The broader conflicts around control of the Red Sea and its littorals are being played out in the new aspects of the transformation of the Republic of Somaliland, which dominates the southern coastline of the Red Sea mouth into the Indian Ocean, but which also remains internationally unrecognized.
At its core, the collapse of governance in Somaliland — centered in its deep-seated corruption — has given strength to a number of factors relating solely to Somaliland itself:
1. Moving Away From, Rather Than Towards, International Recognition: The abandonment, which began with the inauguration of the Kulmiye Party Government on July 20, 2010, of the consistent path toward international recognition has led to a decline in international credibility due to corruption and the fact that the Kulmiye Government has refused to conduct constitutionally-scheduled elections.1 It has, in other words, clung to power illegally, something which probably would not have happened had Somaliland been recognized by (and come under the ambit of) the African Union [witness the comparable attempt by the President of The Gambia, Yahyah Jammeh to stay in office after being defeated in elections in late 2016].
2. Rising radical Islamism, which has given strength to the Shura council (established in the 1990s) based in the city of Burao (capital in the north-western Togdheer region), as well as to the jihadist terrorist organization, al-Shabaab. The primary target for Somaliland’s radical jihadists is Ethiopia, which is already being transformed by the continuing and substantial Saudi Arabian investment in madarasas and mosques in what had been a Christian-dominant country.2
What is happening in Somaliland, however, reflects or impacts a variety of other regional, interactive trends. These include the reality of the:
• Now-hostile relations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and Egypt on the other;
• The growing Egypt-Ethiopia dispute, and the jockeying of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE for Red Sea military dominance and operating bases; linked to
• The reality that the Yemen war has now settled on the fact that the UAE (and possibly Saudi Arabian) governments is working to achieve a Sunni-dominated “South Yemen” which would mirror the old People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in its area (essentially the British Federation of South Arabia), reversing the unification of the Yemenis under the dominance of the North (the old Yemen Arab Republic), which is home to tribal and religious elements less tractable by Riyadh and the UAE. In other words, Yemen would, with Saudi and UAE blessing, revert to two separate states. It may break into more than two parts of the Hadhramaut coastal area if South Yemen reverts to its multiple historical state identities; and
• Attempts by the U.S. to regain its strategic posture on the Red Sea, by the PRC to build on its nascent projection there, and by Iran to secure a more tangible presence in the area.
The issues have vital implications for the security and strategic postures of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Djibouti, and Israel, as well as the U.S., the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Kenya. [Secondarily, Jordan is caught in the middle of the Egypt-Saudi dispute, and its economy has fallen in recent months due to the cuts in Saudi and the Gulf aid or investment, and by the continuing burden of the refugee crisis caused by the Saudi-Qatari-Turkish maintenance of the war against the Syrian Government.]
But a recent headline event which barely made the international media was the granting of a 30-year control of the Port of Berbera to the UAE company, Dubai World Ports (DW Ports). This ostensibly occurred — or was preliminarily agreed — in September 2016, but, in fact, was only concluded in early 2017.
What has not gained attention was the reality that the deal gives control to the UAE not only of the highly-strategic port of Berbera — at the mouth of the Red Sea — to the UAE but also the large Berbera airport, with its 4,149m (13,582 ft.) paved runway, built by the USSR for military purposes in the mid-1970s. The UAE is deeply committed to the Saudi-led coalition war against Yemen, and sees the military use of the port and airport at Berbera in this context. Significantly, the airport was fenced, and a new terminal built, with Kuwaiti money in 2015.
A Somaliland Ministerial delegation visited Addis Ababa in February 2017 to seek Ethiopian approval for the separate UAE air base deal, but Ethiopian lawmakers were concerned when the Somalilanders refused to provide details or a copy of the accord signed with the UAE. [When the Somaliland delegation then met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Dessalegn Hailemariam, the subject of the port lease was not even brought up by the visitors.] It was known that the Berbera airport would be used, at least in part, by the UAE Air Force (and its allies), and it was assumed that the UAE’s Dubai Ports would also wish to maintain civilian airline traffic to the airfield, to support the civil side of the maritime port of Berbera. It was understood that a military section of the port would be created for the UAE Navy (and those states approved by the UAE).
Berbera is a significant alternate port for Ethiopia, which has mainly relied in recent years on Djibouti, since the loss of its former ports, now in Eritrea, of Assab and Massawa. And yet the Government of Ethiopia has remained silent on the UAE Berbera port deal, which wrested away the prospect — long discussed in Ethiopia and Somaliland — of making Berbera a critical maritime element for Ethiopia.
As part of the deal to give the UAE dominance in Berbera, the municipality of Berbera was moved under the control of the Somaliland Ministry of the Interior to suppress local protests.
And there has indeed been significant opposition to the deal by residents of the region around Berbera, especially as the new operation regime also entailed the granting of all key areas of land in the area, and on the two main roads linking Berbera to the capital, Hargeisa, and to Burao, to supporters of the Government. The UAE reportedly paid only $1.5-million for the port lease, and then immediately dismissed the longtime employees of the facility. Moreover, the new Government in Somalia, under Pres. Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, which came into office on February 8, 2017, was quick to condemn the UAE Berbera port deal, and so was the Government of Djibouti, which had canceled a DW Ports deal with the Port of Djibouti because of corruption issues.
It is not unrelated that Pres. Ahmed Mohamed Mahamoud “Silanyo” and his wife, Amina Sheikh Mohamed Jirde (the effective power), and their son-in-law, Bashe Awil (a U.S. citizen), have all acquired villas in the UAE, and have maintained close ties with the intelligence services of the UAE leading up to the Berbera deal. Some members of the President’s small sub-clan, the Habar Jecelo (a sub-set of the Isaq clan), have been benefitting from the Berbera deal.
