Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact


Gulf states are competing for influence in the Horn of Africa to control the Red Sea, transposing internal rivalries onto a fragile region. Horn governments should increase their bargaining power with their powerful neighbours, who should recognise the risks their policies pose to regional security.

What’s new? Middle Eastern states are accelerating their competition for allies, influence and physical presence in the Red Sea corridor, including in the Horn of Africa. Rival Gulf powers, in particular, are jockeying to set the terms of a new regional power balance and benefit from future economic growth.

Why did it happen? Regional instability, a relative power vacuum and competition among rising Middle East states have prompted Gulf countries to seek to project their power outward into the neighbourhood. They are looking at the Horn of Africa to consolidate alliances and influence.

Why does it matter? Many new Gulf-Horn relationships are highly asymmetrical, driven more by Gulf than African interests. Gulf states are injecting resources and exporting rivalries in ways that could further destabilise fragile local politics. Yet they also carry the potential to resolve conflict and fuel economic growth.

What should be done?  Horn and Western policymakers should seek to limit intra-Gulf sparring in Africa, notably by expanding the role of regional multilateral organisations to boost Horn states’ bargaining power. Gulf rivals must become convinced – by their allies or their own experience – that their actions are undermining long-term security across the Red Sea basin.

Executive Summary

The Horn of Africa, long the site of great power competition, today sees a new rivalry playing out on its shores. Gulf Arab countries, as well as Turkey, are accelerating their push for allies and influence in the Horn, such that two of the Middle East’s primary political fault lines – between Iran and Arab states, and among Arab states – are becoming visible across the Red Sea corridor. These longstanding, intersecting rivalries are grafting themselves onto existing local conflicts and generating new tensions. African policymakers, as well as Gulf countries and Western allies, are only beginning to discuss how to prevent competition from evolving into open conflict. A growing number of leaders in the Horn argue the region must achieve greater bargaining power for itself, for example seeking to engage multilaterally with the Gulf and Turkey. Given their enormous influence – as allies, investors, donors and mediators – Gulf states and Turkey should use it to reduce rather than stir up conflict in the Horn.

For political, economic and ideological reasons, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Turkey are locked in a push-pull to set the rules for a Middle Eastern region long in turmoil. Two overlapping rivalries drive and define this engagement: a split within the Gulf pitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey; and competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

 In strengthening their relationships in the Horn, Gulf states and Turkey hope to secure both short- and long-term interests.

In both those struggles, the main rivals see Africa as a new arena for competition and building alliances, particularly as the Horn is poised for strong economic growth over the next generation. With their significant financial resources, the Gulf countries and Turkey see a chance to adjust the future economic and political landscape of the Red Sea basin in their favour. They are all expanding their physical and political presence to forge new partnerships and ring-fence their enemies – most often one another.

In strengthening their relationships in the Horn, Gulf states and Turkey hope to secure both short- and long-term interests. In the short term for example, the Yemen war made it imperative for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to obtain a Red Sea military base. The internecine Gulf crisis that burst into the open in 2017 accelerated efforts by both sides of the rift to seek new allies. In the long term, each country is jockeying for a prime position in the Red Sea corridor’s economy and politics. Economically, they seek to enter the Horn of Africa’s underserved ports, energy and consumer markets as gateways to rapid economic expansion across the continent. All four describe China as the emerging dominant force in the Horn, and hence one with which they will need to ally, as U.S. and European influence recedes. The UAE, Qatar and Turkey, in particular, view China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), with projects planned across East Africa, as a chance to bolster their relationships with Beijing.

The tools in this new power scramble range from transactional to coercive. Gulf countries and Turkey can offer aid and investment in amounts that few others can, or in market conditions that many Western firms consider too risky. Their terms for dispensing aid are often more attractive for local political leaders than those of Western donors. Instead of democratic or market reforms, Gulf states expect preferential access to new investment opportunities and ask aid recipients to take their side in either of the two rivalries in which they are involved. In exchange for military assistance, Gulf states may ask their local allies to push back or suppress domestic political forces aligned with their external enemies.

This competition for influence raises risks of new conflict. The Gulf states and Turkey each say they are seeking “stability” in the Horn, but their definitions differ dramatically and put their interests directly at odds. Saudi Arabia and the UAE view civil unrest as something to control lest the region become a playground for Sunni Islam-inspired political movements or Iran. They privilege short-term stability imposed by strong security states. Although they urge allies to open their markets to investment, they would rather bandage economic grievances and postpone hard reforms that would threaten the status quo. Qatar and Turkey, meanwhile, are more inclined to see popular uprisings as a way to empower groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that they believe will promote their interests in the long run. Yet the Brotherhood and its local spinoffs have overreached in some cases since the 2011 uprisings by imposing their ideological agendas and thus creating as many new grievances as addressing existing ones.

With their competing views, these two camps consider relationships in the Horn to be a zero-sum game, pressing states to take sides and supporting domestic opposition groups or local leaders if national capitals do not oblige. They can do this because relations between the Gulf and the Horn are deeply asymmetrical and favour the former.

 While competition and rivalry may serve [Gulf’s] immediate political and commercial goals, it is just as likely to harm the long-term stability of a fragile region. 


African leaders have raised alarms about the implications of a more activist Gulf foreign policy for some time, but Western policymakers have only recently woken up to the gravity of these dynamics. Together, they should consider how to set institutional boundaries on competition, such that the Horn can resist the most destructive external rivalries, penalise behaviour that undermines local institutions and oppose unfair stipulations in commercial contracts. Efforts are already under way to create regional forums at which Gulf and Horn countries can discuss their concerns, including separate initiatives led by the Horn’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the EU and Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In the meantime, African and Western diplomats ought to try to convince Gulf countries to rethink their modus operandi in the Horn.

Ultimately, the Gulf States and Turkey must become convinced – whether through diplomacy or their own experience – that while competition and rivalry may serve their immediate political and commercial goals, it is just as likely to harm the long-term stability of a fragile region that sits just across the water, and ultimately redound to their own disadvantage.

Riyadh/Abu Dhabi/Doha/Ankara/Nairobi/Addis Ababa/Brussels, 19 September 2019

This timeline tracks increasing Gulf and Turkish involvement in the Horn of Africa from 2006 until present day. An extended timeline is available in Appendix B. 


Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Turkey have dramatically increased their physical, economic and political presence in Africa. Policymakers in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Ankara each describe this new power projection as seizing a long-overlooked opportunity. Hosting just a handful of embassies at the start of the decade, the continent now has at least two Gulf state or Turkish missions in nearly every country. This growth has been particularly striking in the Horn of Africa, where Gulf states are playing a significant role in shaping political transitions in Ethiopia and Sudan, and influencing conflicts in Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and South Sudan. What distinguishes these countries’ engagement with African actors are the significant resources they are willing to deploy, the speed with which they can react and the intensity with which they are willing to pursue their political interests. Today, while local and great power dynamics still set the context, this new competition increasingly drives the plot.

Gulf countries and Turkey point out that they have a long history in the Horn. Before 2011, economic and cultural ties mostly dominated the relationships. Trade across the Red Sea is centuries’ old. Large diasporas from the Horn live and work in the Gulf and in Turkey, sending hundreds of millions of dollars back in remittances. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were among the first Gulf donors to the region, offering aid through development funds and religious charities. Riyadh built mosques and proselytised its Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. The Kingdom led a wave of Gulf investment into arable land in the 1980s to shore up food security. Qatar carved out a niche in the 2000s on conflict mediation, including for the war in Darfur. The UAE’s Dubai Ports World (DP World), meanwhile, signed its first agreement in the region in 2006 to develop Djibouti’s Doraleh port. Turkey’s aid and civil society organisations have built hospitals and schools across the Horn, while Turkish companies that pioneered low-cost infrastructure contracting are executing some of the largest projects in the region after China.

What has changed over the last decade, and particularly since 2015, is the emergence of a more overt political agenda in these countries’ calculations. The shift began in 2011 with the turmoil that followed the Arab uprisings. As regimes in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus and Sanaa faltered, the Gulf states and Turkey each invested heavily in preferred allies. Two contradictory axes emerged: on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE favoured strong central governments that restored security over chaotic democratic transitions ideologically led by the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates. They also sought to push back against growing Iranian influence in the region, made possible initially by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and propelled by the upheavals since 2011. On the other hand, Qatar and Turkey cemented ties with Islamist forces during the uprisings and continued to back them financially and through the media. They occasionally pushed back against Iran, for example in the Syrian civil war, but did not prioritise Tehran among their regional enemies.

In nearly every Middle Eastern battlefield, one or both sides of the Gulf rift lost ground, as did Turkey, while Iran appeared to be gaining a stronger foothold. To rebalance the equation in their favour, each of these states turned to the Red Sea basin to protect and redouble their investments. The Middle East’s volatility had left Abu Dhabi and Doha in particular feeling they were surviving in the eye of the storm. To weather it, they had to secure the neighbourhood. Riyadh, meanwhile, saw the chance to claim a position of Arab leadership – which it had only ever previously shared with Egypt, Iraq or Syria. Ankara, chastened by its inability to unseat Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, sought new ways to fortify its official narrative pitching Turkey as a humanitarian and economic model for the Sunni Muslim world. For their own domestic reasons, each of these states cast its gaze outward for new or stronger allies.

 Riyadh and its strongest coalition partner, Abu Dhabi, sought new relationships in the Horn of Africa that could limit Iran’s reach. 

These trends were already visible when Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ascended the throne and named his favoured son as defence minister in 2015. Mohammed bin Salman’s first public act was to send a military coalition into Yemen to unseat Huthi rebels who, with loose backing from Tehran, had swept southward to Bab al-Mandab, a key chokepoint for global trade at the mouth of the Red Sea. The UAE, Qatar and Turkey all joined a Saudi-led coalition to push them back.

