A likely Saudi role to resolve GERD dispute: How effective, why now?

Amr Kandil , Saturday 20 Mar 2021

Saudi Arabia has a serious desire to help Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia reach agreement on GERD, says African affairs expert Attia Essawy

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (photo: Reuters)
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (photo: Reuters)

Saudi Arabia has signalled its keenness to put an end to the dispute between Egypt and Sudan on one side and Ethiopia on the other over the filling and operation of the massive Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.

Riyadh, however, has not announced mechanisms of probable intervention nor explained whether it is eager to become a crucial party in the stalled negotiations.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue has been on top of discussions between Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen and Saudi Ambassador to Addis Ababa Sami Abdullah on Thursday.
During the meeting, Mekonnen defended Ethiopia’s stance on GERD and keenness to resume negotiations to reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. He reiterated that his country has not officially received an international mediation request from Sudan.
A statement by the Ethiopian foreign ministry did not mention any response from the Saudi ambassador.
Saudi desire to advance talks
In remarks to Ahram Online, African affairs expert at Al-Ahram Attia Essawy said “Saudi Arabia has a serious desire to help in reaching an agreement.”
Essawy added that Saudi Arabia has the qualifications to play a role in the talks, having big investments in Ethiopia, especially in the agricultural sector.
He explained that these investments, together with the close ties between the two countries, can be used by the kingdom to pressure Ethiopia.
The GERD dispute emerges as Egypt and Sudan have been underscoring the need to reach a binding legal agreement on the dam, which would secure their interests and address their concerns. This comes especially as Sudan has warned that filling the dam before an agreement is reached threatens the safety of its dams and endangers the lives of millions of Sudanese.
Addis Ababa, however, thinks it is the right of the Ethiopian people to fill the dam this year whether or not an agreement is reached.
The Thursday meeting with the Saudi ambassador comes one day after Mekonnen said no one would prevent Ethiopia from its right to use the water of the River Nile for development purposes as 86 percent of the Nile water comes from Ethiopia. His remarks came as he participated in a symposium marking 10 years on the official commencement of building the GERD.
Egypt denounced the statements on Thursday slamming the “language of sovereignty” the Ethiopian officials have used while speaking about the transboundary River Nile.
Ethiopian Minister of Water Seleshi Bekele, during the symposium, affirmed that his country would implement the second phase of filling the dam in the coming rainy season this year, although Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly insisted that a legally binding deal should be reached first. The rainy seasons starts in July.
Egypt condemned these remarks as well, saying they reflect Ethiopia's insistence to impose a fait accompli on the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan.
The meeting with the Saudi ambassador also came following Ethiopia's resistance to a recent Sudanese proposal, which Egypt endorses. The proposal calls for forming a quartet of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States as well as the African Union to act as mediators in the GERD talks.
However, during the meeting with the Saudi ambassador, Mekonnen said his country is keen to resume the GERD talks under the leadership of the African Union, the current sponsor of the talks, chaired this year by Congoloese President Felix Tshisekedi.
Sudan and Egypt's desire to widen international mediation in the issue comes as Sudan complained about the ineffectiveness of the talks last year under the African Union and as Egypt has been blaming the deadlock in talks on “Ethiopia’s intransigence.”
Essawy said a Saudi role in the GERD talks has probably been requested by Sudan only or Sudan and Egypt together.
Ethiopian stance
In February, the Saudi Minister of State for African Affairs Ahmed Abdul-Aziz Kattan told the media the kingdom wishes to see an end to the dam crisis, highlighting the Saudi support for the water security of Arab countries.
Kattan, former ambassador to Egypt, said Saudi Arabia will announce later a summit for the Council of Arab and African countries of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which is tasked with securing the waterways of these areas.
“The issue now is whether Ethiopia will accept the Saudi role after it had earlier rejected all forms of mediation and the principle of mediation,” Essawy said.
Essawy hopes Ethiopia will approve of a Saudi role in the negotiations as it earlier accepted Saudi and Emirati efforts in resolving the 20-year-long Ethiopian border dispute with Eritrea in 2018.
“In case Ethiopia changes its mind and accepts a Saudi role, even if it was not a mediating role… we can say the Saudi effort may be able to remove even part of the obstacles preventing a deal from being reached,” Essawy added.
Right time?
Diaa Al-Qousy, former advisor of the Egyptian water resources minister, told Ahram Online that a probable Saudi role would be “too late” but can also be productive.
“Any intervention from any [party], which would lead us to the desired result of reaching a binding agreement for all parties, is welcome,” Al-Qousy said.
Commenting on the timing of Saudi Arabia's tendency to play a role in the talks, Essawy said the timing might have been mainly motivated by the growing tensions on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border.
Sudanese and Ethiopian forces clashed over a conflict on the ownership rights of parts of the Al-Fashqa agricultural region, which lies on the Sudanese side of the border demarcated at the start of the 20th century. Ethiopian farmers, however, are settled in this area.
“There are fears these clashes will turn into an all-out war. If this happens, it will thwart any efforts to advance or resume GERD negotiations,” Essawy explained.
He added that Saudi Arabia thinks it is the right time to introduce help in the GERD talks.
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