How Turkish and UAE interests are adding to a struggle for power and influence within East Africa

EA’s Umer Karim writes for the Life and Peace Institute:

The Horn of Africa occupies an important strategic position on the map of the world. It looks over the Bab al-Mandab Straits, which is a major marine transportation hub. With changes in the political and security situation of the broader Middle East affecting the region, and the Horn is increasingly seen as an important strategic asset by regional and international powers.

Many Middle Eastern states have initiated political and security engagement with Horn of Africa states, but the most prominent amongst them have been Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Attempts by both nations to consolidate their foothold in the region have had an impact on the political stature and fortunes of their local allies. Meanwhile, complexities in the geopolitical dynamics of the Horn region have been further complicated by the political rift between Qatar and countries including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. Countries in the Horn have enjoyed simultaneously, close ties with Qatar as well as Saudi Arabia and UAE, but this latest crisis has compelled them to choose between the two sides.

The Struggle in Somalia and Somaliland

Due to its strategic location, Somalia has long been the focus of attention of world powers, but the recent surge in external interest began with the Turkish engagement in 2011 after Somalia was hit by a famine. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the first foreign head of state to visit Somalia, launching a Turkish foreign policy rooted in humanitarian aid and development to enhance its soft power on the international stage.

This approach has made Turkey an indispensable actor in Somalia and thus an important political actor in the Horn of Africa. Turkish business firms have won contracts for operating the Mogadishu port and its airport. Other firms were interested in a stake in the improvement and management of Somali infrastructure — among those looking towards operations of the port was Dubai’s DP World — but Turkish power in Somalia was exemplified by the opening of its largest military base outside Turkey, used as a facility to train Somali security forces.

This Turkish engagement in Somalia, set against the close relations of the current Somali government with Qatari royalty, have affected Somalia’s position in the current Gulf crisis. Somalia has opted for neutrality and has also offered to mediate between the two sides while simultaneously rejecting a Saudi donation of $80 million USD. This approach of continuing cordial relations with both sides has not gone down well, particularly with its Gulf partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia showed its frustration by giving a cold welcome to a Somali delegation, and the UAE government chose a more explicit approach by calling back its ambassador from Mogadishu.

Ties between Somalia and UAE have historically been cordial, but Turkish successes in terms of gaining strategic contracts in Somalia have compelled the Emirates to look elsewhere. The problem started with the Somali Presidential elections early this year, which saw Turkey and UAE backing different candidates. Turkey and Qatar extended support to political Islamists, mainly the bloc of former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and his political grouping, while the Emiratis supported the former Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke, widely seen as a non-Islamist political personality. The victory of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, whose chief of staff is rumoured to be linked with Qatar, indicated that Somalia will tread a path of its own choice.

The UAE started engagement with Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, and was given the rights to develop the port of Berbera. This was followed by a deal for the Somaliland government to build an Emirati military base in return for a $1 billion aid package. The agreement’s language hinted at an acceptance of Somaliland as an independent state and not as an autonomous region of Somalia, as well as affirming UAE’s commitment towards the security of Somaliland.

This deal with the Emiratis has been marketed by President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo, whose political fortunes are not very bright, and his party as revolutionary for the republic with huge economic opportunities for its citizens[13]. As well as Somalia’s contestation of this agreement on legal grounds, Ethiopia is perturbed about these developments despite the provision of an additional trade route for Addis Ababa.

The UAE’s New Security Doctrine

If the Turkish designs in the Horn are centred on raising their soft power and developing partnerships through humanitarian aid, the Emirati strategy is more security oriented. The principle threat has always been perceived as emanating from Iran, specifically the possibility of an Iranian move to block the Strait of Hormuz, which would lead to the blockage of Emirati oil exports. To meet these, the Gulf state’s security strategy is not only to secure key ports on the southern Yemeni shore but also across the coastline of the Horn region.

The Emirati agreement with Somaliland to open a military base in Berbera and develop its port is a continuation of a policy from Yemen’s civil war, when the UAE had to rely on their base in the Eritrean port of Assab. The military installations in Assad were instrumental in a land, sea, and air offensive to dislodge Houthi insurgents from the southern Yemeni city of Aden.

But the Emirati decision can also be seen as an economic tactic, after the contract of Dubai’s DP World was cancelled in Djibouti, the principal trading port in the Horn region. The Emirati move to develop the port of Berbera would end Djibouti’s hegemony.

The Qatar crisis has added a new dimension to these geopolitics. Eritrea, hosting a large Emirati military and naval installation, has a history of conflict with both Ethiopia and Djibouti. The conflict between Djibouti and Eritrea was mediated by Qatar through negotiations and deployment of its troops at some sections of the border between the two states. But as the Gulf crisis has unfolded this summer, both Eritrea and Djibouti have cut their ties with Qatar. This led to Qatar recalling its forces and Eritrea rapidly deploying its own in the disputed territory.

Ethiopia’s political position is critical, as from its own history of conflict, it has a strategic alliance with Djibouti. There are reports that Addis Ababa might intervene to expel Eritrean forces from the disputed territory. While Ethiopia is the most powerful and politically stable country in the region and is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile River, it faces resistance from Egypt, which has close ties with the UAE. Combined with the Emirati military presence in both Eritrea and Somaliland, these developments raise Ethiopian fears of a “strategic encirclement” at the behest of Egypt. Reports suggesting that after the UAE agreement, a deal for a military base might have also been finalised between Egypt and Eritrea will further stoke regional tensions.

Turkish Soft Power, UAE Rising Power?

Both Turkey and UAE are pursuing strategic goals in the Horn. For Turkey, it is mainly about cementing strong economic links with the region’s countries and positioning itself as their principal trade partner. Ankara’s soft power offensive has put a large amount of humanitarian aid into Somalia and initiated projects centred on improving infrastructure and capacity development. The security engagement with Somalia — constructing a military base and training Somali security forces — mean Turkey will have an impact on a core aspect of the project of Somali nation-building.

The UAE has strategic goals that are more security-oriented, linked with Emirati designs in Yemen as both areas overlook the Bab al-Mandab strait. The Emirates understand that — to become an indispensable actor for the security of the strait, a bulwark against Iranian influence in the region, and a check on terrorist outfits — it has to expand its presence on both sides of the Bab al-Mandab. This elevates UAE’s political status from a Gulf commercial hub to a blue water power and enhances the incentives for international engagement with the Gulf State.