Aklilu Shiketa
Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris).

When Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassim announced his intention to promote peace across the Horn of Africa during his November 2012 visit to Ethiopia, a rare moment of optimism for regional stability was felt in Addis Ababa. After mediating between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels in 2008 and arbitrating the Eritrea-Djibouti boundary dispute in 2010, Qatar has emerged as a serious diplomatic player in a region where Ethiopia is also growing in importance.

Some experts believe the Gulf country’s involvement in the Horn could even have positive implications for the contentious relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea, long a source of instability and tension in the area.

The question, however, is if Qatar up to such an important and difficult task — and why would an Arab country entangle itself in such messy African affairs? Shedding light on these issues can help gauge the prospects for a Qatar-mediated peace.

Over the past 10 years, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Qatar have maintained a complicated triangular relationship. Until Hamad’s visit to Addis Ababa in 2012, for example, Qatar was regarded as an unwanted presence that complicated Ethiopia’s relationship with Eritrea. The Gulf country stood accused of abetting “Eritrea’s policy of destabilizing the Horn of Africa” and, in April 2008, Ethiopia severed diplomatic relations with Qatar.

In Addis Ababa, Qatar had long been viewed as country that was trying to punch above its weight diplomatically, with a foreign policy that emanated from the personal ambitions of its leaders, rather than its national interest. Ethiopia was also incredulous that Qatar could maintain a close relationship with Eritrea in spite of the Arab country’s strong alliance with the United States (who has, at times, regarded Eritrea as a state that sponsors terrorism).

Despite its outsider status and lack of familiarity, if Qatar does succeed in improving one of Africa’s most contentious bilateral relationships the result would be a boost for peace and security across the region, and significant for the new government in Somalia.

Qatar, of course, has its own perceptions of Ethiopia. High-level politicians have sometimes referred to Ethiopia as an aggressor nation, with former State Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulrahman bin Hamad al-Attiyah publicly stating in 2008 that Ethiopia threatens the security and stability of a number of states in the Horn of Africa.

After years of acrimonious exchanges, however, it was a welcome development that Ethiopia and Qatar agreed to normalize their relations in 2012. The warm reception given to the Qatari prime minister during his visit to Addis Ababa suggests that Ethiopia considers the relationship of increasing strategic importance. This was confirmed shortly afterward when Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, agreed to a Qatari-mediated meeting with his counterpart in Eritrea.

For Eritrea’s part, however, the options are much more limited. Qatar is one of the few countries that maintain regular diplomatic relations with Asmara, so it was unsurprising that Eritrean policy makers accepted Qatar’s offer of mediation. While Eritrea is yet to follow through with the settlement brokered by Qatar following its boundary conflict with Djibouti in 2010, the country finds itself increasingly isolated under United Nations Security Council sanctions that were imposed in 2009 and again in 2011. It is, therefore, in Eritrea’s interest to seize the opportunity provided by Qatari mediation.

From the Qatari perspective, the motive behind involvement in Ethiopia and Eritrea’s contentious foreign affairs remains obscured beyond its own prime minster’s personal ambition as a peacemaker. Ethiopia’s high rate of economic growth, however, has attracted investment from others in the Gulf region, and Qatar’s supposed interest in Ethiopia’s agricultural land could also be part of the explanation for its diplomatic involvement.

For even the most keen outside observer, though, the Ethiopia-Eritrea dossier is complex. The list of the issues to negotiate is long, and requires a host of expertise. To list a few: implementing the rulings of of the Ethiopian-Eritrea Boundary Commission; resolving the fate of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia; setting conditions for the use of the Eritrean ports by Ethiopia; defining the role of both countries in Somalia; eliminating United Nations sanctions on Eritrea; and reviving Eritrea’s bid to re-join the Intergovernmental Authority for Development. Comprehending and prioritizing these issues will be a daunting task.

Despite its outsider status and lack of familiarity, however, if Qatar does succeed in improving one of Africa’s most contentious bilateral relationships the result would be a boost for peace and security across the entire region, and especially significant for the new government in Somalia. In theory, improved Ethiopian-Eritrean relations would slow the proxy war in Somalia being carried out through al-Shabaab, leaving the African Union to focus on peacemaking efforts elsewhere in the continent, for which Qatar can continue to serve as an emerging diplomatic partner.

Aklilu Shiketa is Former Director for US Affairs at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.