Thus the Red Sea corridor became directly implicated in the region’s turmoil. Riyadh and its strongest coalition partner, Abu Dhabi, sought new relationships in the Horn of Africa that could limit Iran’s reach. As a Saudi analyst put it, “We needed to ensure that both flanks of Bab al-Mandab were secure. We wouldn’t want to end one war only to find that we have another conflict [to roll back Iran] on the other side”. In exchange for new aid, warmer ties and help lifting international sanctions, Saudi Arabia convinced both Sudan and Eritrea to expel Iran’s presence in 2015. Khartoum agreed to send ground forces to aid the coalition’s war effort in Yemen, while Eritrea leased a military base near the port of Assab to the UAE and, according to some unconfirmed reports, dispatched a few hundred soldiers. In 2017, the UAE won additional agreements to develop a military base in Berbera, Somaliland, and expanded its military footprint in Bosaso, in the Somalia region of Puntland, where it had been training a maritime police force to combat piracy.

The June 2017 crisis between Qatar and other Gulf states accelerated their turn toward the Horn. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt broke ties with Qatar, and imposed an economic and travel blockade. The dispute exposed an unofficial split over the role of political Islam in the region, as well as over Riyadh’s dominance in shaping Gulf foreign policy. Both axes quickly embarked on a global tour to win allies to their side, nowhere more ruthlessly than Africa. Poorer countries on the continent at times found it hard to resist trading their loyalty for hard cash. To Gulf eyes, the Horn also superficially contains many of the same ingredients that were central to the Gulf rift: Islamist forces, a lingering Iranian influence and significant economic potential, factors that make it ripe for intra-Gulf competition. For countries already inclined to see a great game for dominance under way, the Horn was a clear next stop.

In the last two years, several instances of competition have upped the ante between Gulf rivals. The UAE and Qatar each cite an ugly 2018 dispute (in which they paid their respective Somali allies to undermine the other’s interests) as evidence that the other’s presence is a problem that needs addressing. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey are all seeking to influence political transitions in Ethiopia and Sudan. In the latter country, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the earlier stages demonstrated that they are willing to overlook significant violence committed by military allies in order to ensure a friendly government is in power. All sides have poured investment and aid into countries across Africa, and much cash into the pockets of local leaders and politicians, who have often exploited it to advance their own narrow agendas.

 The Horn has some of the highest GDP growth rates in the world, and Gulf sovereign wealth funds, transport firms and other investors see the potential to benefit richly from that growth. 

The Gulf’s internal crisis has also intensified economic competition. The Horn has some of the highest GDP growth rates in the world, and Gulf sovereign wealth funds, transport firms and other investors see the potential to benefit richly from that growth if they get their foot in the door early on and cut out their rivals. For now, the region’s infrastructure is insufficient to meet growing demand for basic goods and fuel. The UAE and Turkey in particular have experience building the deep-water ports and transportation infrastructure that could connect Africa’s growing consumer class to markets. The Horn has also emerged in recent years as a magnet for oil and gas exploration, with oil companies discovering significant fields in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Somalia, and making moves to tap the region’s suspected vast hydrocarbon potential. Countries that invest early in port, rail and pipeline infrastructure will enjoy an advantage when these resources come online. Moreover, the firms running Africa’s future ports will gain the ability to shape which other countries will benefit and by how much.

China’s significant role in the Horn adds to the economic attraction. Beijing has become the largest buyer of Middle Eastern oil and gas over the last decade; for this reason, both sides of the Gulf crisis have worked hard to improve ties. Turkey, Qatar and the UAE are pitching themselves as China’s best partners for its Belt and Road Initiative, whose projects stretch from the Indian Ocean and East Africa to the Horn and the Suez Canal.

With this potent mix of economic, security and political interests, Gulf states are likely to continue vying for power and influence in the Horn well into the future. Saudi Arabia seeks to quarantine the region from Iranian influence while boosting its credentials as the littoral states’ leader. The UAE aims to leverage its political and military presence to push back against an array of perceived foes: Islamist movements backed by Qatar and Turkey, as well as Iran. Qatar, for its part, sees vast potential for new friends and investments to bolster its independence, while outmanoeuvring the Gulf adversaries blockading it. Ankara is weaving a story of Muslim leadership, built on its accumulated credibility in Somalia. Turkish businesses have had remarkable success on the continent.

 While the Horn could leverage competing interests to its advantage, […] external actors – with vastly disproportionate resources – have an outsized influence for now on the partnerships they are seeking to establish. 

Political and military actors in the Horn have seized on these rivalries to advance their own goals in ways both positive and negative. Eritrea’s long-ruling strongman Isaias Afwerki has parlayed ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to earn sanctions relief and partially rehabilitate his international image, while offering no space for political reforms at home. Sudan’s military rulers sought political cover from their Gulf allies to cling to power. Ethiopia turned to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for much-needed funding, while keeping an open line to Qatar. Neighbouring Kenya has in turn sought help from Doha as a potential mediator in its maritime border dispute with Mogadishu. In Somalia, duelling political candidates see the cash-rich Gulf actors as sometimes gullible conduits for campaign money. More positively, hinting at ways actors in the Horn can exploit the rivalry to draw wider benefits, Djibouti, Somaliland and Puntland have all at various times milked the competition for strategic ports between the Gulf and China to secure better deals.

While the Horn could leverage competing interests to its advantage, particularly by building greater economic connectivity across the Red Sea, these external actors – with vastly disproportionate resources – have an outsized influence for now on the partnerships they are seeking to establish. As an Ethiopian analyst observed: “The Gulf’s impact on the Horn depends on how that individual [Gulf] country behaves. The Gulf-Horn relationship is so asymmetrical that the Gulf is the one that decides what kind of relationship they can have”.

While the destructive impact of these new dynamics is increasingly clear, the motivations behind them and the potential to turn them in a positive direction remain largely underexplored for policymakers in the Horn and beyond. This report, based on high-level conversations in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Ankara, as well as Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Washington, seeks to clarify these actors’ goals and ambitions, and propose ways to mitigate the destabilising impact of unbridled competition in the Horn.

II.Saudi Arabia: Outmanoeuvring Iran

When Saudi officials speak about historical precedents for their aspirations to play a leadership role in the Horn, they often cite the rule of King Faisal (1964-1975), who travelled the continent widely, launched the Saudi Fund for Development and held a large rolodex of African allies. A strong U.S. partner in the Cold War, the Kingdom financed U.S.-led pushback against leftist movements and Soviet-backed governments, including in the Horn. This new Saudi aid system poured money into Chad, Sudan and Somalia, as well as to the rebels who would eventually establish an independent Eritrea. Saudi charities had the state’s implicit approval to use Wahhabism as a counterweight to Soviet influence. Many of these religious charitable networks, and their ideological imprint, persist to this day.

As the Saudi economy accelerated in the 1970s, it demanded more imported food staples and migrant workers, both of which the Horn could provide. Large diaspora communities formed in the Kingdom, including from Sudan and Ethiopia. Meanwhile, public and private Saudi investors leased significant swathes of land in those two countries, hoping to build a new breadbasket across the Rea Sea from Jeddah.

Once the Cold War ended, key partners such as Sudan and Somalia continued to receive Saudi aid, and Saudi Islamic charities remained active throughout the continent. Yet African countries played only a limited role in the Kingdom’s foreign policy until 2015, when King Salman took the throne.

Three key developments pushed Africa back onto the priority list. First, Iran emerged as an apparent “winner” amid the upheaval following the Arab uprisings – just as the U.S. was negotiating a nuclear deal that would lift some sanctions on Tehran. Riyadh considered that its rival was gaining the upper hand and sought new theatres in which to push back. Secondly, the war in Yemen pushed Riyadh to secure new allies on both coasts of the Red Sea. And thirdly, King Salman and his son Mohammed bin Salman consolidated foreign policy under the Royal Court around the idea of stronger Saudi leadership in the Middle East, among Muslim populations and globally as a G20 economy. Africa presented an obvious but overlooked opportunity, said a Saudi diplomat:

[pullquote]Africa is a priority for the Kingdom, beginning from when King Salman took power. He saw that there was a missed opportunity to engage. […] There is a cultural, religious and economic basis for a stronger relationship with Africa, but those ties were never activated. That, plus seeing that others may try to fill the vacuum in the region. […] We saw that, in the longer term, it was important that we are engaged with Africa.[/pullquote][pullquote][/pullquote]

In February 2018, Saudi Arabia for the first time appointed a state minister for African affairs. Though seated in the foreign ministry, he was empowered directly by the Royal Court.

A.The Iranian Spectre

Africa’s newfound importance in Saudi foreign policy stems from a single overriding goal: to reduce Iran’s footprint and restore the Kingdom to what it sees as its “natural” position as a regional leader. Riyadh considers centralised security regimes best placed to preserve stability – a view solidified by Iran’s ability to gain ground in the wake of the Arab uprisings. As one analyst close to the government explained: “there is one side that benefits from instability in our region, and that is Iran”. Riyadh typically offers a combination of development and humanitarian aid, Central Bank deposits, investment and at times cash handouts to maintain the status quo.

Saudi Arabia began jostling with Iran in the Horn in 2015, focused on combatting specific perceived threats emanating from the Yemen war. Riyadh, which views the Huthis as Iranian proxies, moved to squeeze out any official Iranian presence from Red Sea coastal states and to ensure the latter’s allegiance went to the Kingdom. Most visibly, King Salman orchestrated a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) military basing agreement with Eritrea in April 2015 in support of Saudi-led coalition efforts in the Yemen war. In securing GCC access to Assab, Riyadh precluded Tehran from accessing the facilities as it had over the previous decade.

