Horn of Africa: a new arena for Gulf rivalries

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By Imran Yawer

The Horn of Africa which borders the Gulf of Aden is the gateway to the Red Sea, one of the world’s most strategic arteries. It has always been an arena of intense international rivalry because of major trade sea lanes, and land routes, and its close proximity to the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula. Often referred to as “the navel of the world”, its strategic importance is in sharp contrast to its bewailing economic and social conditions. In the last two decades, the region has witnessed unspeakable human tragedies unfolding in form of famines, territorial disputes, civil wars, proxy warfare, mass displacements etc. Economic stagnation in the region along with rampant corruption and political repression have bred instability, weakened the state, empowered non-state actors and undermined state-based approaches to conflict resolution. The resulting fractured system has led to the unravelling of state institutions and social structures, a circumstance which is most glaringly evident in countries like Somalia and Sudan.

After decades of discord and distrust, a recent thaw in relations between the regional states has brought hope for a long-term peace. These changes were precipitated by Ethiopia’s new reformist Prime Minister, 42-year-old,Abiy Ahmed Ali. Domestically, he has pushed through a raft of reforms aimed at restoring peace and stability within the country. Beyond national borders, he has proposed new mechanisms of collaborative and regional approaches to tackle out-standing issues by addressing their underlying causes. Already within the region, Prime Minister Abiy has normalised ties with Ethiopia’s long-time foe -Eritrea, settled issues with Egypt over sharing the Nile waters, reached out to the Somali leadership, and oversaw the peace agreement between the South Sudanese President,SalvaKiir, and his arch-rival, RiekMachar.

Shortly after Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a landmark peace agreement marking an end to 2 decades of hostility, Somalia and Eritrea also announced restoration of ties after almost 15 years of acrimonious relations in which the former repeatedly accused the latter of abetting Islamic insurgents. More so, Asmara has also signed a peace accord with Djibouti, ending a decades-old border dispute over the DumeiraMountain and the DumeiraIsland along the Red Sea. Sudan, too, has mended fences with Egypt and managed to free itself of U.S. sanctions. The United Nations Secretary General,AntónioGuterres, described these history-making events as a ‘wind of hope blowing across the Horn of Africa’ that would,in turn, benefit the region’s benighted economies.

While these momentous developments have created hope for the future of the region, one cannot overlook the mediatory role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in brokering peace deals across the region; that is to say between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and between Eritrea and Djibouti. Riyadh is further working on a Red Sea security alliance, involving Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia. Following the signing of the abovementioned peace accords, UAE has also extended $3bn in aid and investments to Ethiopia, and a $1bn deposit in the country’s central bank. Furthermore, Sudan’s central bank has also received a deposit of $1.4bn from the UAE. According to analysts, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are using their economic largess to step up their political involvement in the region, which they consider as part of their security hinterland. By consolidating their arc of influence across the region, they hope to ‘ensure security and stability’ and counter the expansion of Iranian influence. The internationalisation of the Yemen war and the involvement of Eritrea, Sudan, and Djibouti in the conflagration hascreated a sense of urgency for the Saudi-led alliance to build stronger bonds in the region.

In the mad race for establishing influence in the Horn of Africa, Turkey and Qatar have not lagged behind. In Somalia,which does not back the Saudi war in Yemen, Qatar and Turkey support the central government, while the UAE has enhanced its economic and military relations with semi-autonomous Somaliland and Puntland, to the chagrin of Mogadishu. The UAE has also developed a military base in Berbera in Somaliland. Unfortunately for Somalia, this rivalry between Middle Eastern states has exacerbated political fissures in a country that is striving for national cohesion after two decades of civil war, and in the face of ongoing efforts to eliminate al-Shabaab.

In addition,the UAE has established military installations in Eritrea’s Port of Assab, from where it has launched military operations in Yemen; the UAE also has a military base in Puntland. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has been in negotiations with Djibouti to establish a military base within the country. Meanwhile, Turkey has its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu, and along with Qatar, it has signed a lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island to include operation of a naval dock.

Factors such as the recalibration of regional politics, the war in Yemen, the Iranian threat, and economic interests in the vital shipping avenue of the Suez Canal have increased the geostrategic and economic importance of the Horn, particularly for the GCC countries. However, the Saudi and Emirati rivalry with Turkey and Qatar, which has already spilled over the region, could have potentially strong destabilizing effects on a region that is already fragile. Presently, there are four deadly armed conflicts underway astride the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden i.e.in Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. These are conflicts in which countries from both sides of the waterway are entwined. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have relied on their bases on the western coast of the Red Sea – particularly in Eritrea – to pursue their military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, while Sudanese troops have been deployed in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition. Somalia’s refusal to support the Saudi war has led to the withdrawal of UAE economic assistance to Mogadishu.

Aside from the tactical maneuverings of the Gulf States in the Horn, the strategic geography of the region, and its economic potential has attracted the attention of global powers. As a sign of its growing interest in Africa, China has established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, located close to the U.S. military’s largest permanent base, Camp Lemonnier. Beijing’s massive investments in Djibouti include a water pipeline from Ethiopia, a railway to Addis Ababa, and a new international airport that is 25kms south of the capital – totaling over US$1.2 billion – and a $600 million multipurpose port in Doraleh. Other countries such as France, Japan and Italy have also set up military installations in Djibouti, while Saudi Arabia has shown keen interest in establishing a military base in the country.

The countries comprising the Horn of Africa face a myriad of issues that threaten peace and stability in the region. Political protests in Sudan, growing tension and conflict along ethnic lines in Ethiopia, armed insurrections in South Sudan, and inter-communal conflict and political dispute between the federal government and its member states in Somalia show the fragile state of national cohesion in these countries. The need for a national dialogue process to promote peace, unity, and reconciliation has never been more exigent in this turbulent region. It is equally important that such a process be owned and led by African institutions i.e.the African Union and IGAD. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in the current reality as many of the geo-political changes witnessed in the Horn of Africa have been prompted by external actors and underpinned by economic aid. This political shift has minimised the role of local stakeholders in deciding their options, even if limited, and of building their own political order. In the long-term, sustainable peace in the region cannot be achieved unless the political trajectory is redirected to allow the states of the Horn of Africa to claim ownership of their governance and the path to regional peace.

The writer is a former Ambassador