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In Order Not to be Gored by the Horn of Africa - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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There is news that Abdul Malik al Houthi, the commander of the Huthi rebels, has been transferred from Yemen to Eritrea to receive medical treatment after being wounded by shelling. Some say he died, some say he is receiving treatment whilst others deny the entire issue altogether.

The death of the most prominent field commander Abdul Malik al Huthi would not represent the end of the issue as he would be replaced by another. Despite the importance of such a blow to the Huthi rebel group, it is still an inadequate strike if not followed by a comprehensive solution whereby the military aspect only serves as part of the solution and not the whole of it.

What should catch our attention and what’s more important than the demise of Abdul Malik al Huthi, I believe, is the destination where al Huthi was reportedly moved to, i.e. Eritrea. If this turns out to be true then this will further consolidate accusations against Eritrea placing it at the heart of an inexplicable alliance with Iran and the fundamentalist Salafist group Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (Movement of Warrior Youth) in Somalia, not to mention Eritrea’s long-standing friendly ties with Israel, which are currently experiencing a period of clear tension. Further inexplicable still is the position of Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, the revolutionist “progressive” man who was an enemy of the Eritrean Mujahideen or fundamentalists as they were called. On top of this, the man professes to be a Christian whilst being a well-known secularist.

This is not the first time Eritrea has been implicated in the Huthi crisis. Agence France Press reported in the past that Eritrean ports had been receiving shipments of Iranian arms before exporting them to the Huthis in Yemen.

How did Eritrea manage to bring together its relations with Iran that have been growing over the past few years and its supportive position towards Sheikh Owais, who opposes the government of Sheikh Sharif, his former comrade in the Jihadist struggle, on the one hand, and the secularism of its regime and its hostility towards fundamentalism on the other?

Is Eritrea, which is located on the Red Sea, with its incomprehensible relations with the two Satans i.e. fundamentalism and the US, the equivalent of a country in the east of the Arabian Peninsula which, just like Eritrea, brought together Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah under one roof under the tutelage of America?

Experts such as Mohammed Taha Tawakul, who specialises in the affairs of the Horn of Africa at the Gulf Research Center, says that all those Eritrean actions can be directly attributed to the enmity between Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as Eritrea’s jealousy of Djibouti’s growing role, thanks to its increasingly busy port on the Red Sea. That is why Isaias Afewerki’s government was bitter about Sheikh Sharif joining the Djibouti Conference, which got him into power in Somalia. Subsequently, Afewerki’s government backed Sheikh Owais who is leading an armed rebellion against the incumbent government in Somalia.

To cut a long story short Eritrea – which sided with Israel and fought the Arabs in the crisis of the Yemeni Hunaish Island in the early nineties and went too far to strengthen its relations with Tel Aviv to spite the Arabs – is now resorting to the same policy of spite, but this time towards Israel and the US, by throwing itself into Iran’s arms, and even more bizarrely into the arms of Al Qaeda and the like. Until very recently, Sheikh Owais was accused by US bodies of leading Al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa and of having a hand in the terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

In his interview with Karar Abu Ali, Mohammed Taha Tawakul refers to economic factors and complicated relations that deepen the Iranian-Eritrean courtship. For example, establishing ties with Eritrea is considered a gain, adding to what Iran already possesses in terms of its strategic position on the Strait of Hormuz and its subsequent threat to US and Western interests. Now Iran can make even more threats by virtue of the facilities it is bound to obtain from Eritrea because of the mutual cooperation between them, which will definitely solidify its presence in the Bab el Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea basin.

Tawakul adds: “Economically, the Iranian presence aims to develop the oil refinery at the Port of Assab and the setting up of Iranian fuel depots for the purpose of exportation. This is likely to bolster the Eritrean economy if it is successful. This cooperation might even be promoted politically to strike a balance in Eritrean-US-Israeli relations in the future. In a similar context, there is growing anger in the region – especially in the Arab parts – towards these relations and at what the Arab countries describe as increasing Iranian influence in the Red Sea region. In any case, Eritrean-Iranian relations are a double-edged sword, and both of them would benefit if they act in the right way.”

