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Whatever Became of Mohammed al Amoudi – 2; al Amoudi’s Ethiopian Connection

November 23, 2018

Ethiopian Protests in the Oromo Region in 2016. It was mass protests like this that brought the former government to its knees and forced a liberal wave of change in the country.

Ethiopia – al Amoudi – Whatever Became of Mohammed al Amoudi – 2: Amoudi’s Ethiopian Connection

Blunting China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Horn of Africa is a priority for Washington. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as it is elsewhere in the region – (Syria, Afghanistan, anti-Iranian alliance) – are little more than Washington’s thanes in Ethiopia and the Horn. Mohammed al Amoudi, until he was arrested, was Riyadh’s man in Addis Ababa, nothing less. It appears they no longer require his services and are confiscating his assets there. 

(For general background on al Amoudi, his ties to al Qaeda through BCCI, what is generally known of his wealth, the possible reasons that he was arrested by bin Salman, see Part One; Part Three)

As of this writing (Nov. 22, 2018) the fate of Mohammed al Amoudi, Saudi billionaire businessman with $3 billion in investments in Ethiopia, remains unknown. Arrested in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s anti-corruption sweep in November 2017, a year later no one knows if he is still alive or has been “Khashoggi-ized.”


Since the November 2017 arrest of Saudi billionaire Mohammed al Amoudi along with a slew of Saudi billionaires, government officials and members of the royal family, on charges of massive corruption, little is know of his current situation.

As noted in Part one of this series:

Whatever became of Mohammed al Amoudi? Is he still alive? Has he been tortured? There, in Saudi’s Al Ha’ir prison, there would be no Turkish listening devices to record his last moments? Did he meet a ghastly fate in Riyadh as Jamal Khashoggi’s in Istanbul with body parts dismembered while still alive until he died in unspeakable pain? Are his fingers or their ashes sprinkled at different sites throughout the Riyadh region?

Or is he alive and will soon  be released as the Saudis claim?

Ethiopians with whom I discussed the matter recently here in Denver don’t know any more than the rest of us and are divided on al Amoudi’s fate. Some think that he is still alive, too important a resource to simply eliminate. Others noted that the longer Riyadh hedges the less likely it is that Ethiopia’s largest single investor, or so it is claimed, is this side of the great divide.

Such questions continue to swirl as al Amoudi’s fate in the Ha’ir Prisons, just south of Riyadh, remains unknown, now more than a year after what amounts to his kidnapping and incarceration. While most of those others targeted have been released – apparently having paid the hefty fine, or is it a ransom of 70% of their assets – al Amoudi remains either imprisoned, or as some suggest – dead as Khaghossi. The Ethiopian government and civil society continue to be interested in his fate.

They are also divided as to al Amoudi’s actual contribution to Ethiopia.

Some note that even during the worst days of the previous Tigray-led former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, sidelined from power in February of this year (2018) that Ethiopia experienced a period of dynamic economic growth and that al Amoudi’s investments were a part of that; Others less sanguine, point to al Amoudi’s long time close association – and benefit from – his ties to the Desalegn-led dictatorship and argue that he was little more than an integral element in a system that needed to be replaced, if not swept aside, for Ethiopia to make any kind of important economic leap forward.

The latter point to the fact that despite progress toward eliminating extreme poverty, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, due both to rapid population growth and a low starting base, and for the past several decades its government has been one of Africa’s – and the world’s most repressive.

There is also the thorny question as to, should al Amoudi no longer be on the scene –  whom ownership of his extensive Ethiopian investments, including such major companies as the Saudi Star Agricultural Development, might now revert to. Will those investments now come under the direct control and ownership of the bin Salman led Saudi government?

What does that mean for Ethiopia?

Bab el Mandeb Strait – Chock Point between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden

2. Ethiopia, The Belt and Road Initiative and the Saudi, UAE Role In Frustrating It

Before getting into the details of al Amoudi’s extensive Ethiopian holdings and his relationship to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) it is necessary to place the situation in the country within the broader regional and global context.

