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The Gulf crisis risks dividing countries in the Horn of Africa

The diplomatic and economic crisis witnessed recently between Qatar and a group of other Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, which want Qatar to end its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, among other demands is already having a heavy impact on regional relations. It also implies the potential for heightened instability, as a result of the diplomatic, transport and trade blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Difficult political choices may be unavoidable. 

By Abdikariim Jama

The Horn of Africa and the Gulf nations share close geographical, historical, cultural and political links. There is increasing layers of engagement and the formalization of security, governance, trade and development ties between the two regions. The longer the Gulf dispute goes on, the greater the ramifications will be for countries in the Horn of Africa.

Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) have formed a strong alliance over issues of mutual importance. While Saudi Aribia capital city-Riyadh’s primary concern is taming Iranian influence in the region, most visible through the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen, Abu Dhabi has worked to counteract political Islam, which it believes threatens security in the Gulf and for its Middle East allies. These priorities are being pursued through the narrative of counterterrorism.

For the last two decades, Qatar has carved out a significant regional and international role by positioning itself as an active moderator, building relations with states whose governments are often negatively portrayed, while supporting Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Arab spring. Turkey, a key ally which has defended Doha, is very influential in the Horn of Africa and is setting up military bases in both Qatar and Somalia.

These opposing objectives have been playing out through Saudi, Emirati and Qatari engagements in the Horn of Africa.

The dispute is ultimately one of differing political ideologies and visions of how the Middle East and Muslim world should be governed and is already spilling over into the Horn of Africa.

Djibouti and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland have affirmed support for the Saudi-UAE wing, downgrading ties with Qatar based on strategic and economic calculations around investments in ports and military bases.

“The dispute is ultimately one of differing political ideologies and visions on how the Middle East and Muslim world should be governed and already spilling over into the Horn of Africa.”

Those governments which are trying to remain neutral – Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia – will want a quick resolution so that there is minimal damage done to their relations with either Saudi Arabia and the UAE or Qatar. Those who have backed the Saudi-UAE position – Djibouti and Somaliland – will hope that any associated investments pay dividends in the medium-to-long term to offset the harm done to relations with Qatar.

The Somalia factor in the crisis

Turkey, since the drought in Somalia of 2011, has been one of the most prominent diplomatic, development, trade and security opening its largest overseas embassy. It also plans to open a military training facility in Mogadishu. Qatar has given development and budgetary support to the Federal Government of Somalia since 2012, which it recently reaffirmed.

The UAE likewise increased its activity in Somalia to protect its broader geo-strategic interests, which includes security in the Gulf of Aden and counter-terrorism efforts. In April this year, the UAE pledged £100 million in humanitarian aid to Somalia to tackle the ongoing drought. Not to mention it also established a military training center for Somali commandos in 2015 and has supported regional forces, contributing towards building Somali National Army capacity to fight the insurgent group Al-Shabaab.

This competition extended to the 2017 elections, with the UAE, Qatar and Turkey supporting rival presidential candidates. Political Islam is at the root of political state-building projects in Somalia, where many politicians and technocrats are Islamists.

The UAE courted several candidates seen as non-Islamist, including former Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke. Turkey and Qatar were linked to former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s DamulJadid group, an offshoot of the al-Islah branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’, is reported to have had financial backing from Qatar during the elections. Although not an Islamist politician himself, his chief of staff, Fahad Yasin, has been a conduit of support from Qatar to Somalia.

The new government nonetheless wants to remain neutral in the current dispute. The president’s first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia in February, this year, followed swiftly by visits to the UAE, Turkey and Qatar. Somalia has allowed Qatar Airways to continue using its airspace following the flight ban by fellow Gulf countries. Staying nonaligned, however, may be difficult for the Federal Government of Somalia, particularly in the context of burgeoning relations between Gulf States and Somalia’s autonomous and semi-autonomous regions, a point of extreme sensitivity while Somalia’s federal and resource-sharing structures remain unclear. A much deeper economic and investment calculations would bear much fruits.

The UAE has entered into a multi-million dollar port investment deal with the self-declared Republic of Somaliland and Puntland, the federal member state in the north. Somaliland also agreed to a 25-year lease of a military base in Berbera to the UAE in return for infrastructure development and job creation. These investments could set-back already strained relations between Somalia and Somaliland and delay much needed political negotiation and accommodation between the two governments.

Relations with the Gulf are increasingly important to countries in the Horn of Africa, with ties being formalized through investments and deeper political engagements. The development of ports and connective infrastructure has the potential to be transformative and boost regional integration.

However, intra-Gulf disputes are also having an increasing impact on relations in the Horn of Africa, with the potential to disrupt regional stability. Balancing these dynamics will be a big diplomatic test for states in the region that are already facing a complex array of developmental, political and conflict challenges

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