A Saudi delegation has just visited Eritrea.
Apart from the 20 man delegation (and they were all men) posing for photographs and issuing an uninformative press statement, the Eritrean public was left none the wiser about what took place.
But this should not hide the increasing dependence of Eritrea on the Saudis.
The Ethiopia – Eritrea peace deal was signed in Saudi Arabia in September 2018. After it was signed the UAE, the Saudi ally in the war in Yemen announced it was giving Ethiopia a $3 billion ‘support package.’
It is likely that Eritrea received a similar sum. The Saudis may have matched this. We are unlikely to ever know.
In January 2020 the Saudis announced the formation of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden Council – with Eritrea as a member. This was just what President Isaias wanted. He has long disliked the regional organisation: IGAD, which he cannot control.
The Saudi role was underlined in President Isaias’s said in his lengthy interview/speech on 17 February this year.
“Saudi Arabia should have a special place in the region. As much as possible we will try to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s role in the region not only in terms of their involvement in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Saudi Arabia has the economic resources, regional and international influence but this has not been fully recognised for a long time.”
What do the Saudi and the Eritrean governments have in common?
For a start, neither have even the remotest interest in democracy. Neither have a working parliament. Their populations have no say in the running of their countries.
Like Isaias Afwerki, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also brooks no opposition.
The Prince – the effective ruler of the kingdom – ordered the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
President Isaias has attacked opponents in neighbouring states and harassed the diaspora around the world.
In this sense they are ideal partners.
But the Saudis should recall how swiftly President Isaias can change his mind. He has repeatedly switched sides in Sudan.
And he had no hesitation in dropping his long term alliance with Iran when it suited him.
President Isaias’s relationship with the Saudi kingdom may work for the time being, but long-term friendships and alliances are not part of the Eritrean leaders playbook.