The country itself has long been a cross roads between central Africa and the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Ethiopia is rich in both its agricultural potential and mineral wealth. Its population of 108 million is growing at a rate of between 2.5%-3% a year. At that rate there is at least one estimate that its population could double to more than 200 million in 25 years. After Nigeria Ethiopia is the second most populated African country. 

Nothing suggests it great cultural diversity – and its role as historic crossroads – so much as its linguistic diversity. A linguistic cornucopia, some 85 languages (there are slightly different estimates) from four major language families (Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan) with up to 200 dialects are spoken. Oromos, Amharas and Tigrayans are the largest ethnic and linguistic groups. Despite some rural-to-urban shifts the country remains largely rural and its population still overwhelmingly involved in agriculture and stock raising. It is a country overwhelmingly of young people. sixty percent of the population is under the age of 25, the median age being 17.9 years. (By way of comparison, in the USA it was more than double that – 38 years in 2017).

Al Amoudi’s aggressive entry into the Ethiopian economy is – for better or worse – a part of what has been called “the Great Game,” except that it is not a game at all. Historically, 150 years ago, this referred to Russian-British competition for control of Southern Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) but today it entails a much wider geo-political competition between the United States and China (in the main) and extends from the western Chinese borders through Central Asia, the Middle East bringing East Africa, most especially the Horn of Africa into its contested geography.

It might appear to a distant observer from North America that U.S.-Chinese competition over Ethiopia is overstated or even ludicrous, but that is precisely what is transpiring there – and in the Horn of Africa in general. Chinese influence and investment in Ethiopia is growing dramatically. Since the end of World War II, the United States, which has had military bases in Ethiopia but little economic interests, finds itself increasingly on the defensive there as Chinese economic ties continue to increase.

Chinese investment, no doubt to feed its own burgeoning economic growth, is in a desperate search for raw materials, cheap manufacturing outlets and the like – nothing new about that – but China has also promised and delivered on the kind of infrastructural development in Africa, particularly Ethiopia and Kenya that British and then American imperialism refused to even consider. That in turn has stimulated economic activity in Ethiopia and drawn Ethiopia into much closer ties with Peking. These seem to leapfrog into a tighter relationship for both countries from year to year.

Let us be clear on one point: China is developing Ethiopia and Africa in general along very specific lines. It views Africa as a periphery to the Chinese core, nothing more, nothing less. Its development program is to improve the efficiency of large-scale food production, mineral extraction and low value-added manufacturing. It’s infrastructural plans – as elaborate as they are – are basically for the more efficient removal of those resources from Ethiopia to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean coasts. Although Chinese mega-investment in Ethiopia has stimulated economic activity in Ethiopia it puts sharp limitations on the nature of this development.

Still, this Chinese-Ethiopian relationship frightens Washington, frankly, which has much less to offer Addis Ababa other than babble about free markets and democracy. Economic relations remain minimal. However, the strategic relations are vital to the United States which has – minus the period of the Dirge (1975-1991) – maintained a military presence in Ethiopia since the late 1940s. Retaining its strategic hold in Ethiopia is what has long been paramount to the U.S.-Ethiopian connection.

Since the TPLF came to power in the early 1990s, these ties – that include a number of military bases, training of their special forces (that has a horrific human rights record) and pushing Ethiopia into invading Somalia in 2011, remain vital to U.S. interests in the Horn of Africa. Retaining its strategic hold in Ethiopia  has long been paramount to the U.S.-Ethiopian connection and central to its goal of blunting Chinese Africa influence. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates act as Washington’s junior partners in this effort and have increased their economic and strategic presence in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in general as a result, their efforts always closely coordinated with U.S. strategy.

