Construction site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Guba Woreda, Benishangul-Gumuz Region, Ethiopia. Photo: AFP

Tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over a highly controversial dam on the Blue Nile are expected to rise over the next few months as the rainy season marks the next phase in filling the reservoir.

The dispute already represents one of the world’s most serious diplomatic conundrums at a time when climate change is making water scarcity a more critical issue. Adding to the complexity, the conflict is likely to become emblematic of ongoing shifts away from a US-dominated unipolar world order.

That transition is expected to witness the emergence of China in regions vacated or neglected by the US and the emergence of regional multilateral groupings that will manage collective regional security.

In February, Ethiopia began generating electricity from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), despite protests downstream from Egypt and Sudan. The dam is a flagship project for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who needs the project to come to fruition now more than ever.

As he is reeling from a damaging civil war in Tigray and a faltering economy, the dam will allow Abiy to whip up nationalist sentiment. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi faces political turbulence in the months ahead due to Egypt’s economy being particularly exposed to the global repercussions of the Ukraine war.

Having framed the dam as an existential threat to Egypt, its completion by Ethiopia carries high political costs for Sisi. Yet neither he nor Abiy can afford to go to war over the issue.

Ethiopia has faced strident criticism and sanctions from the US over the Tigray conflict, and Addis Ababa believes Washington has favored the Egyptian position on the dam. As a result, the US is no longer considered a neutral arbiter, at least by Ethiopia.

Furthermore, US President Joe Biden’s administration is far too distracted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and by China to pay attention to rising tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia. It would be happy to outsource the problem to its allies in the Persian Gulf region, which maintain good relations with Khartoum, Cairo, and Addis Ababa. 

Yet the lack of active involvement by the US is another sign of its waning global influence and a harbinger of the eventual transition away from a world dominated by one superpower. 

This month, the Biden administration’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa announced his resignation a mere three months after assuming his position. His predecessor too resigned after less than a year on the job. This is a further sign of drift in US foreign policy, particularly in this region.

Thus far, Biden’s administration has taken a position on the dam that is sympathetic to Cairo. It is unlikely to adopt a more neutral position because the US is keen for Egypt to export gas to Europe in light of American and European Union efforts to cut Russian gas imports. The drawdown of American influence on the Nile dam dispute paves the way for a more significant Chinese involvement in the issue and the broader region.

China has funded the dam and has considerable commercial investments in Ethiopia and security-related assets in the Horn of Africa. It also backs the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Sudan. It is a crucial investor in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital project, in which Sisi has invested considerable political capital. Beijing, along with Moscow, has repeatedly used its veto power at the UN Security Council to prevent harsh condemnation of Ethiopia’s conduct in the Tigray war. 

China is likely to step up efforts to bring Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa to the negotiating table. As a result, it is expected to emerge as a critical power in the Horn of Africa region and increase its influence in Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Indeed, just as the Biden administration flounders on its foreign policy toward the Horn of Africa, China’s recently appointed special envoy to the region toured several countries there in March and announced that Beijing would host a peace conference dedicated to the region this year.

Rising tensions over the dam in the context of a waning American presence will allow regional states to seek closer integration on security matters. Without an immediate solution to the dam issue, Egypt is likely to pursue tighter integration with Sudan to present a united front against Ethiopia. 

This also works to benefit Burhan’s regime in Khartoum, particularly since the coup last year that overthrew the civilian-led transitional government. Last week, Burhan visited Cairo and the two countries agreed to coordinate on Ethiopia’s dam. Burhan’s government could benefit from the technical expertise and collaboration promised by Cairo during his visit.

By extension, GCC states and Israel are likely to extend support to Sudan and use Khartoum’s relations with Addis Ababa to help mediate a solution to the dam conflict. The GCC could become a valuable interlocutor for China as Beijing chooses to ensure the successful completion of its Belt and Road projects in the Horn of Africa and the larger Middle East. In this way, China could replace or rival the US as a significant power in the region.

The dam issue, then, will not only be a marker of a move away from a US-dominated world but will be an important test case for China’s superpower ambitions.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Dnyanesh Kamat

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.