For nearly 30 years, Somalia has been a weak, divided state threatening the stability of the Horn of Africa and the key international waterway leading to the Suez Canal.
International actors, including the United States and the African Union, which has thousands of peacekeepers in the country to bolster the government, have been trying to train the country’s army, feed its people and keep Somalia from falling into total chaos or into the hands of the Islamist group al-Shabab.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey have also been among Somalia’s most generous supporters. For years, Turkey was one of the biggest investors in Somalia — with its largest embassy abroad in Mogadishu — while the UAE paid and trained an anti-piracy force and other units of the Somali military.
But the year-old rivalry between these Middle Eastern powers is now threatening to destroy what gains have been made, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group.
In June 2017, simmering tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Qatar on the other burst into the open, and a land, sea and air blockade was declared against Qatar by a Saudi-led bloc of countries. Somalia, under its new American-educated president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, declared his desire to remain neutral, but there was growing suspicion by the Saudis that Mogadishu was tilting toward Qatar and its Turkish allies.
Soon, according to the International Crisis Group report, Somalia’s notoriously factional politics started reflecting the regional split, with pro-Emirati and pro-Qatari groups in the parliament and government squaring off.
“Gulf rivalries — whether directly or indirectly — appear almost certain to have exacerbated divisions, hardening both the government’s and its rivals’ positions and complicating efforts to reach consensus,” said the report.
Even military units trained by different countries now appear to be at odds, noted the report.
“The UAE versus Qatar/Turkey rivalry also appears to be aggravating factionalism within the security forces. This dissension risks undermining the campaign against Al-Shabaab and could stoke future conflict, given that it often mirrors political divides,” it said.
The instability is also spreading to regions where local authorities accustomed to generous assistance from the UAE are opposed to the more pro-Qatari stance of the central government. And in the breakaway region of Somaliland, which has been functionally independent for the past 25 years, Turkish-mediated talks that appeared headed towards a rapprochement between the two halves of the country have stalled.
The announcement that UAE’s DP World would be developing Somaliland’s strategic Red Sea port of Berbera in March sparked a new war of words that makes the chances of any future deal between them more remote than ever.
Though historically and geographically close, the wealthy Arab states of the Persian Gulf had, in modern times, mostly ignored the African nations on the other side of the Red Sea. But as Saudi Arabia and the UAE began taking more responsibility for their own security, they adopted a more aggressive profile abroad.
“The Gulf basically believes its survival and the survival of the Gulf States and their prosperity, is dependent on them taking control of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden,” said Rashid Abdi, ICG’s project director for the Horn of Africa.
The main theater of this conflict has been in Yemen, just across the water from Somalia, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE support the internationally recognized government and Iran, their Shiite archrival, backing the Houthi rebel group.
While all of the countries in the Horn of Africa have had to respond to the schism in the Gulf, the reports warns that already fragile Somalia is easily the most vulnerable.
“If the country becomes a battleground for richer, more powerful states, and they and Somali factions pursue a form of zero-sum competition ill-suited to the country’s factious and multipolar politics, the bloodshed and discord that have long blighted Somalia risk taking an even darker turn,” the report concluded.