As the Ethiopian socio-political realities continued to deteriorate as a result of the TPLF- dominated government (and I would argue Washington’s policies of utilizing the Ethiopian military as a regional policeman), the United States understood that there was a very real danger of the country imploding or exploding. Just how much Washington orchestrated the recent Ethiopian change in prime ministers (from Hailemariam Desalegn to Ahmed Abey) remains to be seen, but the Trump Administration was full force behind the shift.

While the Ethiopian diaspora in North American – both Canada and the US of A – whole heartedly supported pushing Hailemariam Desalegn from power and continues to greet the Ahmed Abey prime ministry as nothing short of a new dawn, more cynical but perhaps more savvy observers see the recent Ethiopian prime minister shift differently. Dr. Bishal A. Egal from the Sana’a, Yemen based, Horn of Africa Center for Strategic and International Studies Center (HORN CSIS) noted in a personal communication recently that the change in prime ministers was:

…little more than “American FP (foreign policy) poker games =face lifting without real and sustainable peace and development in Ethiopia and the greater horn of Africa. Just a quick musical chairs game of preventing,stopping and denying the Chinese “pivot” towards the horn and central Africa via the BR (Belt Road) initiative. This is just a PR game to prevent Ethiopia from imploding from within and without.”

The Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates coordinate closely with the United States in the implementation of Horn of Africa policy. They are heavily invested in Ethiopia and the Horn in general both for strategic and economic reasons. Of course given their proximity, and the short distance across the Bab el Mandeb Straits from the southern tip of Eritrea to the southwest coast of Yemen it should come as no surprise that these relations go back very far in time.

They have been extraordinarily active in the past few decades.

As noted in an earlier blog entry:

  • Among Washington’s allies, or partners in crime, are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Consolidating control over Bab El Mandeb explains one of the main reasons that Washington – be it the Obama or Trump Administrations – has supported the Saudi-UAE-led genocidal war against Yemen, which is being fought with U.S. arms, advisers and intelligence, while feigning that the Yemeni opposition is controlled by the Iranians, which it isn’t. The U.S.-backed Saudi-UAE blockade and war against Yemen is the Arab version of the Israeli blockade of Gaza – just as heartless, vicious and cruel. If Yemen is brought to heel then Washington, through its allies, controls both sides of the Straits.
  • For example, although it is no secret, it is not generally publicized that the UAE has made an arrangement with Eritrea in which it is paying rent to Asmara to use its Red Sea port of Assab as a springboard for Saudi-UAE naval military operations against Yemen, just twenty miles across Bab el Mandeb. As with the U.S.-orchestrated failed effort to bring down the Syrian Assad government and partition the country in which Saudi and UAE played key roles by recruiting, funding and arming mercenaries, these same two retrograde – but oil and natural gas rich Arab nations – are strategic allies in Washington’s efforts to strengthen its strategic hold over the Horn of Africa.

It’s strategic location, coupled with its large and overwhelmingly poor population, are  the essential factors in why China sees Ethiopia as an important partner of its Belt and Road Initiative. As Chinese investment and economic ties with Ethiopia soar, the United States becomes increasingly uneasy. China has become a major player in Ethiopia.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, during the fiscal year 2016-17 alone China invested some $4.2 billion. Its money has gone into industrial parks, infra-structural development (especially rail link updates). China is already Ethiopia’s biggest trading partner; Addis Ababa exported $144.5 million of goods to China in the first six months of the Ethiopian fiscal year 2017-18 alone. “China Trade Week” in May of this year (2018) brought around 50 Chinese firms to Addis Ababa. It included companies engaged in construction materials and machinery, electronics, food and beverage, furniture, packaging and plastics, print, daily necessities and animal healthcare.

There is no way that the United States can – or even wants to – compete with the Chinese economically. Instead they try to counter Chinese influence strategically and politically to dull its edge. That is where Saudi Arabia and the Emirates come in. And where Mohammed al Amoudi became a strategic player in the region.

