25.10.2023 Author: Ivan Kopytsev

The Red Sea, a new front in Ethiopia’s foreign policy?

Abiy Ahmed

For many centuries, one of the most important elements in a country’s ability to successfully expand economically has been its ability to access marine trade routes. The capacity to significantly increase the number of trading partners and to enhance the volume and speed of cargo transportation are two of the obvious benefits of marine trade. A minimum of a modest stretch of sea or ocean coast is also necessary to avoid relying on transit through neighboring states, which helps a country achieve political independence.

However, not all nations have direct access to the world’s oceans; at the moment, 44 nations only have land borders and are in some manner isolated from the coast. Of course, depending on a variety of factors, such as population size, relationships with neighbors, political trajectory, and degree of economic growth, such a dilemma may be more or less relevant for different countries. In this context, the stance taken by the government of Ethiopia, the world’s most populous landlocked state, on “maritime boundaries” warrants particular consideration in light of remarks made by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in mid-October 2023.

Historical background

Historically, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) monarchs had access to the Red Sea via what is now Eritrea, whose harbors lured Greek traders as early as the Age of Antiquity. Despite the fact that the Neguses of Abyssinia (monarchs) had only indirect control over this strategically crucial area, the “sea gate” remained open until the advent of Italian colonists in the late nineteenth century. Following a brief period of integration when Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia, an independence war emerged in the late 1960s, resulting in Eritrea’s proclamation of independence from Ethiopia in 1994. As a result, Ethiopia was ultimately denied free use of the ports of Aceba and Massawa for economic and military objectives. Thus, one of Africa’s fastest-growing governments, with a population that has recently surpassed 120 million, ended up being locked in and cut off from the sea by Eritrea to the north and Djibouti and Somalia to the northeast. Ethiopia’s government was compelled to use the port of Djibouti as the nation’s only alternate commerce route as a result of the conflict that lasted from 1998 to 2000 and the next two decades of animosity with Asmara. According to World Bank estimates, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti transit route accounts for up to 95% of the nation’s total commerce transactions. However, the achievement of a diplomatic settlement with Eritrea in 2018 and the cessation of hostilities in northern Ethiopia in 2022, as well as the establishment of relative stability in Somaliland, create the conditions for the discovery of alternative transit routes or even new approaches to overcoming the problem.

Statement by Abiy Ahmed

Ethiopia’s lack of direct access to the world’s oceans experienced an unexpected development at the highest level in the first part of October 2023. The nation’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who has held the position since 2018, devoted a full 45 minutes of his video address to the parliament to the topic of access to the Red Sea shore. He not only outlined the main points of contention but also offered potential remedies. The Ethiopian government has been forced to focus almost entirely on the most urgent domestic issues since the start of the Tigray conflict, with little to no foreign policy beyond negotiations with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This makes the speech all the more remarkable and, in a sense, unprecedented. In light of these facts, the Prime Minister’s public declaration that Ethiopia must have access to the sea can be interpreted as the official unveiling of an incredibly ambitious foreign policy plan that simultaneously portends the emergence of contradictions and even conflicts with its neighbors, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia.

So, what did Abiy Ahmed say? First, the prime minister of Ethiopia underlined the urgency of the issue, saying that the country’s access to the sea is essential and that the project’s realization may perhaps bring peace to the Horn of Africa, which is rife with violence. The following narrative which is equally significant politically, has a direct bearing on the demands’ legitimization. For instance, Abiy Ahmed presented a variety of justifications for the legitimacy of such goals, including historical, ethnic, and economic justifications. But foremost, at least from a pragmatic standpoint, ought to be the demand that neighbors engage in mutually advantageous negotiations. Without specifying what form of cooperation Addis Ababa is interested in—renting the port, acquiring it, or taking a stake in the assets—Abiy Ahmed pointed out the active investment policy of Turkey and the UAE in the region, which can thus be considered a common practice. In doing so, the prime minister of Ethiopia made reference to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Ethiopian Airlines as resources in which neighboring nations may be offered a stake in return for their agreement to provide Ethiopia direct access to the sea. Finally, Abiy Ahmed mentioned confederation with Eritrea as a feasible alternative, assuming Asmara agrees to make a move voluntarily.

Potential value

The intended audience of Abiy Ahmed’s speech, which was formally addressed to Ethiopian lawmakers, is in fact quite different. Generally speaking, such a significant and, despite appearances to the contrary, simple appeal is not only a clear sign of the adoption of a new and extremely ambitious foreign policy strategy, or rather, doctrine, but also an effort to “feel the ground,” that is, to obtain input from the leaders of neighboring states and state entities in one way or another. Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti and Eritrea. The latter is the one that stands out on this list. Ethiopia’s “maritime gateway” historically, the nation has emerged in recent years as a crucial friend of Addis Ababa in resolving internal affairs. However, Abiy Ahmed and President of Eritrea Isaias Afwerki are not likely to be able to reconcile their political aspirations. Eritrea’s potential role in resolving the “Red Sea issue” for Ethiopia going forward will merit special attention given the cooling of relations between the two governments amid the end of the Tigray conflict and the outbreak of fighting in Amhara State, as well as rumors of tentative arrangements for a federal state allegedly reached as early as 2018.


Ivan Kopytsev, political scientist and research assistant at the Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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