Soon after the Gulf crisis irrupted in late May 2017, the competing Royal families in the Arabian peninsula shifted their conflict into Africa, polarising the poor yet strategic Horn of African nations located on the other side of the Red Sea. Djibouti, Eritrea and the breakaway Somaliland supported the uncompromising position of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia led bloc against Qatar backed by Turkey. However, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia adopted neutral foreigner policies towards Gulf conflict and supported dialogue and mediation efforts initiated by the Amir of Kuwait. In doing so, the latter group hoped to maintain good relations with both sides. However, that was not in line with UAE-Saudi binary policies borrowed from the former president of the USA, George W Bush’s approach on the eve of 9/11: you are either with me or with my enemy and then you will be treated as an enemy.
Competition between the Gulf nations in the Horn of Africa has been simmering for some time. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been investing heavily in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan though Qatar has the lion’s share in Sudan’s development projects. To strengthen its foothold in the Horn of Africa, the tiny yet rich nation of Qatar successfully mediated between Eritrea and Djibouti in their longstanding conflict over a disputed territory. After a negotiated agreement, Qatar sent 400 of its peacekeeping troops in 2010 to keep the conflict at bay. However, when both Eritrea and Djibouti aligned with UAE-Saudi alliance against Qatar, the latter withdrew its troops in June 2017. Eritrea promptly overtook the disputed territory and the tension between the two poor counties of the Horn of Africa resurfaced. Djibouti is now grieving and perhaps contemplating how to ambush or wreak revenge on Eritrea when it is right time to do so. Qatar has also mediated between Darfur rebels and the Khartoum government. Some diplomats and experts in the field of conflict resolution have also suggested that Qatar has relevant experience and skills to mediate between Somalia Government and its opponent Al-Shabaab. UAE and Saudi Arabia were envious with this tiny nation’s increasing reputation and soft power, reflected in its ability to reconcile divided societies in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
From the security perspective, since 2015, Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been building up military bases in Eritrea in order to encounter Houthis militias in Yemen and also intercept Iran’s military aid to Houthis. UAE is now in a full control of the main Sea Ports in Yemen and perhaps the strategic Island of Socotra between Somalia and Yemen. Early in 2014, UAE also established its military training base in Mogadishu.
The poor yet militarily strong Egypt was intrigued by UAE-Saudi money. No surprise. The old Arabic wisdom was ‘Poverty could almost make you sell your belief and principles’. Additionally, Egypt’s military regime is infuriated by Turkey’s presence of its next door, Sudan that allowed Turkey to invest in the strategic port of Suakin and Egypt is suspicious that it may in the future be used as a military base which can impact on its national security and the strategic Suez Canal. More worries, some western and Arab nationalist commentators raise the spectre of Turkey’s long-term intention to revive the Ottoman Caliphate which strikes fear into the heart of some Arab regimes and Israel in the Middle East.
What are the primary objectives of UAE-Saudi alliance in the Horn of Africa?
Well, there are many objectives including economic and security factors. A military presence in this strategic location that is geographically close to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen is another aim. Having said that, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are fighting with Houthis and Al-Qaida in order to minimise the security threat they pose. Yemen is also the natural transit point of weapon transportation to Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has publicly expressed its intention to partner with Al-Qaida in Yemen against Emirates-Saudi alliance. Furthermore, The Emirates and Saudis want to contain the democratically inspired political Islam that emerged during the Arab spring, perceiving Islamic democracies as a direct menace to their ruling families. In contrast, Qatar and its ally Turkey supported the moderate political Islam such as the deposed Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi who was the first ever democratically elected Egyptian leader, and brotherhood’s offshoots including Al-Islah of Yemen, and elsewhere in the world. The UAE-Saudi bloc is also trying to deter Turkey’s increasing economic, cultural and military influence in African particularly the Horn of Africa.
The above-highlighted competing interests and objectives between these two rival blocs are spilling over into the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia and Sudan have strong central governments and therefore, managed to minimise the negative impact posed by their neutral position while Somalia’s fragility has been exposed to the influence of these competing powers, specifically the harsh stance of Emirates. Saudi Arabia has a softer attitude to the teetering Somalia given to its religious and spiritual responsibilities in the Muslim world represented by the two holy mosques. Now Somali is treading on a thin line trying to keep balance but it can slip either side at any time.
So why is the Emirates tearing apart Somalia?
Historically, Somalia had and still has strong cultural, religious and economic ties with the Gulf States particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE as well as Egypt. Additionally, since the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991, the UAE has allowed Somalis to more easily travel and stay in the Emirates than have any other Gulf State. Additionally, the largest Somali business community in the globe is in UAE. Saudi Arabia has also been the largest importer of Somalia’s livestock. Having said that around 40% of Somalia’s economy comes from its livestock. Therefore, the Emirates and Saudis have expected from Somali Federal Government to side with them instead of taking a neutral position in which UAE has interpreted alignment with Qatar. This has been compounded by the fragility of Somalia that has yet to recover from the prolonged civil war effects and is vulnerable to any external intrusion. Experts in the Horn have already warned of the negative impact of the Gulf Crisis on the stability and territorial integrity of the already balkanised Somalia in the banner of federalism in which each Federal Member State has its own constitution and foreigner policies and acts as an independent nation. Because of the direct impact from the Gulf crisis, the fragile Somalia Federal Government has been weakened, though its supporters argue that Somalia has stood firm and emerged victorious by sticking with its neutral decision.
Amid this crisis, UAE closed its military base in Mogadishu and has removed Somali passports from its online application system replacing it with the unrecognised Somaliland passport. It has also closed its military training base in Mogadishu claiming that Qatar has controlled Somalia government’s decision-making institutions. Politically, UAE has built a strong relationship with Somalia’s regional leaders and invited them to Dubai in order to provoke the federal government. In fact, these regional leaders seemed to be invested and used by UAE against the federal government. As Somali proverb says “money is halal black magic” implying that if you have money, you can, in Somalia’s belly politics, buy MPs and any politician you want similar to buying camels and cows from Mogadishu’s livestock markets. However, there are both good and bad MPs. Some of these MPs bought their seats in the Parliament for over $1 million while their constituents are dying of hunger or thirst. In return, these morally bankrupt MPs expect huge profit from seats they purchased. And therefore, rich Gulf States particularly UAE can easily buy these self-serving politicians. While UAE attempts to influence Federal Member States’ top leadership, in contrast, Qatar seems to buy the influence of the top leadership of the Federal Government. At the end of the day, the poor and innocent ordinary Somalis are the victims. The vast majority of the families of these politicians are either in the West or in luxury apartments and hotels in Nairobi, Dubai, or somewhere else in the world, not in Somalia. In conclusion, the longer the Gulf dispute continues, the greater the consequences for the security and territorial integrity of vulnerable Somalis. It could also unravel the international community’s effort to realise a functional government in Somalia. Al-Shabaab is the only beneficiary of this crisis and has already staged several bomb attacks and car explosions in its wake.
By Dr Yusuf Sheikh Omar
Dr Yusuf Sheikh Omar is a Peace Practitioner and Research Associate at SOAS University of London.