Somalia is the only non-Arab state within the Arab League, yet its long history and cultural participation with both the Arab world and Islam are clear testimonies of its legitimate affiliation. Unfortunately, this connection has fostered much internal strife, fueled by notions of Arab superiority within Somali society.

 Indeed, Somalia isn’t the first country to intuitively come to mind when one thinks of an Arab state. But by delving into the unique past of the country, which delineates the Horn of Africa, its place among the nations that form the Arab League becomes more understandable. That is, Somalia – along with Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia – are a part of the 22-member organization that unites around Arab identity, historical Islamic heritage, and the Arabic language.

Interestingly, in Somalia, Arabic is only spoken as a mother tongue by 10 percent of the population, with ethnic Arabs forming a very small minority within this country of 16.3 million. Nevertheless, it is important to understand how the notion of Arab identity is a foundational element to Somali culture, to the point that one’s “Arabness” can actually determine one’s worth within Somali society. And because of this, the insistence on Arab identity has sadly been the cause of internal racism and colorism, putting Somalis at odds with each other and leading to extreme tension and even conflict.

The Arab Connection

It’s impossible to talk about Arab identity in Somalia without starting with Yemen. In fact, it’s in Yemen where the link begins, stretching all the way to antiquity. Both Yemeni and Somali culture, as well as their history, have been intertwined over the years, with a record of trading communities of Somalis in Aden and Yemeni Arabs in both Mogadishu and Quismayo establishing and integrating within each other’s communities. Naturally, this has facilitated the sharing of culture, customs, and language.

The Somali language itself is peppered with thousands of Yemeni Arabic words and two of the largest and most powerful clans in Somalia – the Darood and Isaaq clans – claim to be of predominately Yemeni Arab origin. Due to this shared history and identity, many Somalis don’t see any difference between themselves and Yemenis.

This plays an important part in the Arab identity connection for Somalia as a whole, serving as a gateway in how citizens perceive and navigate within the Arab world. For example, Somalia’s trade and political engagement remains focused on the Arab world, with Yemen being its most important trading partner (with the exception of Turkey, who has been slowly taking its place).

Somalia depends heavily on economic aid and assistance from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arad Emirates.

Furthermore, Somalia depends heavily on economic aid and assistance from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arad Emirates, with the former offering a US$70 million grant, in addition to selling its oil at rock bottom prices. Following Somalia’s independence from Italy (and Britain in the north, in what now forms Somaliland), Somalia continued to assert itself within the greater Islamic world, a process that was evident in the mandates and articles presented by Somalia’s First Prime Minister, Abdullahi Issa (Tenure: 1956-1960).

Issa was careful to always indicate that Somalia’s interests were to reinforce relations in the Islamic world, while also forging new ties with other African states, keeping up with the greater trend of Pan-Africanism that had risen in the continent. But after the 1969 coup d’état that brought Somali Dictator Siad Barre to power, any mention of alignment with the greater African continent swiftly dwindled.

Instead, Barre sought to align Somali aims with that of the Arab world. Whereas the rest of the African continent was speaking of a Pan-African ideal – started by former Ghanaian President Kwame Khrumah and enhanced by Leopold Sedar Senghour of Senegal – Somalia was absent from this continental discourse.

This doesn’t mean Somalia didn’t take part in greater relations and dialogues with other African nations in the post-colonization struggle. In fact, Somalia was present in many prominent African conferences, from the All-African Conference in 1961 that took place in Cairo to sending an important delegation to West Africa—and it’s worth noting that Ghana was the first non-East African state to recognize Somali independence. But these gestures were purely diplomatic and political and did not represent the societal norms nor the important hold that Arab preference played in Somali identity.

This kinship ties into the most important aspect that cements Somali’s alignment with the Arab world – Islam. With more than 99 percent of the nation identifying as Sunni Muslims, Islam has been the persistent and most unifying ideology for Somalis, who are otherwise a heavily divided people and society, based on clan structure and hierarchies.

