Left Out of the Pivot: Saudi Arabia, China, and the new North East Africa

By Wyatt Shorter, Political Analyst

The Nile River snakes along North-East Africa like an aquatic artery. The River’s basin countries are home to upwards of 300 million people – a number that is projected to nearly double over the next two decades.  This African lifeline has been responsible for fuelling the local and national communities that reside along its banks for thousands of years, and it is currently the subject of one of the most important development projects that you’ve likely never heard of: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This ambitious construction project, spear-headed and nearly entirely funded by the economically sky-rocketing Ethiopian government, is the subject of great contention in the region, with a simmering diplomatic conflict between the Ethiopians and Egyptians slowly bubbling up towards a dangerous confrontation.


The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is an ambitious Ethiopian construction project that aims to build a large hydroelectric facility about 30 km from the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. This dam, on its expected completion in mid-2017, will be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa, and one of the largest in the world. It will sit on the Blue Nile, the Ethiopian tributary that contributes just under 60% of the water flow in the Nile’s main body that runs through Sudan and Egypt. The Egyptian government, which is already projecting a state of water poverty in the next 10 years, is understandably concerned about the Dam’s effect on water flow through their portion of the river’s banks. As a result of these concerns, the Egyptians have launched a diplomatic offensive against the Ethiopian government, attempting to enlist regional allies to block construction of the Dam, and even at one point openly discussing sabotage options should the diplomatic route not work.


The Ethiopians, however, are positioned comfortably with this project. With one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Ethiopia has managed to jet ahead of its regional counterparts by investing heavily, with strong support from China, in infrastructure projects like the GERD. This particular piece of infrastructure is being funded almost exclusively from domestic coiffures, making it difficult for Egypt to find an appropriate and effective pressure point, as there are no donors to intimidate. Construction on the dam is about 50% complete, and progress has been slowed while the regional governments (mainly the Sudanese, Egyptians, and Ethiopians) attempt to find a suitable path forward that keeps everybody satisfied.


As it stands right now, the Egyptian and Ethiopian governments are at pretty firm loggerheads. The governments have fundamental disagreements about who owns the water rights and who has domestic construction rights. This week’s announcement by the Saudi government, which will see a bridge built across the Red Sea to connect the Saudis and Egyptians, is a major regional power play by Riyadh. The Saudi Government has positioned itself over the past 4 years to become a major development partner to its regional allies in North-East Africa. In 2013, the Saudi King fired a minister who made negative comments about the GERD project.


As Riyadh positions itself to become a regional mediator, as well as a project-funder and labour-provider, we must ask ourselves in the West if this is who we want influencing regional decision making. The North-East African governments are already plagued with issues regarding transparency, human rights, and health. The Ethiopian government has been consistent in their persecution of any journalists who ask uncomfortable questions about the environmental impacts of the GERD, which are expected by international organizations like International Rivers to be possibly significant. International Rivers has attempted to maintain a monitoring role in Ethiopia’s “Dam Boom” (there are, as of this date, four other major dam projects that are in planning and execution phases), but has been consistently denied access to information and worksites. The Saudi government, also notorious for its mistreatment and jailing of dissenters, should not be looked on as a regional role model for Ethiopia’s continued growth.


The Chinese government also has a hand in these Ethiopian development projects, pouring billions of dollars in to infrastructure initiatives in Ethiopia, as well as many other African nations. Beijing has shown great interest in extending its African influence, going even so far as to bring Zimbabwe, another rapidly growing African economy, partially on to the Yuan. This Sino-Saudi influence expansion, and indeed the growing Sino-Saudi direct trade growth and relationship, should be a serious concern to human rights groups and Western governments alike. Some of the fastest growing economies in the world, eager for outside investment and support, will be molded in many ways to the cultural and political dispositions of their new economic allies. Beijing and Riyadh will not pressure Ethiopia to increase its commitment to transparency and freedom of speech, as those countries have very little interest in transparency or freedom of speech themselves.


As a new roster of economies realize their potentials, and as we see African and Eastern governments enter an age of partial and full development, it would be in our best interests to encourage, as partners, the development of commitments to human rights alongside those economic gains. If we leave the partnerships to China and Saudi Arabia, we will see a world of proto-Beijings and proto-Riyadhs popping up in some of the most populous and important corners of the world. Instilling liberal values at this stage would be a smart long-term investment, and backing off is a sure-fire way to cause us serious problems down the road.

Wyatt Shorter is a Political Analyst with the Center for Development and Strategy. He is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland and is studying Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.