The latest round of talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan about a dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has once again ended in deadlock. The relevant parties have not set a new date for another round of negotiations, but Ethiopia has declared its intent to fill up the dam with or without an agreement. Unsurprisingly, this has raised alarm around the world. Officials from the U.S., World Bank, UN, and the EU have voiced concerns about the prospect of war or heightened tensions if no deal is reached. A conflict between two of the U.S.’s regional allies would imperil millions of civilian lives and prove detrimental to both the U.S.’s regional credibility and its counterterrorism operations in the Horn. 

These states have resolved most of their differences pertaining to the successful and peaceful operation of this project. However, two key issues remain unresolved: drought mitigation protocols and a dispute resolution mechanism. The countries’ differing views on the whole issue of water governance in the Nile is the primary explanation for the lack of resolution on these two issues. Ethiopia cites the lack of a comprehensive legal agreement over water sharing in the Nile basin and refuses calls by Cairo and Khartoum for an internationally binding process on both issues. Instead, it prefers a trilateral mechanism that includes the three states only, a preference deemed unacceptable by both Egypt and, albeit less vigorously so, Sudan. 

The Nile has historically been a source of political contention between Egypt and Ethiopia. The two countries nearly went to war in 1979 when Egypt responded to Ethiopia’s efforts to build a dam by amassing troops in Sudan. Similarly, in 1994 Egypt threatened military action against Ethiopia when Addis Ababa revealed plans for the construction of a dam on the Nile. A number of factors have fueled this historical disagreement. However, the British government’s recognition of a “natural and historical right of Egypt to the waters of the Nile” in 1929 via the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was a principal driver of conflict as it obliged the upstream countries to observe these rights. Still, Cairo religiously refers to this provision in order to justify and strengthen its position. This also partly explains both Ethiopia’s decision to self-finance GERD in its entirety and its disdain for international mitigation, as it assumes the international community will inevitably side with Egypt.

For its part, Sudan too voiced grievances with the water sharing provisions of the 1929 Treaty in the immediate aftermath of its independence.  In fact, it nearly went to war with Egypt over what it deemed as an unfair Egyptian monopoly over the Nile’s water. However, their dispute was eventually settled by the signing of a 1959 agreement that allocated 18.5 BCM to Sudan and 55.5 BCM to Egypt per year. To this end, Cairo and Khartoum presented a united front against all the upstream nations and jointly blocked their attempts at devising a reformed water-sharing agreement. Such unity dissolved in 2011 and by 2014, Sudan was openly expressing support for Ethiopia and its construction of the GERD. While Sudan is currently echoing Egypt’s stance on the illegality of the whole project in the absence of an internationally mediated agreement and unilateral filling of the dam’s reservoir, it has failed to take any concrete measures.

When Cairo became preoccupied with political protests and instability following former President Mubarak’s departure in 2011, Ethiopia began the construction work on GERD in April of the same year. With almost every Ethiopian adult citizen being a bondholder, the government is adamant that the dam will revitalize its economy, address domestic electricity shortage, expand its industrial base, and add a new source of income by exporting electricity to neighboring countries.

 

Caught between Egypt and Ethiopia, Sudan has been trying to balance its desire to not offend Egypt against its significant economic interests in the project. Such interests have gained prominence in the light of Sudan’s messy political transition to the post-Bashir era and its loss of oil revenue to South Sudan. This new position will allow Sudan to redress its electricity shortage at a relatively low price, and its all too important agricultural sector will benefit from flow regulation. Nonetheless, it has voiced concerns with safety issues – the dam is only 20 kilometers away from Sudan’s border and poorly coordinated releases, or technical faults, could swamp the Roseires Dam.

Egypt sees this project as a direct threat and affront to its national security, economic development, and status as a leading power in North Africa. Cairo is almost entirely dependent on the Nile for its water supplies and fears that Ethiopia could use the dam as a political tool in order to extract concessions and undermine Egypt’s standing in the region. As such, Egyptian officials have commonly vowed to use all means available to protect Egypt’s interests. To this end, Cairo now seeks to take the issue to the UN Security Council.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry has also resorted to identity politics in order to consolidate support amongst Arab states, especially as Cairo fears Sudan may ultimately side with Ethiopia. Prior to the most recent round of talks, Minister Shoukry visited Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to explain Egypt’s position on the issue; however, details of these discussions have been in short supply. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have a shared reason to mediate between the two sides: food security.

In light of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s recent increased involvement in the Horn of Africa, Cairo is unable to depend on its primary Arab allies to pressure Ethiopia into adopting a more conciliatory approach. Moreover, given Ethiopia and Sudan’s role in supplying food to these countries, they are unlikely to intervene in favor of Egypt as GERD could increase their food security. The dam can regulate water flow into Sudanese farms, a large chunk of which are leased to Emirati and Saudi Arabian companies given these countries’ use of Sudan as their food basket of choice.

In an attempt to increase their food security, GCC states—particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE—have invested large sums of money in Sudan’s agricultural sector. They have also leased vast swaths of fertile land irrigated by the Nile River on long-term basis; this practice is commonly referred to as land grab. According to the Land Matrix database, these deals have been in place since 1972. However, since 2008 the combination of a financial crisis, the Sudanese government’s introduction of more business-friendly legislations following South Sudan’s secession, and the events of the Arab spring – which was partly ignited by rising food prices – has caused foreign states to increase their investment in Sudan’s agricultural sector.

As part of its Arab Food Security Initiative, Saudi Arabia and Sudan signed a strategic partnership on agricultural cooperation in December 2018. According to this partnership, Riyadh has preferential access to Sudan’s farmlands in the northern River Nile region in exchange for its continued investment in Sudan’s agricultural sector. Similarly, the UAE  has been controlling in excess of 2,800 square kilometers of farmland in Sudan since 2010 and it has invested far more in Sudan’s agricultural sphere than its fellow GCC states. More than 20 UAE based enterprises have set up operations and/or invested in Sudan’s farmlands and 75 percent of the state-owned Abu Dhabi Fund for Development loans to and investments in Sudan are linked to agriculture and animal production.

In the contemporary era, these decades of animosity and mistrust between Egypt and Ethiopia, domestic pressures, rising tides of nationalism, and climate volatility indicate that Nile issues are likely to remain tense in the years ahead. Yet Saudi Arabia and the UAE are well positioned to play a leading role in assisting the countries involved to avoid confrontation. Meanwhile, the U.S. has lost its credibility as a neutral mediator and the EU is preoccupied with issues at home. The latter is particularly evidenced by the fact that the GERD dispute was not even mentioned in the Germany’s EU Presidency agenda. Lastly, the African Union simply lacks the resources to convince the parties to make compromises. 

Thanks to their close ties with Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh can play a leading role in facilitating cooperation. However, in order to do this they must avoid antagonizing one side in favor of the other; that is, to put aside their special relations with Cairo and act neutral. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have a number of incentives, including serving their own food security interests, safeguarding their hard-earned regional influence, and potentially gaining the upper hand against Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. They can build upon their recent peacemaking efforts between Eritrea and Ethiopia and enhance their global statuses as peacemakers if they manage to play an instrumental role in devising a long-term solution to one of the most acrimonious issues in the region. In doing so, they can take comfort in Cairo’s lack of options—due to ideological disagreements with Iran and Turkey, Egypt is unlikely to respond to Emirati and Saudi calls for compromise by drifting towards Ankara or Tehran.

Nima Khorrami is a research associate at The Arctic Institute’s Center for Circumpolar Security Studies.