Growing competition among Middle Eastern powers – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE – has forced almost all of them to establish their influence beyond the Gulf region and look for allies elsewhere. For almost all of these states, Africa is the best destination, not only because the continent is well poised to develop fast economically, but also because rival states in the Gulf region see the Red Sea corridor as a new arena of geo-political competition, with all of them eyeing the Horn of Africa basin as a strategic territory that can yield potential geo-economic and geo-political advantages in the long-term to advance their big- power-status. The nature of their engagement is far from playing mere mediatory roles in inter and intra-state conflicts, like the one the UAE played in the 2018 Ethiopia-Eritrea peace accord, or Turkey has been playing in the Somalia-Somaliland talks. While such presence as mediators does allow Middle Eastern states to position themselves as crucial interlocuters, the nature of these states’ engagement with African states has already expanded enough to become an intense geo-politically driven power struggle. The downside of this increasing engagement of the Middle Eastern states with Africa is that the former comes with a heavy baggage of political and ideological rivalries and that these rivalries could graft themselves onto the existing inter and intra state conflicts in Africa.
Competition among Middle Eastern states is already forcing some of the states in Africa to follow often mutually conflicting policies. For example, whereas Saudi Arabia and the UAE view civil movements as something to be forcefully controlled to prevent the region from becoming a fertile ground for rival Shia or Muslim Brotherhood ideologies to grow, Turkey and Qatar see in these movements a potential to rise to power and protect their interests. The ideological rivalry is making states in the Horn of Africa not only to accommodate conflicting interests, but also to choose sides between the mutually competing interests.
For instance, in 2015 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 addition to it, Sudan also agreed to send forces to aid the coalition’s war effort in Yemen, while Eritrea leased a military base near the port of Assab to the UAE.
Furthermore, in Somalia and Somaliland conflict, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey have been supporting the two opposing sides as a means to make them gravitate towards them for a better protection of their interests. For instance, whereas the UAE has been taking steps to further cement the self-declared sovereign position of Somaliland, the Turkey backed Somalia sees the UAE’s steps as destabilising.
For instance, when the UAE recently appointed Muhammad al-Naqbi as director of the UAE Trade office in Somaliland, Mogadishu saw this as a move to undermine Somalian sovereignty. While the UAE may not be looking to recognise Somaliland as a “separate state”, there is no gainsaying that the UAE is looking to use Somaliland as a tactic to pressurise the central government of Somalia into reversing its ties with both Turkey and Qatar.
Accordingly, the UAE’s support for and investment in Berbera, the capital of Somaliland, is aimed at strengthening its position vis-à-vis Qatar’s Hobyo seaport project that it has been building since 2019 with a view to establishing a strong foothold in the Red Sea near the Gulf of Aden. Accordingly, whereas the UAE has extended a tacit recognition to Berbera, Qatar has been building a new embassy in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, as a means to signal its support for the mainland Somalia after years of violent conflict. Qatar’s is planned to be the second largest embassy in Somalia; the largest is the Turkish embassy, which is an indication of a strong Turkish presence in the same country where two ideological rivals are already competing.
Whereas Qatar is developing Hobyo seaport, and the UAE has signed a 30-year contracts with Somaliland to manage and expand the post at Berbera, Turkish companies recently signed a 14-year contract to manage operate and rehabilitate the port of Mogadishu.
Therefore, with the UAE gradually deepening its ties with the self-declared sovereign state of Somaliland, its rivalry with Qatar and Turkey will sharpen considerably, which will leave a significant impact on Somalia itself.
For reasons not difficult to understands, the fact that countries in the Horn of Africa are increasingly getting trapped in the Middle Eastern rivalries shows how the relationship between the Horn and the Middle East is deeply asymmetrical.
The rivalry between the UAE and Turkey/Qatar bloc is also grounded in the different expressions of Islam they practice and preach. Accordingly, states that practise Wahhabi Islam like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been building mosques and monasteries in the Horn to spread their message. This is also true of Turkey which has spent millions to turn African countries to the expression of Islam it follows.
The fact that both Qatar and Turkey have a soft corner for Muslim Brotherhood and that they cooperated with each other when Saudi Arabia and other countries imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2015 has made Qatar increasingly cooperate with Turkey in the Horn as well. 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.
As such, with the UAE and Saudia aligned on one side and with Qatar and Turkey aligned on the other, there is little gainsaying that Middle Eastern states’ quest for power and influence in Africa, especially along the Red Sea, is fraught with dangers of exporting their rivalries to Africa.
For many African states, therefore, the challenge is not only to maintain a balance between these mutually competing interests, but also to avoid getting trapped in rivalries that have brought so much misery and armed conflict to many states in the Middle East.
As it stands, even if these states do not provoke violence, Gulf rivalries risk weakening the Horn governments and undermining their ability to manage conflict if and when it arises. Instead of helping mediate conflicts, Middle Eastern rivals would most likely end up supporting rival factions to secure their political ascendance, something they have been doing in Yemen, Libya, Syria and even Iraq for the past many years.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.