On June 14, 2017, Qatar withdrew a force of 200 peacekeepers from the Eritrea-Djibouti border. This move came just after both east African countries announced their decision to side with Saudi Arabia and her allies in their conflict with Qatar.
Djibouti announced that it was acting in “solidarity with the international coalition combating terrorism and extremist violence, as well as with the Gulf and Arab countries.” Whilst Eritrea’s Information Agency stated that the move to sever ties with Qatar was a “step in the right direction.”
Since the peacekeeping forces have left, the tension between the two countries has escalated. For instance, Djibouti’s Foreign Minister, Mahamoud Ali Youssouf, stated that the Eritrean forces “are now in full control of Dumeira Mountain and Dumeira Island.” This is the same region that sparked the original conflict on June 10 to 13 in 2008, where more than 100 people died.
Meanwhile, the Horn of Africa, until recently, has been a substantial conflict area, with Eritrea regularly finding itself at odds with Ethiopia, as well as Djibouti. The Eritrean-Ethiopia war, which lasted from May 1998 to June 2000 was also caused due to a border disagreement and led to a huge loss of life. Whilst estimates vary, the International Crisis Group predicts that between 70,000 and 100,000 people were killed in this two-year war.
With that said, the African Union has called for both countries to operate with restraint following Djibouti’s accusation of Eritrean occupation. The African Union Commission’s Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, appealed for calm and stated that “The AU Commission, in close consultations with the authorities in Djibouti and Eritrea, is in the process of deploying a fact-finding mission to the Djibouti-Eritrea border.”
Nonetheless, the recent memory of the Eritrean-Ethiopian war may not be enough to prevent a new clash in the Horn of Africa. For example, Eritrea is known to be a one-party state with Isaias Afwerki as its leader. In recent times, he has come under criticism from the UN for human rights abuses, with the panel announcing that he “has imposed a reign of fear through systematic and extreme abuses of the population that may amount to crimes against humanity.” In addition, Eritrea was also ranked last in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index survey.
As the Gulf and Arab states become more divided, we may start to see countries, such as Eritrea exploit the situation. Qatar has been excluded by a great number of the Gulf states due to its supposed links with terrorism. In particular, the current government in Egypt is often said to dislike Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia has, in the past, been suspicious of Qatar’s relations with Iran. Sanctions against Qatar are not unprecedented and were previously put in place in 2014 for 8 months.
Whilst the withdrawal of 200 troops from one border may seem trivial, the knock-on effect could be significant. As well, in the last 15 years, Qatar has made a name for itself by mediating conflicts in the region. Besides the Eritrea-Djibouti border conflict, Qatar has also mediated conflicts in Sudan, Yemen, and Lebanon. Losing such a presence in the region could result in increased distrust between nations. For instance, we have already seen Middle Eastern countries heavily cut humanitarian aid, while Kuwait’s contributions have decreased by 50 percent, Qatar’s are down by 57 percent, and Saudi Arabia’s are down 26 percent. This reduction in spending can be linked to a growing suspicion of others and is reflective of a less unified Middle East.
Whilst the standoff on the Eritrea-Djibouti border may result in nothing, it is still symptomatic of the growing destabilization in the Middle East, whereby countries, such as Eritrea will happily take advantage of this weakness.