Saudi policy toward Sudan formed the centrepiece of the anti-Iran approach. In 2013, with Saudi support, the GCC developed a common policy to bring Sudan closer into its orbit, at a moment when international sanctions had isolated Khartoum and kept it relatively close to Tehran, another international outcast. The Yemen war gave further incentive. Saudi Arabia wanted to boost its anti-Huthi coalition with additional Arab states and was keen to ensure Iran could not access Sudan, which holds the Horn’s second longest stretch of Red Sea coastline. Khartoum, meanwhile, was hungry for aid, sanctions relief and a route to normalising relations with the West.

Amid promises of all three, Bashir aligned Sudan with the coalition, sent thousands of troops to Yemen and, in January 2016, cut ties with Iran when protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad. In the Saudi narrative, Sudan “started to realise the danger that Iran poses” and subsequently began “working with the GCC to stop Iranian expansion in Africa”. Still, Riyadh remained concerned about Sudan’s fidelity as a partner, viewing Bashir as a transactional leader whose allegiance required constant upkeep in the form of diplomatic flattery and financial aid. When it became clear Bashir’s grasp on Sudan was crumbling, Saudi Arabia and the UAE leapt at the chance to see Khartoum in more pliable hands; they gave their blessing to a military coup and subsequent transitional military council. Djibouti and Somalia also cut ties with Tehran in 2016 after Iranian mobs stormed Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

With these successes, Saudi Arabia has increasingly come to see the Horn – and the entire continent – as another theatre in a global contest with Iran. Saudi officials say the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions has given them a window to squeeze Iran in any theatre where they can exert influence. Senior Saudi policymakers cite Africa as one place where they are winning.

B.Backing the Status Quo, Facing Resistance

As it aims to curb Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia is extending its own presence in the Horn. Saudi policymakers finalised their first overseas basing agreement with Djibouti after two years of discussion in 2016 and 2017. Although construction has yet to start, the agreement allows Riyadh to see itself as one of the arbiters of regional security.

The Kingdom prefers to work bilaterally in most cases and has ignored – if not intentionally sidelined – multilateral organisations such as the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). But Saudi Arabia has worked closely with the UAE and Egypt in the Horn. The Saudis and Emiratis share a preference for cooperation with security states and often coordinate their efforts, for example by working together to broker a peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, and to jointly pledge $3 billion in combined aid to Sudan’s military-led transition in 2019.

Riyadh likewise views Egypt’s status quo, under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as a cornerstone of regional stability. It has leaned on African allies to take Cairo’s concerns seriously, for example on the distribution of Nile River waters. This alliance has not always been comfortable, however, and Cairo has been frustrated with what it views as Riyadh’s attempts to overshadow its historical role in the Nile Basin. In 2018, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a Red Sea Forum for Coastal States, an idea previously spearheaded by Egypt. Riyadh and Cairo appear to have managed their leadership and policy differences, and had convened at least four meetings between them by mid-2019, discussing a wide agenda of topics, from security cooperation to coral reef protection and combatting human trafficking. Yet this tussle for leadership will likely continue to cloud Saudi attempts to see forum members agree on a constitution of principles that, if put into practice, would give Riyadh a leading role in the Red Sea’s security architecture.

Meanwhile, after decades of funding Wahhabi mosques and scholars in the Horn, the Saudi government’s religious organisation working outside its borders, the Muslim World League, has said it will pivot away from proselytising. Even if this happens, the legacy of Saudi religious networks will persist, first, because former missionaries inculcated a strict version of Islam that sought to convert or persecute adherents to other interpretations or faiths. This dramatically transformed the social structure of many previously diverse Muslim communities. A senior Ethiopian analyst close to the government explained how difficult it would be to unwind this legacy: “The damage that KSA has done to this region is already done. It has torn the social fabric. And while the Saudis may have paused this for geopolitical reasons, I don’t know if that applies to their scholars”. Second, the Muslim World League has limited control over private Saudi scholars, some of whom spread their views online.

 Riyadh’s support for military or other security states has alienated public opinion and may set the Kingdom up for future challenges. 

Saudi Arabia faces other obstacles as it seeks to expand its regional reach. While several Horn states describe the Kingdom as a key partner, they are also wary about growing too close to a country that has backed Egypt’s historical claims of regional leadership, spent decades spreading Wahhabi teachings, and demands loyalty in the intra-Gulf dispute. Riyadh’s support for military or other security states has alienated public opinion and may set the Kingdom up for future challenges. And while Saudi Arabia has deep personal relationships, its institutional knowledge of local political dynamics is weak.

Developments in Sudan exemplify both the promise and peril of Saudi support to a country in transition. Since April 2019, Khartoum has once again been at the centre of Saudi Arabia’s engagement with the Horn. At first glance, Riyadh’s involvement has been, in the words of one senior official, “a highly successful case” in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, as well as the U.S. and UK were “strategically coordinating” and managed to use their influence to broker a deal between military leaders and civilian protesters. That agreement was signed to international fanfare on 17 August; if implemented, it offers a path to elections and civilian rule. Senior Saudi officials, including the point person for Africa, attended the signing in Khartoum and called the deal a victory for stability.

Yet this apparent good news masks a record of Saudi decisions showcasing the problematic nature of its policies. Riyadh has articulated two main priorities in Sudan: the need for “stability”, meaning in particular preserving the state’s security apparatus, and the importance of Sudan remaining in its sphere, allied with Saudi Arabia rather than rivals such as Iran, Qatar or Turkey. While within reach, neither objective is guaranteed.

Early on, Saudi officials appear to have underestimated the complexity of the transition and their ability to influence it. Prior to the regime’s downfall, Saudi officials described Sudan’s protests as purely economically driven and expressed their hope that a combination of aid and gradual reform would quell them. One official anticipated: “The Sudanese people see the consequences of revolution and they don’t want those”. This expectation may be one reason Riyadh did little to stop Bashir’s fall and, by some accounts, gave their blessing to his ouster. Then, after the military ousted Bashir, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged their strong support for the country’s transitional military council. It is only under international pressure that they subsequently backed Ethiopian and AU efforts to broker a compromise between the generals and protesters; this is when they worked hand in hand with the U.S. and UK.

Far from engendering calm, the initial insistence on preserving the security apparatus – backed by Saudi Arabia – contributed to dangerous levels of violence and political uncertainty. Regional officials say that the Gulf’s $3 billion aid pledge incentivised the military to drag their feet in negotiations with protesters and hold out for a deal where they could maintain control over key portfolios. Then on 3 June, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, a quasi-private militia led by one of Saudi Arabia’s closest military allies, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or “Hemedti”, violently dispersed protesters and burned their encampments, leaving more than 100 dead and dozens more wounded.

The atrocities took place just days after Hemedti visited the Saudi Crown Prince, as well as leaders in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. After the massacre, Riyadh lost substantial goodwill with many protesters but also AU diplomats, who concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the Saudis and Emiratis had offered the political cover that emboldened security forces to use lethal violence. This also drew revulsion on the continent and elsewhere and led the AU to take a harder line against Khartoum military’s actions.

 Maintaining a friendly government in Khartoum is likely to be as arduous and costly an affair as it proved to be during Bashir’s time. 

The violence unleashed on 3 June raised the spectre of all-out civil war in Sudan. The RSF occupied the streets of Khartoum threatening a further crackdown if it were excluded from a political transition. Saudi Arabia and the UAE both issued statements expressing alarm at the 3 June events, though only after calls to senior officials in both countries from U.S. Under-Secretary of State David Hale. By several accounts, Saudi policymakers were frustrated by their inability to contain the situation. In a meeting with visiting diplomats in July, one senior Saudi official reportedly explained, “We want a strong military, not stupid actions”. Riyadh instead found itself with the worst of both worlds: facing a public perception that it controlled its allies, but signally failing in that effort.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s support for the military may have won it short-term influence with the country’s transitional leaders but has tarnished its image in Sudan. This may undermine its second objective: to retain Khartoum firmly in its sphere of influence. Perceived Saudi and Emirati meddling risks stirring popular opposition, including from Islamists who would find ready support from regional rivals Qatar and Turkey; Iranian media has also demonised Saudi Arabia’s role in Sudan.Negative sentiment toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE is palpable in Khartoum, reflected in an ongoing campaign led by some of the uprising’s initial protesters to see Sudan exit the Arab League after the body, like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, was seen to back the military. In other words, maintaining a friendly government in Khartoum is likely to be as arduous and costly an affair as it proved to be during Bashir’s time.

III.The UAE: Squeezing Out Islamists and Their Backers

The UAE has emerged as the most assertive Gulf power in the Horn, driven in part by a belief that advancing its interests in the region is essential to maintaining calm at home. Abu Dhabi views both Islamist movements and Iran as threats to its rule and its vision for the region. Islamism, Abu Dhabi argues, is an inherently destabilising ideology that seeks to uproot existing governments and social structures; it paints with a very broad brush, making little if any distinction among Islamists, whether the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, Islamic State or Boko Haram. Using hard and soft power, Abu Dhabi seeks to support strong governments that can suppress these movements, even if this means bottling grievances that might later erupt. A senior Emirati official said:


What we worry about is a sweep of ideology in our region’s governance. We are worried about the Muslim Brotherhood and their threat to the neighbourhood. … This, married with poor institutions and poverty, is very dangerous. … The region is not in a good place, and I don’t think anyone else will confront it. It’s the calling of our time to overcome this regional situation.


A. A High-stakes History

The UAE’s current role in the Red Sea corridor dates to 2006, when DP World – a majority Dubai government owned company – won a 50-year concession to upgrade and operate Djibouti’s Doraleh port. The company saw the port as a chance to prove itself in the global ports market and the contract revealed the Horn’s underdeveloped shores as a commercial opportunity. Several years later, piracy emerged as a major threat off the coast of Somalia, which sits along the main shipping route from the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. To secure its oil and other shipments, the UAE joined international efforts to patrol the waterway. This was the first data point in an emerging view that instability on either coast of the Red Sea could reverberate across the Arabian Peninsula.

