Slowly but surely, the Horn of Africa is being dragged into a dangerous power game involving a host of Middle East and global rivals whose interests seem bound for a collision course. Tom Collins reports.
Somalia’s Aden Abdulle airport in Mogadishu is in many ways a vision for the country’s future. Its doors now open to more than just those clad in military garb as its airplanes serve a slowly increasing range of international destinations. Yet beneath the surface, the airport tells the story of a gradually unfolding power struggle, not yet come to the boil.
Two things are worth considering. First, the airport itself has received substantial Turkish investment over the years and Turkish Airlines is currently the only commercial airline to adorn its runways. Indeed, Turkey and Somalia have a long history of cooperation.
Second, in early April, a privately chartered jet from Abu Dhabi was intercepted at the airport and several on-board bags of money, worth $9.6m, were seized. The money, it has been suggested, was bound for Somali security forces whose salaries Abu Dhabi has long been paying.
The seizure of the funds signals a change in tack from Somalia’s government – edging further away from the UAE, which was previously a key economic and military partner. At the same time the UAE continues to act as a key partner for Somalia’s breakaway, semi-autonomous but not yet internationally recognised Somaliland.
In this respect the already shaky relationship between Somalia and Somaliland is being complicated by each country’s links to differing regional partners, which themselves are pitted against each other.
Developments and antipathies across the Gulf of Aden between Turkey and Qatar on the one hand and the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other are increasingly spilling over into the Horn of Africa. Caught in-between, Somalia and Somaliland have been locked in rancorous rounds of politicking – each government claiming to be neutral in Middle Eastern affairs while continuing to leverage support and pursue strategic goals.
Across the Gulf of Aden
In June 2017, simmering Middle Eastern tensions came to a head when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed relations with Qatar and implemented various blockades on the tiny Persian Gulf peninsula.
Qatar’s foreign policy has for long sat uneasily with some of its larger neighbours. Doha’s alleged support of regional Islamist groups and its continued relations with Shia-ruled Iran has led the country into disfavour with Saudi Arabia, which is both Sunni-ruled and a key regional ally of the US.
Turkey also enters the mix as one of Qatar’s staunchest allies, with a long history of bilateral economic and military cooperation. Doha, in fact, is the second-largest investor in Ankara, with over $20bn to date. Both powers similarly share a softer approach to groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which they refuse to label as terrorist entities. As a result, two days after Qatar was blockaded, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan sent troops and supplies to help its regional partner.
With the blockade ongoing, the regional spat is aggravating fissures between Somalia and Somaliland. Despite asserting its neutrality, Somalia’s new administration under President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is viewed by the UAE as tilting towards Qatar and Turkey. The UAE has accused the President of receiving funds from Qatar to run his election campaign.
This has exacerbated tensions within Somalia as pro-Emirati and pro-Qatari groups square off in parliament. Indeed, Gulf powers are key partners in the country’s development and many have steadfast ideas about where to lay their allegiance. In early 2018, the government raided the homes and offices of two prominent critics, accusing them of receiving Emirati funds.
The heightened risk of factionalism may also spill over into Somalia’s security forces, with government officials accusing Emirati-backed units of ignoring orders. Frustrated at the seizure of money at Mogadishu airport, Abu Dhabi halted aid projects, as well as pulling all personnel from and abandoning the Mogadishu base at which it was training Somali security forces in the fight against the regional Islamist group Al-Shabaab and pirates.
Outside Mogadishu, the pro-Qatari government has spooked Somalia’s breakaway states, which depend on Emirati investment.Insults and accusations are being traded between federal governments and Mogadishu and many federal leaders have made provocatively timed trips to Abu Dhabi – seeking to maintain relations.
This fallout between Somalia and the UAE has recently come to a head over state-owned UAE port operator DP World’s involvement with the Berbera port in Somaliland. In 2016 the operator won a 30-year concession to develop the port at a cost of $442m. Ethiopia, a landlocked country, was instrumental in lobbying Abu Dhabi to develop the port, which it sees as crucial for access to the sea. In March this year, Addis Ababa acquired a 19% stake in the port for $80m, while DP World and Somaliland retained 51% and 30% respectively.
Somalia’s government immediately claimed this deal was “invalid, null and void” on the grounds that it failed to go through the correct procedures and violates the sovereignty of Somalia. In effect, Mogadishu – which doesn’t recognise Somaliland as an independent state – argued the deal should have come through the central government first.
The issue further soured relations between Somalia and the UAE and the government enacted legislation banning DP World from the country. The Somaliland government responded by voting unanimously to approve the deal and Somaliland’s leader Muse Bihi Abdi has referred to Mogadishu’s attempt to block the agreements as a declaration of war.
The deal is hugely significant in so much as it is the first time Somaliland has broken the glass ceiling of international recognition by entering into substantive deals with viable business partners and states operating on the global stage. It also represents the ossification of Somalia’s distancing from the UAE and shows Gulf powers becoming more overtly involved in politics in the Horn of Africa.
At the same time, Somaliland’s government agreed to the establishment of a UAE military installation at Berbera. This reflects another evolving trend in the Horn of Africa: the steadily growing number of foreign military bases. Each country pursues its own interests, with its own military base. Indeed, the Horn of Africa provides strategic locations for combating regional conflicts and instability, like in Yemen, or Al-Shabaab.
The UAE has snapped up bases in parts of Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea and will use its latest in Somaliland to further tighten its blockade with Saudi Arabia against Houthis in Yemen, who are backed by rival Iran.
Elsewhere, Qatar and Turkey are building bases in Somalia and Sudan. China has positioned itself with a military base and container port in Djibouti, for which it paid $700m. Meanwhile the US conducts African operations and directs drones in the Persian Gulf from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the largest US base on the continent.
From an economic perspective, places like Somali, Somaliland, Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan are also prime areas for providing access to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes: the Suez Canal. According to the UN the Suez Canal handles about 10% of the world’s seaborne trade, including roughly 10% of the world’s oil trade.
For that reason strategic ports are quickly being developed all along the coast. Qatar has recently signed a $4bn agreement with Sudan to develop the former Ottoman port city of Suakin in north-eastern Sudan. Turkey has also been involved in the deal by leasing the island from Sudan for 99 years at the end of 2017.
While Somalia and Somaliland look to exploit this coastal interest for their own development goals, both governments should be wary of opening their doors to regional power struggles, which may only serve to destabilise the delicate balance already in place between the two countries.