From the UAE-Saudi standpoint, the Berbera deal is significant because their agreement to use port and airport facilities at Assab in Eritrea has been lately circumscribed by Eritrean Pres. Isayas Afewerke, possibly because of pressure from the Egyptian Government. How this will affect the commitment of contracted Eritrean troops to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is as yet unclear.
Egypt is posturing — with some sense of urgency — in the Red Sea to retain its strategic dominance, and is doing so not only against Saudi Arabia and its coalition, but also vis-à-vis Ethiopia, with which Egypt is at odds over continued bilateral disagreement on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Egypt feels would threaten the Blue Nile water flow, essential to Egypt. Part of Egypt’s repositioning was reflected in the construction of the new $28-million headquarters of the Egyptian Navy’ Southern Naval Fleet Command at Safaga, on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, 64 km south of Hurghada. It was inaugurated on January 4, 2017, by Pres. Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, who also raised the Egyptian flag on one of the two new Mistral-class helicopter carriers — the Gamal Abdel-Nasser (the second, based at the principal Navy base, Alexandria, is named Anwar el-Sadat) — which had been acquired from France in 2015. The Egyptian Navy’s new Commander, Vice-Adm. Ahmed Khaled Hassan, 57, and other senior officers were present for the event. [Outgoing Navy Commander VADM Osama Mounir Mohamed Rabie was named as the new deputy head of the Suez Canal Authority.]
Egypt now has four major naval bases on the Red Sea: Safaga, Hurghada, Berenice, and Suez. Egypt has also maintained four warships in the area of Berbera since May 2015, but not (at least not anymore) in support of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi-led Yemenis who have resisted Saudi Arabia. In fact, as noted by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs on January 24, 2017, “the Egyptians are supporting their own Sunni factions along the Red Sea coast, fighting more the pro-Saudi forces than either the Zaidi Shi’a Houthis or the jihadists. Indeed, the nascent reflowering of the Egyptian-Iranian relations blossomed in direct proportion to the souring of Egyptian- Saudi relations, particularly during 2016.”
Significantly, the Egyptian Navy’s increased projection into the Red Sea (and the creation of the new Southern Naval Fleet Command) coincides with the ability of the Egyptian Air Force to use its adjacent Hurghada Air Base [27°11’03N 033°47’54E] to station its new AMD Rafale combat aircraft within (inflight-refueled; which opens other questions) striking range of the new Ethiopian dam in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region, just a few kilometers from the Sudanese border. That would enable Egypt to deliver a one-time major strike against the dam, flying down the Red Sea and crossing Eritrea into Ethiopia, without crossing Sudan.
This was hinted at in an article in Arabic in February 2017 by Egyptian Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Ambassador Dr Ibrahim Yusri, entitled “Indications of Military Solutions on the Horizon”. On December 22, 2016, Amb. Yusri filed two lawsuits before the State Council to annul agreements which he said were in violation of the Egyptian Constitution. One of those demanded the annulment of the Renaissance Dam Agreement which Egypt had signed with Ethiopia and Sudan; the other demanded that the Egyptian-Cypriot agreement (on sharing natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean) be cancelled as it waived Egyptian territorial borders and sovereign rights.
But it may be significant that Somaliland, which had been courted by Egypt to work against Ethiopia (by allowing transit of insurgents through Somaliland) rejected Cairo’s overtures, possibly on advice, or pressure, from the UAE. But more likely because Somalilanders have been protective of their vital geo-strategic relationship and historical friendship with Ethiopia, and were essentially offended by Egypt’s request to funnel anti-Ethiopian activities through Hargeisa.
One of the drivers in the Somaliland position in all of this is the Minister of the Presidency, Mahmoud Hashi Abdi, who is closely controlled by the President’s wife. Essentially uneducated, Minister Abdi started as a fighter for Somaliland’s return to independent status, with the Somaliland National Movement (SNM) — which eventually won — but switched, taking his weapons with him, before the SNM success to fighting with the forces of Somalia’s Mohamed Siad Barre against Somaliland independence. The widespread belief in Somaliland is that he was a traitor and that he still holds no loyalty to the State, and only to his personal bank account. He made his first trip, with Pres. Silanyo — already in poor health — to Kuwait some years ago. The Kuwait Government gave several million dollars to Somaliland, and, to avoid putting it into the Government coffers, Mahmoud Hashi Abdi was tasked with putting it into personal accounts in the UK. Instead, he took the funds to Birmingham, but reportedly kept more than one-million dollars for himself, angering the President’s wife. He was eventually brought back into the fold.
He is now one of the prime movers, with Pres. Silanyo and his wife, in ensuring that control of Somaliland does not revert to the electorate. In a bid to stave off political defeat within the existing Parliament, the ruling group of Kulmiye brought the upper chamber of parliament (Baarlamaanka), the Guurti (the Council of Elders), into a joint session with the lower chamber, the House of Representatives to vote on the Berbera port deal with the UAE, fearing that the Government could lose the vote in the House if its numbers were not bolstered by Guurti members who had been financially compensate for their votes. The Guurti, in fact, has never gone back to the electorate to confirm their mandate since the founding of the Chamber, and only a small handful of its original members remain alive; the others have passed their seats to wives or sons.
One source in Hargeisa noted: “Silanyo and his team will only leave when the last piece of wealth in the country has been sucked out, although by selling out to the UAE, they may have found a long-term source of easy money, even at the loss of our country. The international community, not the Africans and Arabs, have been the ones pushing for democratization in Somaliland. How can they stop now? If the international community is not heard now, we may lose our sovereignty and identity, and we will just be a tool of regional warlords. And why isn’t Ethiopia pushing to save Somaliland? We are a vital ally of Addis Ababa.”