Situated on one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes, linking Europe, the Indian Ocean and the rest of Asia, the Horn of Africa is also now fast becoming one of the world’s most contested regions, as regional and global actors vie for power and profit.
The U.S., China, Japan, France, Russia and the U.K. all now have military facilities there, with the lower Red Sea area seen by all as a key geographic foothold for the protection — and extension — of their international interests.
Yet increasingly, the region is also becoming a theater for nearby Arabian powers, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which have been investing heavily in infrastructure and land in the Horn, as well as backing various local governments and authorities.
While much of this investment has been welcome in a region scarred by conflict and poverty, it also comes with some growing concerns, especially given Saudi and Emirati involvement in other conflicts. That includes the two Gulf monarchies’ costly military campaign in Yemen, their meddling (along with Qatar) in Libya’s stalled civil war, their unsuccessful blockade of Qatar and, on a broader scale, the proxy war between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and its Shiite rival Iran that has escalated tensions throughout the Middle East.
“The danger is that the disputes and rivalries of the Middle East will lead to competition in the Horn of Africa that makes it difficult for the region itself to move forward and rise above its current challenges,” said Daniel Benaim, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Middle East expert.
Indeed, while Middle and Near Eastern states have played a positive role at times in this fragile region that encompasses Sudan and Somalia, they have also backed rival groupings — sometimes with fatal consequences.
This competition has an ideological element to it, with Turkey and Qatar more sympathetic to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was powerful in Sudan, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used their oil wealth in the wake of the Arab Spring to stamp out Islamist political movements that could upend the status quo.
As Iyad el-Baghdadi, co-host of the podcast “Arab Tyrant Manual,” wrote in a June 11 op-ed for The New York Times, the latter grouping has “helped crush Bahrain’s uprising, bankrolled a return to military dictatorship in Egypt, armed a rogue military leader in Libya and mismanaged a democratic transition in Yemen before launching a destructive war there.”
“Sudan is a good case in point,” Michael Woldemariam, associate professor of international relations at Boston University, told us. “Turkey and Qatar’s influence was curtailed by the overthrow, while the UAE and [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] supported the military cabal that overthrew [Omar al-] Bashir and backed them against the alternative civilian government. They are doing this partly to marginalize the Qataris and Turks in Sudan.”
Bashir, who ruled the country since 1981, was deft at forging relationships with competing players “in search of the best deal,” wrote Declan Walsh of The New York Times. “In 2013, he hosted the Iranian president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Khartoum, as part of a putative courtship. Two years later, he joined an Arab alliance fighting on one side of Yemen’s war, led by Iran’s archenemy Saudi Arabia.”
But Bashir may have taken his Machiavellian maneuvering too far — and that overreach likely led to his downfall. According to the July 3 special Reuters report “Bashir’s Betrayal,” the Sudanese leader was raking in billions of dollars from the UAE, allegedly for promising to root out Islamists in his government. But the opportunistic strongman was also receiving billions of dollars of financial aid from Qatar.
When Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched their diplomatic blockade of Qatar in 2017, in part because of Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Reuters reported that Bashir ultimately heeded the advice of his Islamist allies in government and sided with Qatar.
“In March 2018, Sudan and Qatar announced plans for a $4 billion agreement to jointly develop the Red Sea port of Suakin off Sudan’s coast,” according to the Reuters investigation. “Bashir had chosen not to throw his support behind the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the dispute. He had also opted not to diminish the influence of Islamists in his government.”
Many experts have speculated that this miscalculation sealed his fate and, when protests broke out over rising food and fuel prices, the UAE abandoned the embattled president and, along with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reportedly threw their weight behind the military, which went on to depose Bashir.
That support included $3 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to prop up the transitional military government and, specifically, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, whose Rapid Support Forces have provided thousands of troops to help the Saudis and Emiratis fight Houthi rebels in Yemen.
But those same forces were accused of slaughtering over 100 Sudanese protesters, triggering widespread condemnation, including from Washington and even from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Eventually, Sudan’s military and the protesters were able to come to a power-sharing deal whereby an army general will run the country for a transitional period of 21 months, followed by a civilian for the next 18 months before elections are held. Meanwhile, the ruling council will be composed of five military leaders, five civilians and one independent member.
Whether the military will fully abide by the agreement is a big question. Equally uncertain is whether the Gulf states will respect the deal. If history is any indication, Sudan’s democracy activists should be wary.
While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have said their support for the Sudanese military was an effort to ensure stability and thwart Islamist extremism, many experts say the true intent was to thwart democracy back home.
According to a June 7 report by the International Crisis Group, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt trusted the Sudanese generals “to shepherd the country through a managed transition from one military-led regime to another, avoiding the interlude that occurred in Egypt — elections with uncertain outcomes followed by brief Muslim Brotherhood rule — by sidelining those favoring more wholesale reform among civilian protesters.”
Claire Felter and Zachary Laub wrote in a June 20 brief for the Council on Foreign Relations that the Saudis and Emiratis had hoped “to bring Sudan fully into their camp in their regional rivalries with Qatar, Turkey and Iran, and head off democratic change, which they fear could bring Islamists to power and encourage their own citizens to agitate for political participation.”
But the fear of a democratic contagion is not the only reason why Gulf monarchies have intervened in Sudan and elsewhere. Their interest in the Horn of Africa is not only political, but economic as well.
Red Sea Riches
The key strategic chokepoint in the region is the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait — the “Gate of Tears” — which narrows to just 20 miles at one point, separating Africa from the Arabian Peninsula, and the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden.
Through this, some 4.8 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products passed each day in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, with the current total likely even higher.
