On January 21 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Somalia invited Ankara to explore for oil reserves off its shores, indicating Turkey’s winning of favor in a region where ports, natural resources, and military bases are contested, and where rival Gulf states have sought geopolitical dominance.
Popular media narratives have depicted regional and global powers engaged in a modern-day “scramble for Africa,” and have perhaps over-exaggerated the power struggle. The United States has pursued military operations against the Somali militant group al Shabaab, though failed to provide long-term economic development. Meanwhile, China’s expansion as a global economic powerhouse has helped it embed itself as the strongest geopolitical actor in the entire continent, including greater ties in the Horn.
Abu Dhabi has sought greater influence over the Bab al-Mandeb and Red Sea, while forming a strategic zone port linked to Yemen.
Among those proactively seeking dominance in the Horn of Africa is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Abu Dhabi has steadily sought greater influence over the Bab al-Mandeb and Red Sea, while forming a strategic zone port linked to Yemen.
Meanwhile Abu Dhabi and Riyadh oppose Ankara’s regional presence and therefore seek to counteract it, dismissing its growing relations with certain governments as driven by self-serving “neo-Ottoman” designs.
Though, in seeking greater influence in East Africa, Turkey has mostly focused on providing humanitarian support to the central government of Mogadishu. Since 2011, when it provided aid to victims of Somalia’s horrific famine, which claimed over 250,000 lives, it has donated around $1 billion USD in aid to the country.
Such investments have helped Ankara win favor in Somalia. The bilateral trade volume value grew from $144 million USD in 2017 to $206 million USD in the first 10 months of 2019. Turkish companies also run Mogadishu’s International Airport and Mogadishu Sea Port. Clearly ties between the two countries are developing due to Turkey’s popularity within Somalia.
“Turkey relies on diplomacy and genuine investment and does not interfere in the country’s politics. Even opposition politicians support Turkey,” Abdihakim Abdullahi, analyst at the Mogadishu-based Somali Institute for Peace and Human Rights, told Inside Arabia.
“This huge influence it has gained makes it a major obstacle for the Emiratis, as Erdogan enjoys major support from the Somalis and government leaders,” he added.
Turkey has also built friendlier relations in Somalia’s autonomous region of Somaliland, with the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) pursuing an agricultural development project in January. Last December, TIKA finished refurbishing a major Somaliland school.
The UAE highlights humanitarian concerns and stability to justify its past efforts to gain influence in East Africa.
Meanwhile, the UAE highlights humanitarian concerns and stability to justify its past efforts to gain influence in East Africa.
“There is a new momentum in the region and we should collectively seize this opportunity to formulate sustainable solutions that serve the interest of regional states and meet the aspirations of its people,” said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash in a speech at the UAE Security Forum in Abu Dhabi in December 2019. “We believe that such models will ultimately play an important role in supporting stability and development in the Horn of Africa,” he added.
However, the UAE has used these humanitarian concerns as a smokescreen for its real ambitions, as it has done elsewhere in the region, particularly in Yemen and Libya. After all, it suspended its aid and security projects in Somalia in June 2018 as Mogadishu had refused to sever ties with Qatar and grown closer to Turkey, demonstrating that its aid was mostly driven by geopolitical interests. Saudi Arabia also pressured Somalia to end relations with Qatar, and even offered a sum of $80 million USD.
Qatar too has steadily built its influence in the Horn of Africa by providing significant aid to countries in the region and also starting construction of a port in Hobyo in Somalia last August to bolster its own market and trade ties.
The power struggle has even reached Sudan after its revolution toppled former dictator Omar Bashir in April 2019. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been supporting the post-revolutionary Transitional Military Council in Sudan within their wider regional counterrevolutionary efforts and steering it away from Doha and Ankara.
Initially, the 2017 Gulf crisis boosted Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s influence, and several African states, including Eritrea, withdrew their ambassadors to Qatar, as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi aimed to isolate Doha from the world. Yet the fall out with Somalia, which sits strategically along the Red Sea, has damaged such geopolitical aspirations.
Having won greater ties with Ethiopia and Eritrea, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have focused on Somaliland.
Having won greater ties with Ethiopia and Eritrea after showering them with aid, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have focused on Somaliland, providing significant support to its autonomous government. In 2016, the Emirati company DP World gained permission to construct a port in Somaliland’s city of Berbara. Emirati relations with Ethiopia were crucial here, as Abu Dhabi and Addis Ababa agreed to turn Somaliland into a “major trading hub” in February 2018. Riyadh also recognized the Somaliland passport, showing both countries’ renewed focus on the autonomous region.
Still, Somalia has been a thorn in the UAE’s side since their relations soured. In April 2018 Mogadishu blocked an Emirati plane leaving the country after Emirati officials leaving Puntland refused to have their bags searched. Days before, Somalia had seized several bags of money of around $10 million USD from a plane arriving in Mogadishu from Abu Dhabi. Somalia also called the UAE’s plans to build a military base in Berbara a “clear violation of international law.”
Abu Dhabi has pursued a divide-and-rule strategy to weaken Mogadishu’s grip over the autonomous regions. Like its support for the separatist Southern Transitional Council in Yemen against the less accommodating government, its backing of Somalia’s autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland is meant to secure influence in the Somali peninsula ahead of other international powers.
Abu Dhabi has pursued a divide-and-rule strategy to weaken Mogadishu’s grip over the autonomous regions.
“They have courted Somali opposition figures, federal states’ presidents, and Somaliland’s president. They are using their finances to destabilize Somalia and interfere in the country’s politics,” said Abdullahi.
An International Crisis Group report in July 2019 stated the UAE “is unlikely to welcome a negotiation in which Somaliland is pressed to yield decision-making power to Mogadishu on issues that affect its interests.” Despite the obvious security repercussions of stoking divisions in Somalia, as Mogadishu still grapples with the militant group Al Shabaab, Abu Dhabi and to a lesser extent Riyadh only seek to prioritize their geopolitical goals.
But the UAE has also faced recent setbacks in Somaliland. On March 4, it announced its suspension of the construction of a military base in Somaliland. Though the UAE presented this as its own decision, Somaliland itself may have halted the construction signalling some behind-the-scenes tensions over Abu Dhabi’s attempts to gain greater influence.
Somaliland’s president announced last September that the UAE’s military base would be converted into a civilian airport.
After all, Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi announced last September that the UAE’s military base would be converted into a civilian airport. Apparently, Abu Dhabi had failed to secure control and establish a proxy government in Somaliland after losing its assets in the area. The UAE also lost further regional influence in September 2018 after Djibouti nationalized its Deraleh port, of which Abu Dhabi was previously a significant shareholder.
Compared to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s more competitive and bullying stance, Turkey and Qatar have focused on aid and building economic ties regionally. In the final analysis, the ongoing competition has been a boost for the two as they further fill the vacuum that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s withdrawal of support to Mogadishu has created.