Ray of hope as Saudi Arabia Proposes to Mediate Nile Dam Dispute

Riyadh’s Bid to Sponsor a Settlement Before Ethiopia’s Second Filling
Participants in a meeting for Arab and African countries of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (L to R) Foreign Ministers of Eritrea Osman Saleh Mohammed, Somalia Ahmed Isse Awad, Saudi Minister of State for African Affairs Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz Qattan, Foreign Ministers of Jordan Ayman Safadi, Saudi Arabia Faisal bin Farhan, Egypt Sameh Shoukry, Djibouti Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Sudan Asma Mohamed Abdalla, Yemen Mohammad Al-Hadhrami, pose for a group picture ahead of the meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh on January 6, 2020. (Getty)

Speculation is rife about the future of negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the latter's Nile River dam, after Saudi Arabia unveiled a plan to broker a settlement of the conflict between them. 

Saudi Minister of State for African Affairs Ahmed Al Qattan revealed recently that his country would try to help the three states end the deadlock over the dam.

The Saudi effort, he said, would try to preserve the rights of the three states.

However, following a meeting with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in Khartoum on 17 February, Minister Qattan noted that Riyadh backs the water rights of Arab states.

DEEP EFFECTS

Negotiations over the multibillion dollar Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have been stalled for several months now.

Egypt and Sudan accuse Ethiopia of wasting time until the dam is a fact on the ground. The three countries are locked in technical negotiations over the duration of the filling of the dam reservoir as well as its operation after the filling. The negotiations have produced no result so far.

Cairo and Khartoum express concerns that the project will significantly trim the amounts of water reaching them.

Egypt, for example, says the dam will threaten water supply to its population of 100 million.

"Egypt depends on the Nile for 97% of its needs," Egyptian Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel A'ti said on 14 February.

He revealed that his country needs 114 billion cubic meters of water annually to satisfy its agricultural and industrial needs as well as the needs of its people, even though it receives only 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile every year.

Sudan is also concerned that the Ethiopian dam will trim the water supply for its population of over 40 million.

Apart from water shortages, Sudan also expects to suffer effects on its hydroelectric dams from the dam.

"This means that the Ethiopian dam can cause electricity shortages in our country, especially during droughts," Sudanese Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas said in December last year.

PROCRASTINATING

Sudan even expresses concern over the safety of its people, especially from a possible collapse of the dam.

This is why both Cairo and Khartoum consider the Ethiopian hydroelectric dam an "existential threat."

In June last year, Egypt asked the United Nations Security Council to arbitrate the dam issue.

This came almost a year after then-President Donald Trump made a failed bid to help the three countries settle their dispute over the dam.

"Ethiopia was responsible for the failure of the American mediation because it refused to recognize this mediation," Egyptian international law professor Ayman Salama told Majalla. "It was against signing a legally-binding agreement."

The US-sponsored talks on GERD culminated in an agreement on the filling and the operation of the dam. Egypt initialed the agreement in February last year. However, Ethiopia did not send its delegation to the agreement signing ceremony, even though it welcomed the accord at first.

TOUGH MISSION

The declared Saudi mediation bid also comes hard on the heels of an attempt by the African Union to find a solution to the problem.

The South African presidency of the pan-African organization tried to bring the three countries together all through 2020. Nevertheless, this effort bore no fruit.

In January this year, Egypt declared talks over the dam a "failure."

Sudan pulled out of the talks altogether in the same month, saying the talks were taking the wrong track.

"The Ethiopian government did not cooperate at all, causing the negotiations to produce no result," Sudanese political analyst Mohamed Saleh Matar told Majalla.

Ethiopia, which says the $4 billion dollar project is crucial for its economic development, moves ahead with the dam construction despite the non-settlement of the dispute with downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopia made the first filling of the dam reservoir in July last year. It plans to make a second filling of the reservoir in July this year.

This leaves Saudi Arabia enough time to make a serious mediation bid and commit Ethiopia to agreeing with downstream states before making the second filling of the dam, observers said.

"Saudi Arabia can bring the three parties together, thanks to its political weight in the Arab region and in Africa," Matar said. "It can do this before Ethiopia makes the second filling of the dam reservoir in July."

Egypt and Sudan say they want Ethiopia to sign a legally binding agreement on the filling and the operation of the dam before the filling of the dam reservoir is complete.

RAY OF HOPE

Qattan revealed that Saudi Arabia will host a meeting of the Council it formed last year for Red Sea security soon.

Apart from Saudi Arabia, the council contains eight member states, including Egypt and Sudan.

This comes amid optimism over the Saudi mediation bid.

Saudi Arabia, observers said, enjoys strong relations with Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa.

"These relations make Riyadh more capable of convincing the three countries to reach a deal," Egyptian political science professor Nadia Helmi told Majalla.

Saudi Arabia invests billions of dollars in the three states. A settlement of the conflict between the three states will have an effect on Red Sea security as well as on stability in the Horn of Africa, two regions of major importance for Riyadh.

However, Saudi Arabia will have a ride that is far from easy or smooth as it tries to end the deadlock on the dam, analysts said.

One of the challenges it will possibly face is Ethiopia's desire to stay away from any legally binding agreements.

"This means that Saudi Arabia needs to have cards it can use if Ethiopia resorts to its traditional wasting of time," Helmi said. "The Saudis can also enlist help from other international players that enjoy equally strong relations with Ethiopia."