In the decade since the 2011 Arab uprisings, both the political and economic importance of the Red Sea corridor to the UAE expanded. The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, watched the region’s political turmoil with trepidation, particularly when groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood initially emerged as winners. In 2013, the UAE strongly backed then-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup to unseat President Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; a year later it provided assistance to anti-Islamist forces in neighbouring Libya. Alarmed that the Horn was both vulnerable to and a possible source of Islamist ideology, the UAE focused attention there too. In Somalia, Abu Dhabi evolved its anti-piracy operations to include this new mission, countering what Emirati officials described as “terrorism and al-Shabab” operating mainly from Puntland and Mogadishu.

The Yemen war in 2015 sharpened Emirati concerns about Islamist groups and offered a battlefield in which to push back. Emirati forces operated in Yemen’s south and west, including along the Red Sea coast and at Bab al-Mandab. The UAE split its attention between fighting Huthi rebels and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and, later, al-Islah, often described as Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood. After King Salman signed a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) base agreement with Eritrea in 2015, the UAE leased the base and built an airstrip. The UAE secured a subsequent base agreement in Berbera, Somaliland, as a backup plan to ensure its troops and assets would have a staging ground for the Yemen theatre.

Since 2011, Abu Dhabi also came to equate Qatari influence with the risk of political unrest and the rise of Islamism, a view based on Doha’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood. Accelerating with the 2017 Gulf crisis, the UAE has sought to box out Qatar from the Horn. Abu Dhabi has invested heavily in elevating existing relationships and cultivating friendly new partners, notably Ethiopia, Sudan’s transitional military government, Eritrea and Somaliland.

B. Keeping the Status Quo, Managing Change

The UAE supports the political status quo in the region but when instability arises, it prefers what it refers to as “managed” transitions that leave a country’s security apparatus and executive institutions intact in order to prevent revolutionary change or processes through which Islamists might come to power.

The experiences of the 2011 Arab uprising in Egypt and the UAE’s altercation with Qatar in Somalia weigh heavily on how Abu Dhabi builds relationships. In both cases, Emirati policymakers thought that their interests were secure, only to see them quickly crumble. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had kept the Egyptian Brotherhood in check until his swift downfall in 2011. Abu Dhabi had invested heavily in a security partnership with Mogadishu that unravelled in a matter of weeks in 2018. The lessons the UAE drew from these events were to diversify its allies and retain their loyalty. It therefore tries to set a decisive footprint so others cannot. As an official put it, “We have learned that others will meddle if we are not there”.

The UAE has also sought to capitalise on unexpected political changes. In Ethiopia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed moved quickly to establish a personal relationship with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after the latter took office in April 2018. The UAE saw Abiy as a likeminded leader with a vision for transforming Ethiopia’s economy and regional stature, often through little more than sheer force of personality. Abu Dhabi also saw potential business opportunities in real estate, infrastructure, logistics, energy, telecommunications and air travel, some linked to Abiy’s promised privatisation plans. UAE support to Abiy was personalised and highly visible. In June and July 2018, the Emirates Red Crescent dispatched multiple aid delegations to ask Abiy what his personal funding priorities were. The UAE is refurbishing the prime minister’s residence in Addis Ababa and, according to some accounts, has provided his office with a fleet of cars.

In Sudan, the UAE reportedly gave its blessing to the ouster of President Bashir and joined Saudi Arabia in backing the transitional military council that took power. Abu Dhabi had never trusted Bashir and viewed him as inextricably connected to the Islamist movement that initially brought him to power. With his fall, Emirati officials were outspoken in staking out their interests, which they presented as follows:

[pullquote]Having lived through ten years of chaos and turbulence [in the region], the UAE understands the importance of stability and the necessity of institutions and peaceful transitions. […] After years of Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship, today [Sudan is] in need of support to stabilise. But the choice of institutions and the speed of change, these are Sudanese affairs. […] It is our duty to emphasise the importance of equilibrium between stability and change.[/pullquote]

Where it has failed to establish strong relations or lost ground to rivals, Abu Dhabi has attempted to isolate and undermine those it cannot bring to its side. In Somalia, for example, the UAE ruled out working with President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) and has instead crippled his ability to reconcile with and govern federal member states. Abu Dhabi has invested, given aid to and hosted the leaders of Somalia’s regional governments, thereby allowing them to subsist and operate without Mogadishu. This approach preserves Emirati agreements to build ports in Berbera and Bosaso, but has been a devastating blow to years of international efforts to reconcile Somalia’s centre and periphery, although Farmajo’s own imperious approach and attempts to oust rivals in the federal member states has contributed to the impasse.

The UAE’s security goals reinforce its economic aspirations to be a key player in shipping and trade across the broader region. The UAE has increased its exports to the Horn in recent years, even surpassing China in Somalia and Eritrea. It hopes that new ports, particularly in Berbera and potentially Assab, could benefit from growing consumer demand linked to Ethiopia’s high rates of economic growth. Abu Dhabi has also gone furthest among regional states in seeking direct cooperation with Beijing’s BRI in the Horn. The UAE has floated trilateral investment arrangements that would make joint use of Chinese and Emirati funding in Africa. These would improve its access to new business opportunities. An Emirati economic official said:

[pullquote]We have a type of fish in the UAE that has the ability to stick to things, for example, to bigger fish. This is a survival mechanism because it uses this to find food and to stay safe. This is how the UAE is with China: if we stick to them, they can lead us to new opportunities.[/pullquote]

Or, as another official put it: “We have our own belt and road initiative; now we want to connect it with China’s”.

C. A Mix of Hard and Soft Power

The UAE is unique among Gulf states in its ability to use hard power in the Horn. Abu Dhabi has concluded agreements to build and operate military bases in Assab (Eritrea) and Berbera (Somaliland), though the latter may now be converted to a civilian facility. Dubai-based DP World and its subsidiary P&O Ports are developing commercial ports in Berbera and Bosaso (Puntland), respectively. Both UAE- and Saudi- based companies have expressed interest privately in developing Eritrea’s Assab and Massawa ports. While these deals operate on commercial terms, the UAE military has also used DP World-run facilities on a limited ad hoc basis in the past.

Less visibly, the UAE has dangled military training as a carrot for allies, using a curriculum built on experience from its deployments in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The UAE’s first training mission in Africa built the Puntland Maritime Police beginning in 2014. Although Western allies describe it as one of the few effective military forces in Somalia, this force, and UAE-trained soldiers in Mogadishu, also appear to fight domestic political and ideological enemies at times.

Simultaneously, the UAE is selling a soft-power narrative that its own economic success in a turbulent Middle East is replicable in the Horn, though no regional state has financial resources comparable to Abu Dhabi’s. This is both a political and economic message: politically, states should avoid succumbing to Islamism. Economically, the UAE stands ready to provide financial aid and investment while states open or privatise parts of their economies, as Ethiopia has done.

The UAE has several levers to encourage private and semi-state-owned companies to invest in riskier economies. For example, the foreign ministry has recently started prioritising bilateral investment agreements that ensure investors can repatriate their money regardless of national currency controls. The government advises the private sector about which countries it considers unfit for Emirati investment. Finally, the UAE at times offers to guarantee a portion of a private company’s loans or transactions to encourage them to take risks.

D. Whose Definition of Stability?

The UAE’s engagement in the Horn may have won it new friends, but it also has produced enemies and significant negative public sentiment. Among impressions now commonly held among many in the Horn are that the UAE is extracting more from its relationships than it is providing and that the UAE’s growing military presence and self-interested policy goals will bring new instability to a fragile region.

The experience of Djibouti’s Doraleh in particular clouds the UAE’s reputation. In 2012, Djibouti accused DP World of bribery in securing the government contract, leading to a long legal battle that culminated in Djibouti nationalising the port in 2018. Djibouti additionally argued that the contract was disproportionately profitable for DP World. The government also accused DP World of limiting container traffic to reduce competition with Dubai’s Jebel Ali port. Although DP World won several subsequent international arbitrations over Doraleh, the narrative of an extractive-rich country seeking a quick profit stuck. Today, many diplomats, officials and scholars from the Horn view Emirati port contracts as a means to keep the region down and prevent competition with Dubai; DP World strongly denies this allegation.

Other partners in the Horn worry the UAE’s military relationships could draw the region into conflicts; they point to the example of Sudanese troops serving in costly, front-line combat roles in Yemen where they have taken disproportionate casualties. A growing number of African officials have begun speaking out about the need to end Sudan and Eritrea’s roles in supporting the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war, the world’s largest humanitarian emergency and a source of tens of thousands of refugees arriving to the Horn’s shores, including in Djibouti and Somalia.

Sudan’s involvement in Yemen has also complicated politics back home. The RSF has gained enormous domestic financial power – and hence the ability to co-opt political factions – from its foreign operations. These funds have facilitated the rise of its leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”, who has played an outsized role in Sudan’s political transition, something that its Emirati backers laud.

For many in the Horn, the UAE’s professed goal of maintaining stability thus portends a scenario similar to Abu Dhabi’s other ally, Egypt, where the government has employed violent repression to quash its political opponents. A UN official expressed a common reaction: “Stable? What is stable for them? They want the Brotherhood out of this region”.

IV. Qatar: Trying to Outmanoeuvre Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Qatar’s push into the Horn began in the mid-2000s but has accelerated since 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties. Doha sees the continent as fertile ground for new relationships and investments that can bolster its diplomatic and economic position while under blockade. As a senior Qatari official put it: “If you have more friends, then more friends are upset when something happens to you. […] When I have strong partnerships, nobody can mess with me – I am protected”.Where possible, Doha aims to outmanoeuvre rival Gulf states and capitalise on their mistakes.

