Skip to main content

Five ways Nobel winner Abiy Ahmed left his mark on the Middle East

From mediating talks in Sudan to personally calling for the release of an Ethiopian-born Saudi tycoon imprisoned in the Ritz, MEE looks at how Abiy influenced the region
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a historic peace deal with Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki in September 2018 (AFP)

Standing under a portrait of Saudi Arabia's founder in Jeddah, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace deal that would end 20 years of hostility between the two countries.

This act of diplomacy would pave the way for newfound hope of stability in East Africa, and lead Abiy to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. 

Since coming to power in 2018, Abiy has been hailed as a reformer: from releasing thousands of political prisoners in Ethiopia to introducing a series of political reforms that intended to help open up society.

His presence has also been felt in the Middle East and garnered both positive and negative reactions.

Here are five ways Abiy has left his mark on the region:

Sudan peace talks 

Abiy played a pivotal role in 2019 by helping broker a peace deal in Sudan, which borders Ethiopia, between the army and pro-democracy activists. 

His assistance helped usher in an administration run by both the military and civilians, and cool tensions in the violent period that followed the fall of Sudan's longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir.

But his role in brokering peace in Sudan is nothing new. In 2018, Abiy played a role in talks between Sudan and its neighbour South Sudan over a maritime territorial dispute.

Renaissance Dam on the Nile

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has long been a source of contention between Ethiopia and Egypt. 

The dam, under construction since 2011, lies on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and accounts for 85 percent of the River Nile's waters. 

Egypt relies on the Nile for up to 90 percent of its freshwater and fears the dam will restrict the country's water supplies. 

Ethiopia, meanwhile, hopes the dam will become Africa's largest hydroelectric dam.

Recent talks between the Abiy's government and Cairo have broken down after Egypt failed to get assurances that the dam will not affect the river's flow to the country. 

Deportation of Eritreans from Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters last month that Abiy raised the idea of deporting Eritrean asylum-seekers with the help of Ethiopia during his visit to Israel earlier this year. 

“I have the possibility to help you with very innovative projects how to return the people to Eritrea, and to bring them back under wonderful conditions,” Netanyahu quoted Abiy as telling him. 

An Ethiopian embassy worker in Tel Aviv, however, denied that any talk of deportations took place between Abiy and Netanyahu during his visit. 

“Nothing was raised regarding this issue during the meeting. The discussion was about strengthening the bilateral relations,” the official told the Times of Israel. 

Abiy and Saudi Arabia

Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi, an Ethiopian born tycoon who is a Saudi citizen, was detained in the Ritz Carlton for corruption charges by Saudi Arabia in 2018. 

Amoudi was eventually released, but his continued detention could have proved troublesome for Ethiopia, where he is one of the country's main investors.  

Abiy confirmed Amoudi's release on Twitter and told his followers that he had personally raised the issue with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a trip to Riyadh last year.

Both countries share a relationship going back decades, with many Ethiopians moving to Saudi Arabia for work. 

While the historic peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia was signed in Jeddah, it remains unclear what role the Saudis played in broking the peace deal. 

UAE involvement in Eritrea peace deal 

The UAE has been a long-time supporter of Eritrea, where it has a deep-sea port and its first foreign military army base.

When Abiy came to power, one of his first speeches emphasised peace with Eritrea and called for both countries to enact a UN peace deal, signed in 2000, that was ignored by both sides.

To make this happen, Abiy's first foreign visit as prime minister was to Saudi Arabia where he asked Mohammed bin Salman to call on the UAE to get Eritrea to the negotiating table. 

For the UAE, peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia is important, as it enabled Abu Dhabi to reinforce its influence in the region, according to Camille Lions of the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

Ethiopia also remains heavily reliant on Abu Dhabi, with the majority of it's meat exports going to the UAE.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.