Until recently, the Eritrean Air Force had a single luxury airplane, an 1970s-era American corporate turboprop. Thanks to a brazen act of defiance, the plane is now in Saudi Arabia. And its pilots, two high-ranking Air Force officers, are attempting to defect from a government that few people seem to want to live under -- even, apparently, among the upper-echelons of its military.
Isaias Afewerki, the country's longtime dictator and the architect of one of the most oppressive states on earth, might have to fly commercial the next time he has to negotiate with his rivals in neighboring Ethiopia, or to convince foreign leaders that his government isn't aiding al Shabaab, the al Qeada franchise that once ruled much of Somalia.
On October 2, the pilots, who belong to an air force with only 350 personnel (down from 850 in 2002, according to the International Institute for Security Studies), flew the plane to Saudi Arabia, where they were met with an F-15 escort before landing outside Jizan. Within the week, an Eritrean delegation, which -- according to both translated Arabic media sources and Meron Estefanos, a prominent Eritrean exile activist and journalist -- included pilots and a Major General in the Eritrean military, landed in Jeddah and attempted to get their plane and pilots back -- unsuccessfully, it would turn out, as the the Saudis have already refused to relinquish the asylum seekers. Their defection is a hard-to-ignore demonstration of how deeply dysfunctional and unpopular Afewerki's regime has become. "These are people considered loyal by the regime and they have planned this and executed it right under the noses of their commanders," Estefanos told me. "Eritreans never used to say anything against their government, even only a few years ago."
This incident could also tank the Afewerki regime's already suffering reputation in the international community. This is a particularly inconvenient time for two high-level officers to make off with the presidential plane. In June, the UN's Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea found that Afewerki's government was violating an arms embargo on Somalia by "maintaining relations with known arms dealers in Somalia," and through "its support for Ethiopian armed opposition groups passing through Somali territory." But the report added that there was no evidence to suggest that his government was still supporting al Shabaab, the primary rationale behind UN sanctions that have been in place since 2009. Even if Afewerki is still facilitating arms flows to groups fighting the Ethiopian government -- the Afewerki regime's bitterest geopolitical enemy -- he is now confident enough in his country's possible rehabilitation to argue that the UN should drop its sanctions regime. (The chances of success are minimal: Over the summer, the U.S. actually tightened its sanctions on Eritrean officials linked to al Shabaab.)
It is entirely possible that two Air Force officers -- pilots who had flown Afewerki on several occasions, according to Saleh Gadi, a dissident journalist and founder of Awate.com -- would know something of the country's continued meddling in Somalia, including the scope of its support for al Shabaab. Somalia, which sits at the mouth of the Red Sea and has been a haven for pirates and militant Islamists, is an area of intense focus and cooperation for the international community. The pilots have dramatically exposed a government that Freedom House included on its 2012 list of the "Worst of the Worst" states in terms of political oppression. And they've created a possible crisis for their now-former bosses.
Even so, the pilots probably didn't defect because they want to rat out Afewerki's regime, but because Eritrea is not an easy place to live, even for people towards the top of the state structure. Gadi is hardly surprised that two high-ranking pilots would take any opportunity to defect -- even if it meant commandeering the presidential airplane. "In general, everybody who gets the chance will escape," he says. "The elite of the regime ... are used to a lavish lifestyle they cannot maintain anymore. Even the officers are suffering." The pilots aren't the year's only high-profile Eritrean defectors: In August, the flag-carrier for the Eritrean team defected during the Summer Olympics in London.
Estefanos echoes Gadi in saying that escape is a popular notion among Eritreans. "Any Eritrean will use any opportunity he gets to flee," she says. It is not hard to see why. According to Human Rights Watch, Afewerki has imprisoned somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 of his opponents and perceived opponents, including "government officials, business leaders [and] journalists." The government heavily fines the families of those who evade military service, which perhaps explains why a badly impoverished country of less than 6 million is able to maintain a standing military of over 201,000, in addition to over 120,000 reservists. Estefanos likened Afewerki's government to the Kim regime in North Korea, which is less of a stretch than it might seem. Both countries made it into Freedom House's Worst of the Worst report in 2012, along with such elite company as Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Equatorial Guinea -- and Saudi Arabia.
An absolute monarchy with tight political controls and laws that forbid its female population from driving, Saudi Arabia seems like a counter-intuitive place for two would-be political asylees to flee. The notion of Saudi Arabia serving as a beacon of freedom for anyone became all the more absurd in March of 2011, when the Saudi government contributed troops to the Gulf States' mission to pacify the anti-regime uprising in Bahrain. Accepting political refugees even comes with a potentially-dangerous layer of irony for the Saudi monarchy: in sheltering politically-sensitive asylum seekers like the Eritrean pilots, Saudi Arabia would only create a precedent for other countries to shelter their own dissidents, while tacitly endorsing attempts to undermine the region's most oppressive governments.
Yet in this case, self-interest outweighs any of the more abstract reasons for Saudi Arabia's presumed-hostility toward political asylees. According to Frederic Wehry of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Saudi Arabia is concerned about blowback from the conflicts in the Horn of Africa that Afewerki has helped stoke. For instance, Saudi Arabia has a tense relationship with neighboring Yemen, a chronically unstable country that is home to 250,000 Somali refugees -- as well as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). "This is a major security threat right at their back door," says Wehry. "They see al Shabaab as a potential feeder for AQAP." Wehry also notes that Saudi Arabia supported UN sanctions against Eritrea.
So as improbable as it seems that Saudi Arabia would remain a haven for two very public escapees from one of the world's most tyrannical states, it's likely that the pilots aren't going anywhere. Afewerki, meanwhile, will probably get his plane back, but he'll want to think about how to keep more pilots from stealing it in the future.