A. A History of Conflict Mediation

Qatar’s activist regional policy dates to Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s rise to power in 1995. The new leader sought to carve out a role distinct from and at times adversarial to regional giant Saudi Arabia. A decade later, Qatar’s lack of historical baggage in the Horn became an unexpected advantage, allowing Doha to build a profile as an unbiased mediator. In 2008, the Arab League designated Qatar as mediator in Sudan’s Darfur conflict, culminating in the 2011 signing of the Doha Agreements.Doha also brokered an understanding between Eritrea and Djibouti over a border dispute beginning in 2010. Throughout these negotiations, Qatar grew a network of valuable contacts both in local governments and opposition movements, as well as in multilateral institutions and other states.

Qatar’s stock rose further with the 2006 launch of Al-Jazeera English. Within a few years, the channel’s Africa coverage far surpassed existing outlets in breadth and resources, bringing a Qatari perspective into the African mainstream. Growing diasporas from the Horn in Doha reinforced the country’s positive image back on the continent.

During this time, Qatar also expanded its political networks across the Middle East and North Africa, notably among local iterations of the Muslim Brotherhood. The 2011 Arab uprisings reshaped Qatar’s regional position. Doha and its state-funded media platforms were widely supportive of popular uprisings and Islamist movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Taking sides shattered the country’s image of neutrality in the Middle East and disrupted its role as a conflict mediator.

Qatar grappled with how to reposition itself throughout the middle of the decade, but may have found a way forward since the Gulf dispute erupted in 2017. The crisis offered Qatar a chance to capitalise on its outsider profile and broaden its foreign policy priorities to include a more intensive focus on Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and China. Doha’s status in Africa was precarious in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf crisis: at least eight African countries downgraded ties in favour of the Saudi bloc. In response, since 2017 Qatar has opened several new embassies on the continent, its Emir visited West Africa for the first time, and Doha has hosted several East African leaders.

B. Evading the Saudi-led Blockade

 Qatar’s new relationships in Africa are partly its way of evading the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies in June 2017 – both for immediate, practical reasons and broader strategic ones. When the Gulf spat began, Qatar was importing some 80 per cent of its food and 20 per cent of its total imports (by value) from its Gulf neighbours; the blockade forced it to rethink its vital supply chains. Sudan and Ethiopia offered the promise of arable land that could boost food security in the medium term. The Horn of Africa was also a place to claim back allies lost to the Saudi-UAE bloc in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, and in doing so, exact a strategic cost on its rivals. An analyst close to the government said: “Qatar’s policy in Africa is to take revenge indirectly” for the blockade.Finally, Qatar came to see the Horn as a significant opportunity to benefit from expected economic growth and the evolving security landscape of the Red Sea corridor.

Qatari officials deny competing with regional rivals in the Horn. “Qatar will never be part of regional competition”, said a senior Qatari diplomat. But in building new relationships, Doha is limiting its rivals’ ability to consolidate influence. Qatar successfully rolled back its diplomatic isolation in much of the continent. In Somalia, where it laid the most significant footprint, Doha has made itself indispensable to the federal government.Djibouti keeps channels opens; the Ethiopian prime minister visited Doha in March. According to a senior Qatari official: “We used to be blocked in some countries, because of Saudi Arabia’s influence there. But now we can pick and choose our partners”.

Sudan now poses a challenge to Qatar’s position in the Horn, however. Qatar had been a close ally of Bashir and often hosted Islamist leaders from both inside and outside of Sudan’s ruling party. Qatari officials say that they sought to find a graceful exit for Bashir and blame Saudi Arabia and the UAE for interrupting those efforts through a military coup. A senior official said: “It is clear that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are trying to push us out. They blocked some of our attempts to reach out to the [transitional military council]”. Doha will seek to maintain its investments, including business ties and a training program for the Sudanese military; it likewise maintains ties with some factions among protesters. Facing a clear threat to its longstanding influence, Qatar has used its media to resurrect a pro-revolutionary narrative that was common during the 2011 Arab uprisings. Qatari officials argue that supressing protests engenders deeper turmoil, a view that puts Doha in direct opposition to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

C. Trade, Aid and Cash

Qatar’s diplomatic toolkit in the Horn ranges from significant investments and aid to establishing media platforms and direct air links. Its leadership solidified the connection between foreign policy and economics in November 2018 when it named Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani additionally as chair of the Qatar Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign wealth fund. A senior official explained: “Foreign policy and funding cannot remain separate. Joining them gives us more leverage to become engaged. If the foreign minister goes somewhere, he can come with the wealth fund”. Qatar also reactivated its Development Fund in 2018, boosting staff from just three to 50 and more than tripling the budget in a matter of months.

 In Africa as in the Middle East, Qatar has aligned itself with Turkey.

In Africa as in the Middle East, Qatar has aligned itself with Turkey. When Doha began carving out influence in Mogadishu, it sought Turkish advice and signalled political alignment. Qatari officials say they hope that their local companies can emulate Turkish contractors and bid for more commercial projects, particularly for building roads and other infrastructure.


Despite a major push into Africa in the last two years, Doha remains a very limited investor and trade partner in the Horn compared with its Gulf peers and Turkey. Qatar’s economic positioning in the Red Sea basin will also have a bearing on its efforts to seek what it describes as “cooperation and complementarity” with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, according to a Qatari member of the Silk Road engagement team, a group set up to formulate policy toward the initiative. Although cooperation will begin from a low base, it has become a political priority. When Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani visited Beijing on 31 January 2019, the two countries agreed to “synergise their development strategies and jointly build the Belt and Road Initiative”.

Soft power via Al-Jazeera and other media is equally if not more important to building Qatari influence. These outlets have capitalised on the blockade to win sympathy and popular support. Qatari media have also seized upon rivals’ mistakes. In Somalia, for example, Al-Jazeera highlighted the fallout from the UAE’s decision to close a hospital it was running, amid a dispute with the Mogadishu government. Al-Jazeera also closely covered the Sudanese protests that unseated President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, and provided highly critical coverage of Saudi and Emirati support to the transitional military council. Qatari media are also useful as a means to offer a global platform for local allies, while Qatar-based charities can fund projects for friendly local or community leaders, and improve these groups’ international networks.

That said, Qatari financial and rhetorical support to Islamist groups carries risks. These groups have in the past alienated public opinion when they impose their agendas too broadly or fail to govern beyond a narrow constituency. Many of Sudan’s protesters today, for example, oppose Islamist groups because of their strong association with the former regime. Doha’s transparent ideological preferences are also increasingly clear in the Horn, tarnishing Qatar’s preferred image as a neutral party. This could challenge Doha’s attempts to ground its alliances with popular support, rather than relying on high-level personal relationships as they do now.

D. Sparring with Gulf Rivals in Africa

Even if they claim that competition is not their intention, Qatar and the UAE consistently have found themselves on opposing sides the last two years. The clearest example is in Somalia, where Doha helped finance the 2017 election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) and backed his government. Farmajo declined to take sides openly in the Gulf dispute, but his government opposed port deals Somaliland and Puntland had signed with DP World. Tensions erupted in April 2018, when Somali authorities seized $10 million in cash from an arriving Emirati airplane, reportedly destined to support a UAE-run military training mission. Abu Dhabi subsequently withdrew its presence from Mogadishu, including a military training camp and a hospital, and boosted its support for Somalia’s semi-autonomous federal states.

The resulting split between the Doha-aligned centre and Abu Dhabi-aligned periphery exacerbated existing regionalist tensions, while entrenching Mogadishu’s dependence on Qatari aid and the regions’ on Emirati backing. The UAE saw a direct loss to Qatar in the events of 2018. Doha also describes a zero-sum game:

[pullquote]In order for Somalia to be stable, the [federal] states needs to have good relations [with Mogadishu], but it won’t happen as long as the UAE is inciting them. … The UAE should leave Somalia. They won’t encourage their allies to reconcile with the federal government.[/pullquote][pullquote][/pullquote]

Sudan may prove the next fertile ground for intra-Gulf competition. Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs joined other Gulf dignitaries in attending the signing of a transitional agreement in Khartoum in August 2019. Yet Qatar retains strong links to Islamist groups in the country as well as parts of the security apparatus, and may support them in upcoming elections.

Qatar may have a particular incentive to guard its economic interests in Sudan, most notably a 2017 agreement to develop the commercial port of Suakin. If the project moves forward, it would see Qatar in direct competition with the UAE to secure port access along the Red Sea. Losing the contract would be equally significant, marking a clear “loss” to Emirati influence. A senior Qatari official said “we don’t want to be pushed out. Especially because we know that if the UAE succeeds in pushing us out of Sudan, Somalia will be next”.

V. Turkey: Trying to Stay Out of Gulf Disputes

For centuries leading up to World War I, Ottoman influence and control wrapped along both sides of the Red Sea corridor, stretching down across the Horn toward Somalia. To continue building its presence in the Horn of Africa, Turkey draws on the historical legacy of empire and soft power projection: humanitarian aid, business ties and the attraction of Turkey’s governing system. The ruling AKP is a movement that fuses Islamic principles with electoral politics and market economics, which it presents as a model in the broader region. Allies such as Somalia are critical to Ankara’s domestic narrative that Turkey is a custodian of Islamic solidarity in support of oppressed or downtrodden Muslims worldwide. The country has significant cultural appeal in the Horn of Africa – one reason why both the UAE and Saudi Arabia increasingly consider it a more serious threat than Qatar.

A. “Open to Africa”

The most recent Turkish push into the Horn began in 1998 as economic growth at home expanded, and accelerated after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power and drafted an Action Plan to expand ties with the continent. In 2005, Ankara launched an even more ambitious “Open to Africa” policy that sought to boost the number of embassies, lift trade and convene regular Turkey-Africa summits. Ties with the Horn accelerated again after 2011, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then still prime minister, became the first and only non-African government leader to visit Somalia since the state’s collapse in 1991. The Turkish president, whose visit came at a time of famine and insecurity, called on Turkish charities and businesses to set up shop in Mogadishu – and they did.

 As Turkey established its credibility as a humanitarian actor in Somalia, businesses followed. 

