Egypt and Sudan raised concerns about the development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) when plans were unveiled in 2011. A conciliatory tone was adopted between all three states in March 2015 when the Khartoum declaration was signed. The declaration permitted the construction of the dam provided that it did no “significant harm” to downstream countries. A further breakthrough came in December 2016, when the three countries agreed on the appointment of two French engineering firms to conduct a study on the potential effect of the dam on downstream water resources. All parties to the dispute refrained from signing the preliminary report, however, due to differences over water allocations and the time permitted for the initial filling of the dam. Egypt wants Ethiopia to fill the dam at a slow rate, over a period of up to 15 years, while Ethiopia insists that the process take no longer than three years. In November 2017, Egypt officially declared that technical negotiations with Sudan and Ethiopia had failed.
While Khartoum now accepts the development of the GERD, and perhaps even welcomes it, Cairo remains wary of the project. It fears that its water supply will be compromised by the dam, as 97 per cent of its water is sourced from the Nile. Most of the water in the Nile – about 86 per cent by some measures – originates in Ethiopia.
Sudan believes that the dam could help to manage floods, provide a source of water in times of drought (assuming that Ethiopia is willing to release more from the dam) and, perhaps, promote agricultural production. Its acceptance of the GERD project led to speculation that Cairo sought to exclude it from future negotiations on the project. Egypt, however, denies these allegations and its officials continue to discuss the issue with their Sudanese counterparts.
The struggle for influence in the Middle East has spread into the Red Sea region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are competing with Qatar and Turkey for influence across the region. Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are being drawn into this regional competition. While Egypt has attempted to repair its strained relationship with Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ethiopia continue to balance the two camps against each other. Perceptions that the Red Sea is being “militarised” could increase tension and weaken opportunities for diplomacy on the sharing of the Nile.
Khartoum transferred control of Suakin Island, an old Ottoman-era Red Sea port, to Turkey on 21 December. Ankara claims that it will restore ruined facilities into an historical monument and use the island as a staging point for Hajj pilgrims. Wary Egyptian and Saudi strategists, however, are unconvinced, and worry that it could instead be developed into a modern military base. Cairo and Riyadh are concerned about Turkish influence in the region, given its support for Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Cairo also believes that if Turkey establishes a military presence in Sudan, it could increase Khartoum’s willingness to more aggressively stake its claim to the Halayeb triangle, a 20,000 square kilometre area of land that has been in dispute for decades. Khartoum has announced plans to “diplomatically eject” Egyptians from the region, bringing an end to the rapprochement between the two neighbours.
The Egyptian and Ethiopian foreign ministers held several meetings in December and January. A high-level Ethiopian delegation led by the Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, travelled to Egypt for a series of discussions that concluded on January 18. Cairo proposed that the World Bank be invited to future negotiations as a neutral mediator. Desalegn rejected the proposal, however, and stated that the tripartite committee will be able to resolve any possible dispute on its own.
Egypt and Ethiopia have continued to work toward an agreement despite tripartite negotiations breaking down in November 2017. As the initial filling of the dam poses the most immediate threat to Egyptian water security it will be most keen to resolve this issue before tackling the question of water allocations. The initial filling can be resolved bilaterally with Ethiopia while water allocations require the agreement of all three parties. Provided the dam dispute remains a separate issue from the wider geopolitical calculations being made in the Red Sea region, a diplomatic solution to the deadlock remains difficult, but possible.