Most of this is oil and liquefied natural gas from the Gulf, heading for Europe via the Suez Canal. Some traffic also passes the other way, largely from Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea petroleum port of Yanbu, or in the form of European-refined petroleum products, mostly heading for Asia.
In addition, a major quantity of other goods passes both ways, as Europe, North America, East Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, South Korea and beyond conduct their multibillion-dollar daily trade.
“It’s a strait at the center of the world,” said Woldemariam. “If you’re talking about projection of power, this is a very useful place to sit in order to do that.”
Where the strait narrows, the Arabian shore is home to both Saudi Arabia and war-torn Yemen, while the African shore sees a range of states stretching south from Sudan via Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. Much of the Somali coastline is currently under the effective control of the breakaway — and internationally unrecognized — Somaliland and the semiautonomous Somali Puntland region. Inland, lies Ethiopia, the region’s largest state, landlocked since Eritrea broke away in 1993. That came after a bloody decades-long conflict and was followed by further fighting between the two in 1998 and 2000.
While that came to an end largely thanks to the efforts of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (who also mediated the recent conflict in Sudan), peace was also facilitated by the actions of two Arabian powers — Saudi Arabia and the UAE — with the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah serving as the venue for the peace accord that formally ended hostilities in 2018.
The UAE then provided $3 billion in aid to Ahmed’s new government, while also announcing a pipeline project linking the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, with the Eritrean Red Sea port of Assab.
The Emiratis have also invested in ports elsewhere in region. In Somaliland, the UAE’s DP World is spending around $500 million expanding the port at Berbera into a deep-water transshipment hub in the Gulf of Aden. Meanwhile, Dubai-owned P&O Ports is developing Bosaso Port in Puntland.
For the Saudis, investment in the Horn is primarily about strategic depth. The region is their “near abroad” and they want as much as influence over it as possible to protect their own financial interests.
“The U.S. role as guarantor of sea lanes may not last forever,” said Benaim. “So, the Saudis and other regional powers need to take steps now to secure against future changes.”
At the same time, China’s growing role in the region and elsewhere via the Belt and Road Initiative has left the UAE, a key regional maritime power, wanting “to stake a claim” in the Horn, Benaim adds, by securing a key role in East African ports.
In addition, food security is another major issue for both the Saudis and Emiratis. In recent years, the Saudis have increasingly seen East Africa as a place to purchase arable land — an almost nonexistent commodity in the deserts of Arabia. UAE investment in regional ports is also about shipping crops from Africa to processing centers in the Emirates.
At the same time, Qatar and its ally Turkey — rivals of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the region since the Gulf crisis ruptured these former alliances in 2017 — have at times also played a significant investment role in the Horn.
Turkey has invested in Somalia, in particular, sending aid during the 2011 drought, building hospitals and investing in port and airport infrastructure in the capital, Mogadishu. Qatar has plans to build a new port in the central Somali town of Hobyo, according to an August Bloomberg report.
For similar reasons to the UAE, both Qatar and Turkey also see the region as vital to trade and future security, while Turkey has also been pursuing a more active Africa policy for some years as an alternative source of economic growth to its traditional market, the European Union.
Turkey thus worked with Qatar to secure an agreement from the previous Sudanese government to develop the Red Sea island of Suakin into a major new port, while Qatar provided Sudan’s creaking economy with substantial financial aid.
Sudan’s former ruler had tried to balance this support with help from the rival Saudi-UAE bloc. He sent some 14,000 Sudanese troops to fight in Yemen, while Emirati money also helped keep Khartoum’s finances afloat.
Yet Bashir’s inability to balance his shifting Gulf loyalties and his subsequent overthrow highlight one of the region’s characteristics: its political volatility.
What some fear now is that this volatility is being exploited by these rival blocs to advance their agendas, regardless of the interests of the people who live there.
These competing agendas have reportedly played out in Somalia, compounding the lingering bloodshed in the war-ravaged nation.
The New York Times acquired a recording of a call between the Qatari ambassador to Somalia and Khalifa Kayed al-Muhanadi, a businessman close to the emir. Al-Muhanadi told the envoy that militants had carried out a May car bombing in the city of Bosaso, whose port is managed by DP World, as a way of driving the Emiratis out of Somalia.
The attack was not an isolated incident, according to The Times. “Over the last two years, war-torn Somalia has emerged as a central battleground, with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar each providing weapons or military training to favored factions, exchanging allegations about bribing local officials, and competing for contracts to manage ports or exploit natural resources,” wrote Ronen Bergman and David D. Kirkpatrick on July 22.
That includes $385 million in funds from Qatar to Somalia for infrastructure, education and humanitarian assistance; a major military base in Mogadishu funded by Turkey; and significant Emirati investment in Somaliland and Puntland to offset the Qatari and Turkish presence in Somalia.
On that note, while wealthy Gulf monarchies are capitalizing on political instability and economic weakness in the Horn to further their ambitions, countries in the region are also trying to exploit this competition to further their own interests.
Somaliland, for example, sees UAE support as a way to firm up its case for international recognition for independence from more pro-Turkish Somalia. Internationally isolated Eritrea is home to a UAE military base near the port of Assab that has served as a conduit to operations in Yemen. Bashir, who was wanted by the International Criminal Court, had also tried to use his relations with both camps to circumvent his regime’s international isolation.
Now though, a number of key questions remain.
First, given the conflicts between and within the countries of the region, “will these be reduced or intensified by this competition between powers?” asked Benaim.
Then, “what happens if the Gulf rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE ends, or if the war in Yemen ends?” asked Woldemariam. “Will the pattern of intervention continue? In other words, how much is this Gulf engagement with the region economically driven and how much is it driven by the political goal of squeezing out your rivals? The jury is very much still out.”
About the Author
Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a freelance journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs.