Extensive web of alignments and divisions across the Horn of Africa puts pressure on countries to declare solidarity with either side of the Qatar crisis.
The oil-rich Arabian Peninsula states have long represented a beacon of stability in the tumultuous Middle East. Yet the five-month-old Qatar crisis has drastically challenged this perception and raised stakes for many countries worldwide. As the Emir of Kuwait recently warned, the Gulf dispute’s involved parties will break up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) if both sides of the rift fail to mediate a solution. Undoubtedly, the Council unraveling further would bear major geopolitical ramifications worldwide, particularly with countries that have invested in close relations with Qatar in addition to the three Persian Gulf states blockading the Arabian emirate.
Although countries throughout the Horn of Africa responded differently to the Qatar crisis, the entire region and the GCC are so intertwined geopolitically, religiously, culturally, financially and militarily that all Horn states have felt the heat from the diplomatic row. The Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — on one side, and Doha on the other, have both pressured Horn states to take sides in the Gulf dispute. As the Qatar crisis appears nowhere near any negotiated settlement, the Horn is likely to come under further pressure as a consequence.
THE QATAR CRISIS DILEMMA
The Arabian and Somali Peninsulas, both situated next to three of the most crucial waterways and chokepoints in the region — the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden — maintain a highly symbiotic relationship. Deeming the region as a natural sphere of influence, GCC states have sought to secure the area from smugglers and pirates that threaten vital interests of the Gulf countries while establishing numerous military bases in the Horn since an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia began its ongoing Yemen campaign in March 2015.
The same year that the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen, the UAE established a military base in Eritrea’s Port of Assab, from where the Emiratis have launched airstrikes against Houthi rebels across the Bab el-Mandeb. Furthermore, the UAE signed a 25-year contract to set up an air and naval base in Berbera, a coastal city in Somaliland. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has been in talks with Djibouti regarding the establishment of a Saudi military base in the country, aimed at improving joint military cooperation and security. As the GCC states set up strongholds across the Horn, they in turn provide extensive military training and surveillance equipment, generous loans for infrastructural projects, as well as humanitarian aid. Such assistance from the wealthy Arabian sheikhdoms has left the Horn, a region that is going through fragile post-conflict recoveries and armed conflicts, increasingly dependent on GCC support.
Another link between the western Gulf and the Horn is the common vulnerability they face: transnational Islamic extremism. As a counterforce to the spread of Shia Islam since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia has for decades engaged in one of the most expensive ideological campaigns in the world, proselytizing the Wahhabi faith in East Africa through its establishment of mosques, madrassas and Muslim youth centers. The propagation of this version of Sunni Islam eventually mutated into violent extremism and helped in the formation of Somalia’s al-Shabaab that was responsible for more than 320 deaths and 300 injuries in the Kenyan capital’s Westgate Mall attacks of 2013. In addition to targeting Somalia and Kenya, the extremist group has also spilled blood in Djibouti and Uganda, plotted a failed bombing in Ethiopia and threatened the United States.
With the GCC’s multifaceted involvement in the Horn, these African states have come under greater pressure to take either Doha or the ATQ’s side. For Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia it has been difficult to pledge themselves to a particular side, primarily due to their own intricate balancing acts of playing friendly with all GCC countries in order to maximize their own benefits. Another reason is the deep culture of political clientelism from the Arabian Peninsula’s wealthy sheikdoms that has not only impeded democratic transitions in countries like Somalia but also confined them to a position of ambivalent neutrality. Yet Djibouti and the self-declared breakaway Republic of Somaliland have publicly expressed their solidarity with the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, mainly due to pledges made by Saudi Arabia and the UAE when discussing the establishment of military bases, infrastructural investment and development, as well as stronger diplomatic relations.
Since the outbreak of the conflict, Eritrea has shown support for the ATQ against Qatar with Asmara downgrading its ties with Doha. Despite this, Eritrea’s Ministry of Information initially issued a public statement that essentially expressed Eritrea’s unwillingness to engage in any and all confrontations with Qatar. It announced: “The decision that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have taken is not confined to Qatar alone — as the potential of Qatar is very limited. It is one initiative among many in the right direction that envisages full realization of regional security and stability.” By downgrading, yet not terminating, its official relationship with Qatar, Asmara’s balancing act in response to the GCC’s diplomatic row must be analyzed within the framework of cordial ties between Eritrea and the UAE, which operates militarily through Eritrea’s port of Assab, in addition to Qatar’s relatively strong relationship with Asmara and Doha’s significant role as a mediator in a territorial dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti.
Yet Qatar responded to Eritrea’s public statement by withdrawing 450 of its peacekeepers, a response that many see as a form of punishment. However, rather than crippling Eritrea, Qatar’s actions in fact emboldened the former as it swiftly deployed its own forces to secure its de facto hold on the island, thus provoking a potential armed conflict between Djibouti and possibly Ethiopia, Eritrea’s regional rival and Djibouti’s close geostrategic ally.
Overall, as Eritrea maintains its “neutrality,” what is certain is that the Qatar crisis has brought the African nation out of the cold and instilled in it an awakened sense of political relevance upon which it conducts its aggressive posture toward its neighbors. In addition, with Qatar absent from the mediation scene, this may also be an opportune time for the ATQ to fill in the gaps and further assert their own influence across Eritrea.
Ethiopia has also been treading cautiously around the Gulf spat. Nonetheless, based on the interesting relevance of Ethiopia’s close ties with Israel, it is likely that it may find itself in the Saudi camp. Just days after the crisis broke out, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn met with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even though Israel remains detached from the crisis, it is undeniable that it shares the ATQ’s concerns, including Qatar’s relations with Hamas and Iran. On the flip side, facing limited water resources and the hefty costs of desalination, GCC members such as Saudi Arabia have been looking toward Ethiopia as an alternative overseas investment in agriculture and trade. In fact, just last year Saudi Arabia vowed to explore further investment prospects in Ethiopia.
That said, Qatar has also been making strides in the African nation. Emir Tamim’s visit to Addis Ababa earlier this year culminated in the signing of eleven joint agreements between the two governments across various sectors, from investment and tourism to security and infrastructure. With either side of the crisis jockeying for influence in this landlocked country, Ethiopia has as of this moment remained on the sidelines of the conflict, adopting a rather reactive stance toward the crisis. Nonetheless, should it decide to throw its weight behind the ATQ, it should do so with caution due to the close relations that Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain with Eritrea.
Somalia, as a “failed state,” has become immensely vulnerable to influence from foreign powers, including GCC states. Supporting its biggest trade partner, Saudi Arabia, in its campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Somalia has also been permitting Qatari air carriers to utilize its airspace since the GCC’s diplomatic row broke out in June. Moreover, Riyadh has allegedly offered Mogadishu $80 million to join the boycott of Qatar. The kingdom has also purportedly threatened to withdraw its financial aid to the famine-stricken nation until it backs the Saudi/UAE-led bloc. Nonetheless, Somalia has maintained its neutrality, one of the possible reasons being Qatar’s extensive financing of the current president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s, campaign earlier this year. Domestic critics of the political party have also accused some of its individuals of being ideologically aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, Turkey, which is on Qatar’s side in the Gulf dispute, has agreed with Somalia to establish its second overseas military base in Mogadishu, its first being in Qatar. Somalia’s so-called neutrality and the risks involved in its potential partiality toward Qatar has thus left the other Gulf countries resorting to other options, with the UAE forging closer ties with two of Somalia’s breakaway regions — Somaliland and Puntland. As mentioned above, the UAE has established a military base in Somaliland’s coastal city of Berbera, which it has promised to refurbish. Unsurprisingly, after the Gulf dispute broke out, Somaliland declared solidarity with the ATQ and prohibited Qatari air carriers’ use of its airspaces. Similarly, the UAE has been extensively financing and training the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), Puntland’s coast guard. As of this moment, Somalia’s ambivalence has largely kept both sides of the crisis in some sort of stasis.
Overall, the extensive web of alignments and divisions across the Horn has put these African countries in a precarious situation where they are pressured into declaring solidarity with either side of the crisis. Despite the carrot-and-stick approach wielded by the Gulf, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia have been ambivalently neutral. Their balancing act, initially done so to serve their own self-interests, has now left these countries in a situation where a lean toward either end of the spectrum will yield to direct impact on their functionality. On the other hand, Djibouti and Somaliland expressed solidarity with the ATQ, primarily due to the Saudi/UAE-led bloc’s grand promise of infrastructural investments, military development and cordial relations with these fragile countries in search of assistance and political relevance.
As long as the Qatar crisis continues, what is certain is that despite the current neutrality adopted by the majority of the Horn of Africa countries, the region is likely to undergo severe polarization and experience divides that no amount of financial, infrastructural and military aid received from either end of the Gulf can fully repair.
Theodore Karasik is a senior advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an adjunct senior fellow at the Lexington Institute. For the past 30 years, Karasik worked for a number of US agencies examining religious-political issues across the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia, including the evolution of violent extremism and its financing. He lived in the United Arab Emirates from 2006 until 2016 where he worked on Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign policy and security issues surrounding cultural awareness, cybersecurity, maritime security, counter-piracy, counterterrorism, and infrastructure and national resilience. GCC relations with Russia and implications for the Arabian Peninsula states were also under Karasik’s mandate.
Maya Yang is a senior at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), currently pursuing a double Bachelor’s degree in English and Political Science with a concentration in international relations. Hailing from Abu Dhabi, she is particularly interested in the domestic dynamics and international relations of the Gulf countries. She is currently working at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development as a research assistant and is the editor-in-chief of The Generation, UCLA’s student-run foreign affairs journal.