By Christopher Phillips, CNBC Africa 13 April 2023
In recent decades, the Horn of Africa has increasingly played host to a fierce competition for influence, stemming from geopolitical rivalries in the Middle East. Typically, such dynamics feed fears of destabilization, particularly in a region with such a troubled recent history of violence.
While these struggles for influence have, at times, exacerbated problematic dynamics, for the most part these fears have proved to be exaggerated. For the most part, African governments have managed to extract significant material benefits, while Middle Eastern leaders have not militarized the region to the extent that some thought possible at times of maximum tension. A case could even be made that, far from destabilizing the region, power politics in the Middle East have materially contributed to the region’s stability.
The War on Terror, and later the regional tensions exacerbated by the 2011 Arab Uprisings, were the most important catalyst for increased Middle Eastern engagement in the region.
Somalia, in many ways, has been the most contested area. Qatari involvement in the country dates back to the 2000s, but since then, several Middle Eastern powers have used their wealth to support different candidates. The 2012 and 2017 presidential elections were particularly crucial moments, with Qatar’s preferred candidates victorious both times. The UAE, meanwhile, has secured deals with the breakaway Somali state of Somaliland and the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland to establish bases and commercial ports there. Turkey, a regional rival of both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, has established a base in Somalia and explored the possibility of a naval base in Sudan.
Eritrea has also been seen as a strategically important ally – used for a time by the Iranians to smuggle arms to Gaza. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE persuaded President Isais Afwerki to abandon ties with Iran, instead joining their coalition against Tehran’s Houthi allies in the Yemen war and allowing Abu Dhabi to use Eritrea’s port of Assab as a military base. As part of this effort to strengthen their military footprint in the region, Riyadh also turned to neighbouring Djibouti, agreeing to build a new Saudi military base there.
Despite this, the much-feared militarization of the region has not, for the most part, come to fruition. While the UAE did use Assab as a base for a while, it later dismantled much of its military presence as it reduced its role in Yemen. Meanwhile, the bases in Somaliland and Puntland have not yet been developed, nor has the Saudi base in Djibouti. Turkey’s Mogadishu base was primarily used for training Somalia’s security forces rather than to house the Turkish military, and the Sudanese naval position never materialized.
This is due in large part to the fact that tensions within the Middle East itself have cooled, with notable rapprochements between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, alongside the recent improvements in Iran-Saudi ties. The 2022 Somali election, which saw far less external competition than previously and the victory of a candidate with a ‘no enemies’ philosophy, serves as a useful indicator for the decreased level of competition.
This has meant that nations in the horn have been able to reap the rewards of the increased engagement, without suffering the consequences of destabilization. Indeed, this new strategic landscape has opened the door for Arab powers to make proactive contributions to the region’s stability. The UAE has been especially proactive, using diplomacy and strategic investment to grease the wheels of peace. The UAE’s role in brokering the historic 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea after 18 years of diplomatic deadlock particularly stands out.
Elsewhere Abu Dhabi has also helped improve critical infrastructure, such as the ports of Assab, Bosaso, and Berbera. In the latter case, it further sponsored a new Berbera-Ethiopia highway, alongside the UK, that will allow the port to act as a major new outlet for Addis Ababa’s trade, boosting Somaliland’s economy. Other Middle Eastern states have similarly invested in infrastructure, notably Turkey’s upgrading of Mogadishu’s airport and port while Ankara, alongside Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Doha have all significantly increased their deployment of aid to the Horn. Meanwhile Turkey and the UAE have joined the US, UK and other western governments in helping to train Somali (and, in the UAE’s case, Somaliland) security forces and coastguards in the twin battles against Jihadism and Piracy.
For the most part, then, leaders in the Horn can see this period of engagement as a success story. Partly, this is due to active efforts to limit the political influence of the Middle East, notably by Eritrea and Ethiopia, but is also down to the significant presence of other global powers in the Horn, notably the US, UK, EU, and China. Moreover, the rapprochements between key Middle Eastern powers have meant that concessions given away by African leaders have not been negatively exploited.