Turkey’s early presence in Somalia and its extensive investment in trade, education, health care and security training has earned it an enormous store of goodwill among ordinary Somalis in a way that cannot be said of Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Qatar, all of whose engagement is perceived as more tactical than enduring. During the famine in 2011, Turkey was the only donor to have a visible presence on the ground not barricaded behind blast-proof walls. Erdoğan’s response won him plaudits at home for his perceived generosity. Many Somalis see the fact that Turkish citizens residing in Mogadishu generally live among ordinary Somalis, and Turkey’s construction of its biggest embassy in the world, as a vote of confidence in their country.

As Turkey established its credibility as a humanitarian actor in Somalia, businesses followed. Turkish contractors could offer lower project costs than Western firms, with lower debt financing rates than China.  Business analysts compare entering the African market to Turkey’s experience in Central Asia after the Cold War. In both cases, Turkey was on the ground floor of an economy for which few others had an appetite.

In addition to the AKP, Turkey’s Gülenist movement grew a significant presence in the Horn after 2005. Then allied with Erdoğan’s government, Gülenists opened schools in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and elsewhere on the continent. These institutions created significant pro-Turkish constituencies that have persisted even after Ankara demanded the schools’ closing, following a 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan that he blamed on the Gülen movement.

B. A Virtuous Cycle of Interests

Turkey’s Africa policy is driven less by an overarching strategy than by a series of interlocking interests. Greater political and humanitarian engagement has created a favourable environment for businesses, which then demanded a Turkish security footprint. Two initial investments telegraphed Turkey’s political commitment to Africa: a 2005 decision by then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to vastly increase the number of Turkish embassies in Africa, and Turkish Airlines extending its business to include more than 50 routes from Istanbul to the continent. Turkish companies report that embassies actively assist in working through any political difficulties, while the direct flights lower the cost of doing business.

Africa policy plays a role in domestic Turkish politics. Since Erdoğan’s 2011 visit to Somalia, his government has pitched its humanitarian aid there as a model of Islamic leadership, which offers support without interfering in internal Somali governance. A Turkish academic explained:

[pullquote]Erdoğan is telling a story. His base likes the story he is telling: that he is uniting all the Muslims of the world and he is a leader. … It has power in domestic politics and this is the main driver behind Turkey’s Africa policy.[/pullquote]

Roughly 80 per cent of Turkey’s official development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa in 2017 went to Somalia, and its aid has been all-encompassing. Ankara has given the Mogadishu government budgetary support, helped businesses take on risky contracts, increased trade in both directions and offered humanitarian aid. In exchange, Ankara has sought commercial access for Turkish business and support for its military base in Mogadishu. Turkey is the only Middle Eastern actor to maintain good ties with nearly all of Somalia’s regions and multiple clans.

Businesses say Turkey’s strong political ties in the Horn give their bids some advantage. When Erdoğan visits the region, he brings along business executives and makes introductions. In Somalia, Turkish firms are visible building roads and hospitals. Two Turkish firms have managed Mogadishu port and airport since 2014, which reportedly generate four-fifths of the federal government’s revenue. Amid an economic downturn in Turkey, some analysts expect more small- and medium-sized Turkish commercial firms to enter the market in search of foreign-exchange earnings.

Turkish firms have several additional advantages. The most successful are adept at organising funding before placing a bid – something that few Western firms have the ability or the risk appetite to do. Many Turkish firms are family businesses, where local governments can easily reach the decision-makers with any concerns. Finally, Turkish firms tend to hire more local workers than their Chinese counterparts, which can be politically attractive to host governments.

Turkey’s security objectives emerged as a result of its growing presence and influence: Ankara acquired interests in the Horn that required defending. Turkey has taken two concrete steps in this direction. In September 2017, it opened its largest overseas military facility, a $50 million base in Mogadishu to train members of the Somali National Army. Several months later, Ankara signed an agreement with Khartoum to redevelop the Sudanese island and seaport of Suakin. These agreements bring Turkey more directly into regional competition in the Horn.

C. Trying to Steer a Neutral Course

When the Gulf crisis broke out in 2017, Turkey was the first and most important country to come to Qatar’s aid. It sent food items to blockaded Doha and later opened a military base there. But in the Horn, Ankara is adamant that it is neither party to the Gulf rift nor interested in regional competition. Turkish policymakers are conscious that the Gulf crisis’s fallout could damage their economic and political interests and undermine Turkey’s narrative of inclusive Islamic leadership.

Turkey has successfully protected most of its economic investments from the crisis. Turkish businesses say that they have not felt nearly the impact that they had anticipated, and that African governments appreciate their tangible record of completing infrastructure projects. Some executives argue that the notion of an ideologically-driven Turkish economic engagement in Africa existed mostly on paper, catering to the AKP base and allowing African leaders to win plaudits for nominally endorsing Erdoğan’s Islamist outlook.

Yet in practice, Turkey cannot claim it is on the sidelines of Gulf infighting. Ankara supported and hosted a number of Muslim Brotherhood-linked figures and groups that sought to build political influence after the Arab uprisings. Although its material support likely peaked in 2013, Turkey has continued to back Islamists in state media and official rhetoric. In Libya, Turkey has supported the Government of National Accord, set up by the UN in 2015, including reportedly sending arms to its local allies in 2019 to fend off an offensive on Tripoli by the UAE- and Saudi-backed Libyan National Army. There and elsewhere, such as in Sudan, Turkey has joined Qatar in supporting populist forces that take inspiration from the AKP’s brand of politics.

The Turkish government’s entanglement in the ideological battles of the Gulf crisis are most apparent in Somalia. Turkey has worked in the country longer and has deeper ties with parties than either Qatar or the UAE. Yet a former Turkish diplomat said the rivalry between the two Gulf states had “harmed our relationship with the [Somali] opposition”, since the current government is aligned with Qatar. He and other Turkish officials maintain that Ankara operates separately and often not in coordination with Doha in Somalia.

 Against the backdrop of the Gulf crisis, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi view Turkey’s security presence in the Horn as highly provocative. 

Against the backdrop of the Gulf crisis, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi view Turkey’s security presence in the Horn as highly provocative. The example of the Sudanese island port of Suakin is illustrative. In December 2017, Erdoğan visited the island, a former hub for Ottoman pilgrims en route to Mecca. The two countries signed an agreement for Turkey to restore the territory, including building a port capable of receiving naval vessels. The agreement chilled an already cooling relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, whose Jeddah port sits just across the Red Sea from Suakin. Controversy over the project has not subsided, and after Bashir’s ouster in April 2019, reports quickly circulated that the Saudi and UAE-backed transitional military council would nullify the deal.

Turkey’s military base in Mogadishu has proven equally contentious for the Gulf, in part because of its vast scale: the facility can accommodate up to 10,000 recruits for the Somali National Army. Turkish officials argue that the project’s details should dispel concern: Turkish personnel will train all soldiers, from infantry to officer corps, recruited across clans in order to minimise competing loyalties within the military – a major hurdle thus far to creating a professional national army. Yet Riyadh and Abu Dhabi view the project with scepticism and are disturbed by the presence of Turkish military personnel just downstream from Bab al-Mandab.

VI. Hard Landings

The asymmetry of Gulf-Horn relations has skewed benefits in the Gulf’s favour and left many of the risks for the continent. The two axes of Middle Eastern competition – the intra-Gulf crisis and Saudi-Iran tensions – have complicated local politics, weakened civilian state structures and fuelled conflict, most clearly in Somalia and Sudan. Without a significant course correction by the Gulf states, these risks will undermine or even reverse any potential benefits for countries in the Horn. New conflicts could also undermine Gulf states’ interests, for example in containing extremism and ensuring maritime safe passage, or tarnish their relationships with regional states and publics for years to come.

On paper, the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn are natural geographic partners, and Gulf political and economic investments could catalyse the Horn’s development. Unlike Chinese aid, funds from the Gulf and Turkey usually arrive as grants or highly concessionary loans. Gulf money also has fewer strings attached than Western financial support and certainly requires less accounting after the fact, something that carries benefits but also risk, especially related to corruption.

Infrastructure is another major area of potential cooperation. Turkey and the UAE particularly have strong expertise in large-scale projects and logistics chains. Ports, rail systems and roads can invigorate commerce beyond the initial scope of investments; they are public goods from which all businesses and future investors benefit. There is also a basic logic to the cash-rich and land-poor Gulf investing in agriculture, manufacturing and labour-intensive industry in a Horn region eager for jobs and capital.

As they demonstrated with the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Gulf actors can play a constructive role in ending regional conflicts. They are able to fund agreements more quickly and completely than most Western donors, offering the promise of a tangible peace dividend. When Qatar brokered a deal between Eritrea and Djibouti, it was willing to send observers to the disputed border. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the UAE have all expressed interest in helping resolve outstanding conflicts in the Horn, including between Somalia and Somaliland; Eritrea and Djibouti; parties in South Sudan; and within Sudan.

Yet the list of places where external rivalries are getting in the way is growing. Unravelling the longstanding tensions between Somalia’s Qatar-backed federal government and its UAE-backed member states will be difficult, if not impossible, unless Doha and Abu Dhabi, as well as Riyadh and Ankara, put differences aside and sign on to any final settlement.

Sudan offers another case study. The Sudanese military’s insistence on retaining power – a goal shared by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – made the transition more chaotic and violent, emboldening actors such as the Rapid Support Forces, who otherwise might have been forced to compromise early on. In May 2019, the influx of Gulf aid set new parameters on the transition: Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted to safeguard security institutions and sideline Islamist parties, as well as the latter’s Turkish and Qatari patrons. Their aid gave the transitional military council a cushion to keep the economy afloat and the ability to postpone talks about handing over power. A senior UN official explained: “Just when we were close [to a deal] in talks [between the TMC and the protesters], we woke up to a $3 billion pledge and the whole game changed”. Saudi and Emirati views did not fundamentally shift after the 3 June killing by RSF forces of protesters in Khartoum. Although both countries expressed dismay over the violence following U.S. pressure, neither capital abandoned its push for the RSF to play a key role in a new government.

