jazeera covered the political unrest against the government of Bahrain, which is ally of the Qatari royal family. Similarly, telegrams from US Embassy in Doha, published by Wikileaks, showed how the Qatari officials, directly and through their media, angered several countries in the region at one time or another, out of an ambition of grandeur, only to rush into cleaning the mess, when their relations became severely strained.

It is difficult to say what and how much improvements have been observed from the Qatar side in the past four years. Neither Ethiopia, not Qatar are speaking about the past.

May be the issues that created rift in 2008 are no longer serious threats. ONLF is no more a serious force, after the counter-insurgency campaigns by the Ethiopian Military, the defeat of its allies in neighbour country Somalia and after its main faction chose put down arms signing peace agreement with the government.

The other destabilizing force, the Asmara government, is utterly in shambles, with thousands fleeing the country, a demoralized army and ever increasing internal rift among the ruling elite as well as an ailing President. With the ouster of the governments in Egypt and Libya, the Asmara has fewer resources to continue its role as regional spoiler.

Given the weakening of the destabilizing forces and the deepening of national consensus and the internationally acclaimed robust economic growth of Ethiopia, the level of threat a single media or a far-away nation can pose is highly undermined. This is not to say there hasn’t been observable changes from the Qatari side, but time also changed the significance of the issues.

Surely, the Qatari officials, aware of the changes listed above, chose to reconsider their approach towards Ethiopia as demonstrated this month. It is to be recalled that in 2008, when Ethiopia severed diplomatic ties, officials in Doha said: “the misleading Ethiopian claims and the allegations levelled against the State of Qatar in the Ethiopian statement represent a blatant attempt to justify the wrong policies of the Ethiopian Government”. However, this month, the Qatari Prime Minister commended those ‘wrong policies’ which were proven right through the test of time.

A news report of his meeting with Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn in Addis Ababa stated:

[Qatari Prime Minister] Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim praised the development efforts of Ethiopia as “a model for the region, and he reiterated Qatar’s keenness to assist Ethiopia’s development through mutually beneficial investments.

The resumption of diplomatic relations between Ethiopian and Qatar is not a mere addition of one more embassy in Addis Ababa and Doha. That is not to downplay, the value having as many as possible countries with healthy diplomatic ties, as it strengthens the international standing and opportunities of Ethiopia. But, the Ethio-Qatari diplomatic reset is more than good will overture. 

It should be noted the decision to re-establish ties was made when the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi met with his Qatari counterpart in February 23 this year, at the sidelines of the London Conference on Somalia. That meeting was presumably a result of earlier exchanges through low level officials and indicators of Doha’s changed attitude. 

Though PM Meles passed away before formalizing the matter, the Qatari officials and their Ethiopian counterparts carried through. This evidences the continuation of Ethiopia’s foreign policy despite changes in leadership, as former US Ambassador David Shinn remarked on Radio France International. Similarly, it demonstrates Qatar’s and other international actors’ confidence in the stability of the government in Addis and its reliability to honor the pledges made by the late Prime Minister. 

The latest talks to resume relationship were wide-ranging and promising. As the Prime Minister commended them during their meetings, the Qatari’s speedy engagement indicates they mean business. 

It was on October 24 that Qatar’s Deputy Minister of Finance and Economy Mr. Khalaf Ahmed Almenaa, arrived in Addis accompanied by several Qatar officials as well as representatives of several Qatar companies. He met Ethiopian State Minister of Finance and Economic Development and discussed economic and bilateral relations including investment opportunities in mineral, agricultural and tourist sectors.

The Qatari officials didn’t waste time to build on that preliminary discussion. Ten days later, a high level delegation led by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al-Thani, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar, arrived in Addis Ababa for a two-day visit.

Apart from the general discussions at the Prime Ministerial level, the one-on-one meetings between Qatari ministers in the delegation and their Ethiopian counterparts were successful and action-oriented.

According to the report from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

  • They agreed on a draft Labor Agreement and to finalize negotiations and table it for signature shortly.
  • They agreed to conclude, before the end of the year, negotiations on agreements on Avoidance of Double Taxation and Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection, and also agreed to maintain periodic consultations between the two Finance Ministers on the matter.
  • The Qatari officials proposed that the number of flights between Addis Ababa and Doha to be increased from the current 2 flights per week to 14 flights. The matter was forwarded to relevant aviation officials who shall reach a conclusion before the first week of December.
  • As a result of the agreement to facilitate the import and export of agricultural and industrial products between the two countries and Ethiopia’s invitation for Qatari investment in the Agro-industry sector, the Qatari delegation tasked the Ministry of Agriculture to gather and relay the necessary information for Qatar’s major agricultural company “Hassad Food” within the next three months.
  • The Qatar delegation expressed interest to the building of a perishable goods hub at the Bole Airport and the establishment of modern abattoirs across the country.  The delegation also noted a desire to introduce Qatar’s rich experience in Pakistan rice production to Ethiopia, and promised to send a technical team to look into the possibilities shortly.
  • The draft agreement proposed by the Qatari Chamber of Commerce to its Ethiopian counterpart was positively received, pending further discussions.
  • The two countries signed an agreement for the Establishment of a Joint Ministerial Commission; a Memorandum of Understanding between the two Ministries of Foreign Affairs to conduct regular bilateral consultations; and an Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation.

The significance of the diplomatic reset becomes clearer when one considers the economic climate which indicates that Qatar will seriously carry thorough the economic and investment agreements. Though Qatar is a small country with less than nine hundred thousand population and 11.5 thousand square kilometers landmass, it is an economic giant with about USD 175 Billion GDP. Its economy has been registering double-digit growth since the 2000s.

While Qatar’s economy is oil-driven, it has embarked on serious industrialization endeavors as its oil reserves are expected to run dry within a decade. Thus, unlike other oil economies, Qatar can be expected to be a serious partner in industrialization. Besides, the two primary exports of Qatar, other than natural gas and petroleum products, are fertilizers and steel, which are of interest to Ethiopia both as a commodity and in terms of technology transfer.

As Agriculture makes up less than 1% of Qatar’s economy, while food is its primary import commodity, the Gulf nation has the potential to be a destination for Ethiopia’s agriculture and agro-industry products.

With less than 1% unemployment rate and a labor market almost entirely reliant on foreign labor force, Qatar is likely to be the destination for Ethiopian laborers and professionals.

It shall also be noted that Qatar has virtually no significant trade ties with African countries. Qatar’s interest in Ethiopia is certainly part of the current global trend to get a foothold in the booming African economy. Thus, the new diplomatic reset will make Ethiopia the pioneer destination of Qatari investments while paving the way for more Qatari finance in the continent.

These multi-faceted economic ties will eventually translate to a constructive political and security cooperation between Ethiopian and Qatar in particular, and the Gulf region and the Horn of Africa in general.

Therefore, the concerted move of Prime Minister Hailemariam and his cabinet to carry through the diplomatic reset, charted by the late PM Meles Zenawi, is one more indicator the nation is on the rights track.

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