Does the Gulf crisis between Qatar and its rivals in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others others have the potential to impact conflict and development in the Horn of Africa? The UAE-Saudi alliance has accused Qatar of funding terror groups and has been calling on allies to blockade the country politically and economically.
In the recent past, Gulf countries have leveraged their relationship with east African countries to top up public support for their foreign policy as needed. For example, when the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked in January 2016, it sparked a regional crisis, and Somalia — under the leadership of then President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud — reportedly received a promise of $50 million in aid on the same day it kicked out Iranian-linked individuals and organizations from the country.
In the current crisis, Somalia’s president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” has attempted to stay neutral, probably because he is trying to minimize damage to the UAE/Saudi relationship while also accounting for the fact that Qatar reportedly funded part of his presidential run and still has close links to his administration.
Other Somali leaders and officials have refused to side with Qatar and its ally Turkey, which has often been hailed as Somalia’s most fearless and charitable partner. Why so?
Politicians from Somaliland and Puntland publicly support the UAE-Saudi alliance because of the investment the UAE in particular has delivered or promised to both regions in recent years.
On other hand, Turkey’s assistance has focused predominately on Mogadishu and the federal government, giving outlying regions few incentives to endanger support from Gulf partners. This is perhaps a flaw in Turkey’s approach in Somalia, if it believes regional leaders possess any substantive influence.
Livestock Trade and Investment
According to the EU, livestock tops Somalia’s export earnings, and Saudi Arabia has been its largest market. For example, according to a report from 2013, Saudi Arabia imported about 65% of all livestock exported from Somalia, while the UAE accounted for 18.3%.
Equally important, UAE has promised Somaliland and Puntland hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, professional management, and major upgrades in two of the ports through which these exports have occurred in Berbera and Bosaso — further incentivizing them to join the Saudi/UAE ranks. (Note: President Farmaajo actually sought Saudi Arabia’s assistance in limiting these deals because they were approved without any significant involvement of the federal government, but such intervention is unlikely to happen in the current political climate.)
Qatar’s imports of Somali livestock are much lower — at 3.5 % — according to USAID data. In these terms, it seems as if it would be economic suicide for Somalia to side with Qatar when Saudi Arabia and UAE imported the majority of Somali livestock.
Interestingly, two reports since 12 June — one citing the Somali planning minister and another citing the livestock minister — have alleged that Saudi Arabia agreed to lift the ban this year if the livestock can be confirmed as healthy.
This raises three key questions:
- Are Qatar and Turkey willing to make any efforts to fill the massive livestock import gap left by Saudi Arabia?
- Is Saudi Arabia willing to fast track lifting the ban for political reasons if the Somali government severs ties with Qatar, despite any disease concerns?
- Since Somaliland and Puntland are Saudi/UAE allies, would Saudi Arabia ever lift the ban only on imports from Berbera and Bosaso ports while shunning Mogadishu?
Until Saudi Arabia distinguishes its approach on livestock imports from the Somali allies that support it versus those that do not, it will be difficult to argue that Somali stakeholders should stake their position on the Gulf crisis based on this issue.
More broadly, Somaliland and Puntland will probably continue to publicly support the UAE-Saudi alliance in order to not risk losing promised development assistance.
However, it is hard to see exactly how the Gulf alliance will profit from that support because the regions cannot offer much in the form of resistance to Qatar. For example, there are few Qatari groups to expel from their territories, and as will be explained, they have not been able to participate in the airspace blockade.
The Fight Over Somali Airspace
The Gulf alliance has tried to bring Qatar to its knees by denying entrance of the national airline Qatar Airways to their airspace, increasing the costs of business and discouraging travel through the airline.
Control of Somali airspace has been a hot-button issue between the Somali government and Somaliland region, which sees itself as independent from the rest of Somalia. The issue of how the federal government could share aviation authority with Somaliland has been a subject of multiple failed foreign-led negotiations, and Somaliland has claimed the Somali government has not fulfilled past agreements on the matter.
Somalia itself is still in the process of gathering complete control of its airspace from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and foreign co-managers in Nairobi, but it has not shown any interest in impeding Qatar Airways.
Somaliland alternatively claimed it would not allow Qatar to enter its airspace. However, Qatar Airways has continued to fly through northern Somalia without interference, and it is unclear what measures Somaliland is willing to take in order to carry out its threat.
Could this lead to a major airspace crisis between the federal government and Somaliland? Unless Somaliland finds a way to get the attention of ICAO, it does not appear that this will happen soon.
Somaliland may not have another major forum to file its grievance because there are currently no robust negotiations between the region and the federal government.
Would any cessation of that assistance jeopardize Somalia’s efforts to build a military that can take over for African Union troops in the near future? Probably not. Somalia can count on many other foreign partners — including the U.S., EU, AMISOM, and Turkey — to train, equip, and advise Somali forces. The question has always been how to best coordinate that support among countries with divergent interests and objectives, as well as how to build a consensus and capacity among Somali leaders to ensure the assistance is self-sustainable.
On the flip side, Qatar’s move this week to remove peacekeepers from the disputed area between Eritrea and Djibouti and to withdraw from its mediation role may warrant more concern in terms of regional security. The removal may have been triggered by Djibouti and Eritrea’s decision to side with Saudi Arabia (which is reportedly negotiating for a military base in Djibouti) and UAE (which has a military base in Eritrea).
Djibouti’s Foreign Minister alleged Eritrean troops had moved into the disputed territory, adding, “They are now in full control of Dumeira Mountain and Dumeira Island. This is in breach of the UN Security Council resolution.” Eritrea’s top envoy to the African Union Araya Desta responded to the allegation stating, “We don’t want to take any of Djibouti’s land…The last time we had some skirmishes, it was unnecessary.”
The last major military tension between Eritrea and Djibouti occurred in 2008, when Djiboutian troops — with the logistical and intelligence support of France — responded with force after coming under fire from the Eritrean army, which was seeking the return of deserters.
In the coming weeks, the world will see if other actors can lower tensions, or whether the international community perhaps under-appreciated the calming role Qatari troops played in the territory.