The propagation of Islam has also been the rallying cry for Somalis, as shown in the early 1900s, when the chief leader for pan-Somali identity – Sayyid Mohammed Abdille Hassan (the so-called “Mad Mullah” by the Brits) – united Somalis around “the oppression of Christians,” referring to both the British and Ethiopians. Islam has always been an essential part of Somali identity and has become even more pronounced in modern Somalia with societal norms dictated heavily by local interpretations of the Quran.

This deep affinity also has its roots with the origins of Islam itself and its founder, the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), via his first cousin and companion, Aqeel Ibn Abi Talib. Aqeel’s descendants are said to have moved to Somalia, becoming the founders of the key tribes – Hawiye, Dir, and Darod – hence, equally yielding considerable influence in the country with a legacy that is pronounced in contemporary Somali notions of identity.

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Internal Strife

With over 500 different clans— and countless sub-clans within them— ethnic dynamics define Somali society and are a dominating aspect of Somali life. Power struggles for influence among the clans have been the cause of many of the ongoing issues in the country, including the civil war of the 1990s that saw the toppling of the government.

Such undercurrents play a complicated role in Somali identity as well, particularly when it comes to defining who is Somali and who isn’t. As mentioned above, the most dominant tribes of Somalia include the Hawiye, Dir, and Darod, who claim their origin not only in the Arabian Peninsula but also as descendants of the Prophet Mohammad himself. These clans have continuously built upon their special privilege and influential role by embellishing their origins with myths and legends, that involve their “grace” and “special favor” over other clans (including divine intervention, as one myth claims).

Prominent tribes have pushed the notion that Somalis are not just of Arab extraction, but most importantly, not black.

For the most part, these “other clans” were mainly sub-clans that are considered to be “too black” or “too African” and thus, “too foreign” to be viewed as real Somalis. Based on these mythical assertions, prominent tribes have pushed the notion that Somalis are not just of Arab extraction, but most importantly, not black. Such discriminatory ideals and prejudice were perpetrated by these “superior” clans, and ultimately weaved into the Somali societal fabric, dictating norms and standards.

Gradually, and over some time, this led to the creation of a caste system which sought to not only enshrine the level of superiority of the more dominant clans, but also cement notions of “true Somali purity” based on “appearing Arab” – i.e. lighter-skinned. This has placed the more “Arab” or lighter Somalis at the top of the food chain, and at the very bottom Somalis from the Yibir, Gabooye, Tumaal, and Bantu clans.

What these latter groups all have in common is that they are the darkest and more “African” in appearance, with little resemblance or evident belonging to Arab identity. In fact, not only were cultural norms insisting that Somalis were not black, they also claimed that Somalis weren’t even African but instead an Arab hybrid with more history in Arabia than Africa.

As such, Somali Jareer (how they are unfavorably known in Somali, referring to their supposed “foreignness” as the lower castes) have been the focus of common insults and extreme social exclusions—not unlike the status of the Untouchables caste in India. This group has been assigned to undesirable low wage work and faces significant systemic racial discrimination while enduring daily prejudice and injustice. Other clans have even forbidden intermarriage with them.

Because of this notion of Somalis being more Arab than Black, many Somalis with dark skin tones have resorted to endless amounts of skin bleaching methods, including the usage of mercury in order to appear closer to “pure Somali,” as favored socially. Somali women are prized for their “whiteness” and insist on their Arab roots as being paramount under the umbrella of Islam.

Many in the Somali diaspora have called for greater advocacy to speak out against the overt preference for Arab identity.

Over time, many in the Somali diaspora have called for greater advocacy and campaigns to speak out against the colorism and overt preference for Arab identity, which not only divides Somalis, but isolates them from other Africans. Sadly, the belief that Somalis aren’t black (or at least, that black skin is less attractive) is so deeply rooted, it would take generations to undo.

With rich and historic links to the Arab world, there is no question as to why Arab identity and an affinity to Arabs is important for Somalis. Simply put, the history of the Arab world, and Islam, is interwoven with that of Somalia. Yet, as rich and beautiful as this connection can be, it has been taken to the extreme by causing a superiority complex for lighter-skinned tribes and the establishment of a racist caste system, only adding to the myriad of issues which engulf this East African state.