Ethiopian, where the country’s agricultural wealth goes. Land grabbed by foreign investors, among them Mohammed al Amoudi. Le Monde Diplomatique map

3. Back to Al Amoudi

Ethiopians have reason to worry about his fate. Al Amoudi’s Ethiopian operations employ more than 70,000 people in the Horn of Africa hub. They are not certain as to their future in a post Al Amoudi setting. The new government led by Prime Minister Ahmed Abey is also concerned. If al Amoudi is no longer this side of the great divide, do his Ethiopian assets become the national property of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia directly? What does this mean in terms of Saudi interference in the country?

Al Amoudi was closely linked with Ahmed Abey’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, and the latter’s repressive practices including the mass displacement of the Anuak ethnic group – now in refugee camps in Southern Sudan and Kenya. They were expelled from their traditional homeland to make way for Saudi Star Agricultural Development (and other foreign companies) in 2008. They have been victimized by savage state repression ever since as have other ethnic groups, the Oromos, Ethiopian Somalis and Amharas. The country’s vibrant student movement has been repeatedly crushed in a violent manner, only to rise again from the ashes.  Al Amoudi’s cooperation with the former dictatorship is well-known.

He is far from a popular figure in the country; he has also been a polarizing figure.

  •  Sheikh Amoudi’s reach in Ethiopia has been so pervasive that a 2008 State Department cable, made public by WikiLeaks, said that “nearly every enterprise of significant monetary or strategic value privatized since 1994 has passed from the ownership of the Government of Ethiopia” to “one of Al Amoudi’s companies.” That called into question the “true competitiveness of the process,” the cable said.
  • More recently, in late September, while still in Saudi detention, Al-Amoudi is among dozens of investors who have had their land leases in Addis Ababa revoked by the Ethiopian government. According to a report by Voice of America, more than 410 hectares of land awarded to investors have been returned to the Addis Ababa Land Bank and Transfer office because the investors had failed to honor their promises of developing the land they were awarded to create jobs for the city’s teeming youth population. Never happened. Of these was some 55 hectares of land belonging to MIDROC Ethiopia, a private company owned by al Amoudi. MIDROC Ethiopia had leased land in the heart of Addis Ababa, some 33,000 sq. ft in 2005, promising to build a city center there, but the company has failed to follow through. Instead, evicting locals, they built a fence around the property and let it sit..
  • Keep in mind that al Amoudi’s connection to the former Ethiopian government, the prime minister of which was essentially fired and replaced by the younger, more dynamic Ahmed Abey, was a part of the problem. He was considered “ the backbone of the regime at the time of rebel fighting, to the critical times of navigating the regime through several tough times of hard currency crunches”

Given the size of his holding in Ethiopia, Al Amoudi’s fate has become a national pre-occupation

On several occasions Ahmed Abey’s government has made formal inquiries as to Al Amoudi’s fate and asked for his release. The Saudi response was publicly to agree, but then to renig on the commitment. Instead, Riyadh has responded with a number of curious gestures. While Al Amoudi remains incarcerated, Riyadh has released, on two occasions, groups of 1000 Ethiopians each from prison and sent them packing back to Ethiopia. There was also a curious gift to the Ahmed Abey’‘s government of $3 billion – of which $1 billion was paid up front – from the Saudi political twin, the United Arab Emirates, which came as Ethiopian pressure for Al Amoudi’s release intensified. Hush money? The U.A.R. of course denies it.

Regardless, the fate of Mohammed Al Amoudi, Ethiopian born Saudi billionaire, Addis Ababa’s single greatest investor at $3 billion, remains a mystery. Alive or dead? Tortured, dismembered like Khashoggi or simply languishing in a Saudi prison until he comes to terms with Salman’s demands. His fate remains an enigma to Ethiopia and the rest of us.

Denver, Colorado, USA. November 23, 2018


2 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    November 23, 2018 10:36 am

    Thanks for the good information on an issue I haven’t heard much about!


  1. Whatever Became of Mohammed al Amoudi? And Why Haven’t the Saudis Released Him? | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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