Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

3 March 2013

Ethiopia: An Awkward Moment for Saudi

column

It ought to have been an awkward moment for Saudi Arabia's Minister of Finance, Ibrahim Al-Assaf, mid last week, when he met Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Only a day before, headlines spread across the world's media, after Khalid Bin Sultan, Saudi's deputy defence minister, made remarks, directed atEthiopia, in a rather hostile tone.

In Cairo to attend the Arab Water Council meeting, the son of a former Saudi Defence Minister and hopeful heir to that role, Khalid warned that Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam had the power to drain Khartoum, and the potential to make a detrimental impact even as far north as the Aswan Dam. He claimed the project to build a dam "12Km" from the border withSudanhad its roots in a "political plot", rather than for the purpose of offering economic benefit toEthiopia.

A man known in his native land as "a father ofSaudi Arabia's Missile", for his roles in helping his country acquire the weapon fromChina, Khalid declaredEthiopia's largest dam as a national security threat to bothSudanandEgypt.

As it seemingly came from nowhere, Addis Abeba was puzzled last week, even on how to simply digest such a barrage of anger, gossip observed. If there had been a souring of our bilateral relationship withSaudi Arabia, then you would not expect a business delegation, led by their Finance Minister, to grace the Ethiopian Prime Minister's office atLorenzo Te'azaz St, in the very same week, claims gossip. There should be no reason for a Saudi government to undermine the visit of its minister, who was here to discuss the "promotion of investment from Saudi", in general terms, and the possible exodus of Ethiopian maids there, by letting one of their junior officials run amok further north inCairo, claims gossip.

The immediate reaction by the administration of Hailemariam was not to give much credence to "uncalled for" remarks made by a retired Air Field Marshal, who also authored an autobiography, "Deseret Warrior", and continues to own a newspaper, Al-Hayat, gossip disclosed. For instance, there is no mention of this incident in "A Week in the Horn of Africa", the weekly position paper, usually posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' website, with a focus on the administration's concerns in relation to diplomacy.

Nonetheless, it certainly was possible for Hailemariam to raise the issue with the Minister when the two were left alone last week, after the general talk was conducted in the presence of their respective aides, gossip disclosed.

Indeed, the Minister would have no word, but to reassure Hailemariam that statements made by a person who once irked the royalty for his "guff" on Turkey, does not represent the views of his government, claims gossip.

Yet, Ethiopian authorities, despite their strongly held position to downplay the episode, are pushing Saudi's government to offer at least some explanation on the case. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs made its demand last week for the Saudi Ambassador inEthiopiato make his government's position clear, gossip disclosed.

This was in addition to instructions given toMehamed Hassen,Ethiopia's ambassador based inRiyadh, to ask for an audience with Prince Saud Al-Faisal Ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, Saudi's Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has held that position since 1975, gossip disclosed.

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