It is worth mentioning that this Eritrean modern detour dates back to 2007. In 1992, Eritrea crowned its relations with Israel with a visit to Israel by President Afewerki for recuperation. The next year, both countries exchanged diplomatic representatives, making the Israeli mission in Asmara the third after the Sudanese and Egyptian delegations. That was followed by the crisis of the occupation of the Yemeni Island of Hunaish, which created tension between Eritrea and the Arab states. Straight after, an alliance between Tel Aviv and Asmara was formed. It remained solid until 2007 after which Eritrea steered towards the Iranian-Syrian axis. Afewerki then welcomed Khalid Mishal and attacked Israel, his ally, and this is typical of the people of this axis.

But what prompted Afewerki to lash out at Israel and denounce its violations of Palestinian rights? Did he suddenly discover what was happening? Or is that a prerequisite for political spite and an accessory for new discourse? What’s the reason for Afewerki’s shift in position? Experts ascribe that transformation to tensions between Asmara and Washington that came about during Bill Clinton’s tenure and continued throughout [George W.] Bush’s two terms because of America’s lack of confidence in Asmara’s credibility and the negative role played by Eritrea in Somalia and with regards to the general issues in the Horn of Africa, not to mention the US and West’s position towards cooperation with Ethiopia, Eritrea’s archenemy. As a result, Eritrea began to play the part of the “naughty schoolboy” in the Horn of Africa and it began to harass Djibouti, its much smaller neighbour, for its positive cooperation with the international community on the Somalia crisis.

It’s strange; once again we find Israel and Iran fighting over territories and regions that clearly concern the Arabs more so than anyone else: Lebanon, Palestine and the Horn of Africa. The latter is the wing of the Arab and Islamic world in Africa. The countries that form the Horn of Africa are Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea. All four are linked with Sudan, Kenya and Uganda as both camps affect each other. According to this profile, the Horn of Africa mainly bears an Islamic identity, thanks to its high Muslim population density, as Professor Jalaladdin Saleh says.

The commercial migration and cultural impact of Ethiopia and the countries of the Horn of Africa primarily concerns Yemen, the entire western coast of Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman. So where do Iran and Israel come in with regards to all these advantages?

What is the position of the Arab Red Sea on this issue? What caused Egypt to reduce its role when it is the Arab pride of Africa and the land of the River Nile, which springs from the Horn of Africa? And where is Saudi Arabia that lies on the eastern coast of the Red Sea? And where is Yemen, which controls the mouth of the Red Sea?

It is true that Saudi Arabia took the initiative to solve the Somali crisis. Egypt made an attempt as well and so did the countries of the Red Sea starting with Yemen. However, all these efforts did not stand in the way of Iranian infiltration in Eritrea. Even Djibouti began to take a similar course. A few days ago, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki made a quick visit to Djibouti. At the beginning of 2008, Ahmadinejad took part in a celebratory state visit to Djibouti despite the existing hostility between Djibouti and Eritrea. Nevertheless, Iran has cunningly managed to woo both Asmara and Djibouti in different ways.

The security of the Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the stability of Somalia, bringing an end to piracy and the quelling of the Huthi rebellion in Yemen are all closely connected. Unless the major countries in the Red Sea basin begin to work on establishing cooperation and stability in the Horn of Africa using soft power and the cultural and historical depth then this Horn will turn into a sharp blade in the hands of Iran or Israel; a blade that wounds, kills and sheds blood.

Not very long ago, the Foreign Minister of Israel Avigdor Lieberman toured the Horn of Africa without any response on the Arab part. It certainly will not hurt the giants of the Arabian Red Sea to impose the facts of geography, history and economy on this vital region. Why is it always the presence of Iran and Israel that is strongly felt in the Red Sea basin? I do not know.

The great Arab poet Al Mutanabbi once said:

“There is nothing worse than those capable falling short of perfection.”

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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