 Even if they do not provoke violence, Gulf rivalries risk weakening Horn government and undermining their ability to manage conflict if and when it arises. 

Even if they do not provoke violence, Gulf rivalries risk weakening Horn government and undermining their ability to manage conflict if and when it arises. To Abu Dhabi, Doha or Riyadh, securing a government friendly on regional affairs typically trumps the need to ensure that government’s effectiveness at home. Unaccountable aid and cash can artificially prop up systems that could not survive otherwise. Sudan’s Bashir had relied heavily on grants from the Gulf to replenish foreign reserves and fund his security apparatus. During this time, services deteriorated and the economy stagnated until grievances boiled over into unrest. In Eritrea, financial aid from Saudi Arabia and payment for the UAE’s base in Assab give the regime the means to keep its security apparatus intact and perpetuate its rule. Such support, however, may only increase the chances that Eritrea will face major unrest if and when a transition occurs eventually.

Gulf foreign policy tends to amplify state structures similar to their own: personality-driven power centres that sidestep domestic or regional institutions and marginalise citizen participation. The Gulf states’ power play thus runs counter to many emerging multilateral and democratic trends in the Horn, where publics in Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia have demanded greater accountability. Similarly, some African policymakers worry the Gulf’s preference for dealing with Horn countries bilaterally will limit states’ abilities to safeguard their interests in commercial and other transactions. There is strength in numbers; the states in the Horn could improve their negotiating position if they band together. Yet even constructive Gulf mediation efforts, for example between Ethiopia and Eritrea, or between Eritrea and Djibouti, have circumvented African institutions.

 An array of political leaders in the Horn also exploit the rivalries of the newly active middle powers in the region to advance their own goals. 

Despite the obvious advantage the Gulf powers enjoy due to their deep pockets, it would be a mistake to perceive their Horn partners as unwitting pawns on a chessboard dominated by outsiders. Somali politicians have expertly played external actors against one another for years, and the financial rewards from the Gulf have been immense: many of the country’s leaders have houses in Dubai, Doha or Istanbul. Since intra-Gulf rivalry is the fuel they use to secure funding, these politicians often have neither the capability nor the interest to limit conflict. Gulf monarchies’ preference for personalised rather than institutional foreign policy initiatives has created a playground for local politicians seeking to advance their personal agendas and wealth. Sudan’s al-Bashir is currently standing trial in Khartoum on charges of accepting $25 million during his tenure as president, funds he said he had received from the Saudi royal family.

An array of political leaders in the Horn also exploit the rivalries of the newly active middle powers in the region to advance their own goals. In Asmara, Afwerki, isolated and ostracised for years owing to his alleged support for the Somalia militant group Al-Shabaab, a frozen war with Eritrea’s larger neighbour Ethiopia and his regime’s brutal behaviour, has exploited his relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE (both of which resumed financial assistance to Asmara after he cut ties with Iran in 2016) to earn a rehabilitation of sorts. His decision to endorse an agreement ending the Ethiopian-Eritrean war offered his partners in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi the opportunity to successfully lobby for the lifting of UN sanctions, although he has since shut the border with Ethiopia and shown no signs of ending a widely despised regime of compulsory, sometimes lifelong military service, at home.

Others have sought to capitalise, too – sometimes constructively, otherwise less so. As outlined, the generals in Sudan have cultivated Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to try and extend their hold on power. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has tapped Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for much-needed funds while maintaining good ties with Qatar. Kenya, for its part, has reached out to Doha in an attempt to defuse a drawn-out maritime territorial row with Qatar’s allies in Mogadishu. Internally in Somalia, politicians and fixers of all stripes adroitly cultivate Gulf allies to earn millions of dollars by claiming they can help them win contracts or by positioning themselves as candidates likely to win an election.

Horn of Africa governments may be aware of this balance between risk and benefit, but Gulf aid is too irresistible for many cash-strapped and politically hamstrung states to pass up. At times, it is also the only option. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy, for example, turned to Gulf countries in part because he inherited a debt-driven economy with quickly evaporating currency reserves. Abiy initially sought financial aid from the U.S., but quickly realised that Washington was not in a position to provide the swift, nimble and ample funds he needed. Since accepting UAE grants, he has tried to balance Middle Eastern relations across political divides and limit his exposure to intra-Gulf rivalries. He sent a message to that effect by visiting Qatar and the UAE back-to-back in March 2019. Some officials later suggested Abiy had hoped his joint visits would dampen tensions between the Gulf rivals.

VII. A Better Way Forward

There is an active, yet relatively nascent debate about how to mitigate the pitfalls of increased Gulf and Turkish competition in the Horn. The options on the table thus far fall into two categories: improving multilateral organisations’ involvement in order to balance Horn-Gulf bargaining; and encouraging Gulf states and Turkey to modify their own behaviour in a way that preserves the stability they claim to seek.

A. Toward a More Unified Horn Position vis-à-vis the Gulf

Asymmetric relations between the Gulf and the Horn drive many, although not all, conflict risks. Thus, the ongoing policy debate in the Horn today focuses on how to improve states’ abilities to resist taking sides, most pointedly in the toxic Gulf dispute. Better multilateral engagement could strengthen the Horn’s collective voice in this regard. States, regional organisations, Western allies and analysts should focus on two questions: how to craft a common Horn bargaining position, and what forum would offer the best venue to voice those interests vis-à-vis the Gulf.

 A number of Horn leaders now argue their region needs a unified policy toward external involvement in order to level the playing field. 

A number of Horn leaders now argue their region needs a unified policy toward external involvement in order to level the playing field. The region could, for example, call for greater transparency in aid, commercial contracts and political engagements to obtain better information about the scope of deals agreed. It could insist on multilateral engagement, at least on certain issues, such as conflict mediation. So far, regional actors have widely varying views about how and how much to regulate interaction. Given these differences, most concrete policy discussions focus on the venue through which to advocate for Horn states’ interests.

One idea that has gained momentum is formation of a Red Sea Forum, a platform where all interested parties could share information and air concerns. The sub-region’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) is and should continue taking the lead. In April 2019, the organisation’s Committee of Ambassadors authorised a task force on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to draft “a common position” on the challenges and opportunities of geopolitics in the Red Sea corridor. For now, IGAD’s goal is to begin a conversation among its members to prepare itself for more productive engagement with Gulf actors.

Proponents hope the task force could eventually evolve into an organ within IGAD that would coordinate and set guidelines for economic, political and security ties with the Gulf. IGAD could eventually seek dialogue with its natural counterpart, the Gulf Cooperation Council, followed by broader conversations that include Turkey as well as global powers. In addition to IGAD’s effort, the AU’s High Implementation Panel, formerly focused on Sudan and South Sudan, has a mandate to investigate Red Sea competition. The UN appointed a special envoy to the Horn in March 2019 who is also following this debate closely. (Both the AU and UN agree that IGAD should sit in the driver’s seat for now. )

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have sought to become first movers on creating the architecture for regional negotiation, through the launch of their Red Sea Forum for Coastal States. Yet this grouping so far doesn’t include several key actors, such as Ethiopia, which is not a coastal state but nonetheless has huge influence in the Red Sea basin, as well as the UAE, Qatar and Turkey, which are further removed geographically. With its limited membership and Saudi- and Egyptian-led agenda, Horn countries view this grouping primarily as a venue through which to improve their ties with Riyadh and Cairo.

B. Limiting the Fallout from Intra-Gulf Rivalries in the Horn

With no easy or short-term fixes in sight, regional leaders and Western diplomats should seek to influence Gulf and Turkish thinking on the Horn to limit fallout from their unbridled competition. Currently, both sides of the intra-Gulf rift see their rivals as the primary threats to peace in the Red Sea corridor, while it is the rivalry itself that is generating the greatest risk of conflict.

As both Sudan’s transition and the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace agreement demonstrate, Gulf countries’ can channel their influence and investments constructively to peacefully end conflict. In Sudan, African and Western engagement with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi shifted the momentum from violence toward a more peaceful way forward. AU, U.S. and European officials worked for several months from April 2019 onward to convince Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that the military alone could not bring the crisis to an end. After dozens of private conversations, in June the UK effectively leveraged an existing four-country forum on Yemen to steer discussion toward Sudan. The four countries, the U.S., UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, subsequently corralled Sudan’s generals and protesters together to produce a breakthrough. Helping nudge along closed-door conversations, Saudi Arabia and the UAE faced significant negative press for their support to the military. As seen, widespread criticism after their close military allies massacred protesters on 3 June prompted both countries to change tactics.

Western countries, particularly the U.S. and UK, should work to ensure that Sudan remains a positive example, because the risks of relapse remain great. Indeed, neither Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi has fundamentally altered its insistence that the military retain ultimate control. Meanwhile, so long as Sudan retains its U.S. designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, the Gulf states are among the only significant donors able to support the transition economically, giving them leverage for the foreseeable future. Sudan’s civilian authorities and their Western allies should remain vigilant that the initial spirit of the transitional agreement – a gradual move toward civilian rule – endures, and remind Saudi Arabia and the UAE that Sudan can be a success story only if this is the case.

In Somalia, eighteen months of persistent diplomacy have yielded visible, if modest, signs of progress. At the height of tensions between Qatar and the UAE in March and April 2018, Western diplomats had only limited success in walking back the two states from their contrary positions.Yet over subsequent months, European and U.S. policymakers repeatedly emphasised the polarisation between a Doha-allied centre and an Abu Dhabi-allied periphery was undermining a decades-long investment in strengthening the Somali federal government. The UAE has somewhat softened its position toward Mogadishu and stated that it wants the central government to succeed. Qatar, for its part, maintains that the UAE should leave all of Somalia but has encouraged Mogadishu to seek reconciliation with the country’s regional leaders. These examples highlight the value of long-term conversations with Gulf and Turkish leaders about the havoc their rivalries can cause – and how to find ways to produce more peaceful outcomes.

VIII. Conclusion

Relationships between the oil-rich Gulf and the cash-poor Horn of Africa are expanding, offering opportunities and presenting risks that will reverberate for years to come. Gulf policymakers would do well to consider how regional competition and transactional political relationships stand to undermine their long-term stated interests in the Horn, including political stability and, with it, opportunities for investment. Even if intra-Gulf competition serves certain geopolitical interests today, it will almost certainly limit the Horn’s ability to develop and strengthen fragile states in the medium and longer term.

Conflict on one side of the Red Sea may well create instability on both coasts – a point that Gulf policymakers often make but fail to reflect in their actions. Today, it is Gulf states that are exporting instability, carrying their own spats to the Horn. If violence erupts, the Gulf could face blowback in the form of piracy, political violence, crime or refugees. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s preference for security states may quell street unrest in the short term (at a high cost of violence) but entrench grievances and exacerbate division in the long term setting the stage for far more destructive unrest down the road. Likewise, Qatar and Turkey’s support for Islamist groups may alienate segments of society or set the stage for a backlash against these same forces, particularly if they push to impose broad social change. More broadly, when Gulf states choose sides, it forces others within a society to do so as well, deepening divisions that could otherwise be bridged.

Riyadh/Abu Dhabi/Doha/Ankara/Nairobi/Addis Ababa/
Brussels, 19 September 2019

Appendix A: Military and Commercial Investment in the Horn


Appendix B: Diplomatic Presence in Africa by Region


Appendix C: Timeline of Key Events

2006: Djibouti grants Emirati company DP World a 30-year concession to manage and develop its Doraleh port.

2008: Eritrea grants Iran access to its Assab port.

April 2008: Ethiopia severs diplomatic relations with Qatar, over its ties with Eritrea.

21 March 2010: Turkey and Egypt co-chair a donor conference to raise pledges for reconstruction and development in Sudan’s Darfur region.

21-23 May 2010: Turkey hosts the First Istanbul Conference on Somalia.

June 2010: Following Qatari mediation, Eritrea and Djibouti sign an agreement toward resolving their border conflict. Qatar deploys military observers to the contested area to remain until the parties reach a final settlement.

19 August 2011: Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan visits Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, signalling Turkey’s intent to up its engagement.

1 November 2011: Turkey re-opens its embassy in Mogadishu, having closed it when the Somali state collapsed in 1991.

December 2011: Sudan and Qatar sign a range of cooperation agreements paving the way for Qatari investment in Sudan’s mining, banking, agriculture, medical technology and public utilities.

6 March 2012: Turkish Airlines starts direct flights between Istanbul and Mogadishu becoming the first major commercial airline to fly to Mogadishu in more than twenty years.

31 May-1 June 2012: Turkey hosts the Second Istanbul Conference on Somalia.

27 June 2012: Ethiopia signs a $1.7 billion deal with a Turkish construction company to build a railway line between Weldia in the north and Awash in the east.

5 November 2012: Ethiopia and Qatar resume diplomatic relations.

2013: Turkey opens an embassy in Djibouti.

15 September 2013: Turkish company Favori takes over manage­ment of Mogadishu international airport.

November 2013: Turkey opens an embassy in Eritrean capital, Asmara.

April 2014: Qatar injects $1 billion in Sudan’s central bank.

21 September 2014: Turkish company Albayrak Group takes over management of Mogadishu port.

2 November 2014: Sudan and Qatar sign a military agreement, including cooperation on training.

6 November 2014: Somalia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sign a memorandum of understanding to bolster military and security cooperation.

2015: Saudi Arabia injects $1 billion into Sudan’s central bank. Khartoum cuts ties with Iran and joins the war in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting on the side of the Yemeni government against Huthi rebels.

24 January 2015: Turkey and Djibouti agree to establish a 5 million square meters Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on the Red Sea.

28 April 2015: Djibouti revokes DP World’s contract to manage its Doraleh Container Terminal and declines to allow the Saudi-led coalition to use Djibouti-based facilities for its battle in Yemen.

29 April 2015: Eritrea signs a military cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia.

29 April 2015: The UAE leases Eritrea’s Assab port.

October 2015: Ethiopian officials visit Abu Dhabi requesting that the UAE focus on Berbera port in Somaliland rather than Assab in Eritrea.

October 2015: Djibouti restores Saudi Arabia’s access to its Camp Lemonnier in return for military equipment.

January 2016: Following the execution in Saudi Arabia of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and subsequent attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad in Iran, Riyadh cuts diplomatic ties with Tehran. Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea follow suit.

12 January 2016: Saudi Arabia pledges $50 million in aid to the Federal Government of Somalia on the same day that Mogadishu announces the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran.

February 2016: Djibouti and Sudan take part in joint military exercises in Saudi Arabia, along with eighteen other countries.

23 February 2016: Turkey hosts the Third High-Level Partnership Forum for Somalia.

3 June 2016: Turkey opens a new embassy in Mogadishu, its largest in the world.

5 September 2016: Somaliland signs a deal with DP World awarding it a 30-year concession to develop and manage Berbera port, to enter into force in March 2017.

18 January 2017: For the first time since the 1990s, a Saudi ambassador presents his credentials to the president of Somalia.

February 2017: Somaliland strikes an agreement with the UAE for the latter to develop a military facility alongside Berbera port.

April 2017: Sudanese and Saudi air forces conduct joint military drill near Sudanese city of Marawe.

6 April 2017: Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in Somalia, signs a deal with UAE-based P&O Ports, a fully-owned subsidiary of DP World, to develop and manage its Bosaso port.

26 April 2017: Saudi Arabia and Djibouti sign a military cooperation agreement, paving the way for the construction of a Saudi military base.

June 2017: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and allied states break off ties with Qatar and impose on it an air and land blockade, accusing it of backing Islamist militants and Iran. Eritrea expresses support for the blockade, while Djibouti downgrades diplomatic relations with Qatar. In response, Qatar withdraws its military observers from the two countries’ contested border area.

7 June 2017: Despite pressure from Saudi Arabia, Somalia declines to cut ties with Qatar, calling for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. The Somali regions of Galmudug, Puntland and Hirshabelle issue statements in support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, criticising Mogadishu’s stance.

26 August 2017: Saudi Arabia pledges $250 million in aid to Djibouti for the relief of Yemeni refugees.

30 September 2017: In Mogadishu, Turkey opens its biggest overseas military base and its first in Africa.

28 November 2017: Qatar and Somalia sign a $200 million infrastructure and job creation agreement.

24 December 2017: First visit of a Turkish head of state to Sudan since it gained independence in 1956.

26 December 2017: Sudan awards Turkey a 99-year lease of its port on Suakin island. Besides the port’s reha­bil­i­ta­tion, the deal includes plans to build a docking facility for civilian and military vessels. The parties also agree that Turkish forces will be stationed at Port Sudan to provide Sudanese forces with counter-terrorism training.

22 February 2018: Djibouti unilaterally terminates DP World’s contract to run Doraleh container terminal, seizes assets and forces its employees to leave.

March 2018: Qatar signs agreement with Sudan to jointly develop the commercial port of Suakin.

1 March 2018: Somaliland signs a new agreement with DP World for the development and management of Berbera port, this time including Ethiopia, which is to have a 19 per cent stake.

4 March 2018: Somaliland and DP World finalise a contract for a greenfield economic free zone near the port of Berbera.

8 April 2018: The Somali federal government confiscates $9.6 million in cash at Mogadishu airport from a UAE plane. The UAE says the funds were intended for a military training program. Shortly after, it halts military cooperation with the federal government, and pulls its troops from Mogadishu.

14 May 2018: Somali President Farmajo visits Doha on an official state visit.

15 June 2018: UAE pledges $3 billion of investment in Ethiopia, including $1 billion in currency support.

24 July 2018: After the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea finalise their peace agreement, they receive the Order of Zayed award in Abu Dhabi.

2 Aug 2018: Adjudicating the dispute between Djibouti and DP World, the London Court of International Arbitration rules in favour of DP World, deciding that existing contracts are still in force.

September 2018: Saudi and Sudanese militaries conduct joint military exercises in Saudi Arabia.

10 September 2018: Djibouti announces it has nationalised the Doraleh terminal. DP World files for an injunction with the London Court of International Arbitration.

11 September 2018: Turkey and Sudan sign a $100 million oil exploration deal and an agreement that reserves agricultural land in Sudan for Turkish companies.

16 September 2018: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki sign a further peace agreement at a summit hosted by Saudi King Salman.

18 September 2018: Saudi Arabia hosts talks between Djibouti and Eritrea aimed at the settlement of their territorial dispute.

October 2018: Turkish construction company Summa announces it will start building a new airport in Sudanese capital Khartoum in 2019.

December 2018: Qatar announces an agreement with Somalia to begin construction of the Hobyo port and several memoranda of understanding to bolster economic, fiscal and commercial cooperation.

12 December 2018: Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan agree in Riyadh to establish a multilateral entity for economic, political and security cooperation in the Red Sea.

December 2018: Turkey appoints former ambassador to Somalia Dr Olgan Bekar as Special Envoy for Somalia and Somaliland talks.

January 2019: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt conduct joint naval exercise.

17 January 2019: Qatar donates 68 armoured vehicles to the Somali federal government.

February 2019: Saudi Arabia and Sudan conduct joint maritime exercise at Port Sudan.

April 2019: Following the ouster of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledge to put $500 million into Sudan’s central bank and contribute $2.5 billion in other aid.

4 April 2019: The London Court of Arbitration orders Djibouti to pay Doraleh Container Terminal, partially owned by DP World, $385 million plus interest for a breach of exclusivity.



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