UAE Expands its Influence in the Horn of Africa
The UAE has significantly increased its engagement in the Horn of Africa over the past several years, using security, development, and humanitarian projects to boost its regional diplomatic and economic influence. Some of these efforts have proved rather fruitful, such as the UAE’s role in ending the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea while securing a deal to build an oil pipeline between the two countries. However, other efforts have come with significant complications, most notably in Somalia, where Abu Dhabi is vying for influence and upsetting the fragile political balance between Mogadishu and the semiautonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland.
The UAE has long had a strategic interest in Somalia and has worked to establish a string of ports across its strategically located coastline. The country trained thousands of Somali soldiers between 2014-2018 (Al Arabiya, April 16, 2018). The fragmented nature of Somalia’s territories, however, has proven difficult for Abu Dhabi to navigate. The UAE’s strategic interests cover the internationally recognized Somali state and the semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland. From its former training mission in Mogadishu to the Port of Bossaso in Puntland and the Port of Berbera in Somaliland, the Emiratis have attempted to spread influence across Somalia while tying to navigate the complex national politics.
The tensions created by this approach, as well as the UAE’s anti-Qatar stance, have slowly eroded Abu Dhabi’s ability to bring many of its projects to fruition and has seen diplomatic tensions with Mogadishu continuously increase. Tensions between Mogadishu and Abu Dhabi have continued to create a larger window of opportunity for the UAE’s rivals, Qatar and Turkey, and have necessitated a shift that will see Turkey and the UAE continue to bolster opposing Somali governments and fuel other regional tensions.
The Port of Berbera is particularly emblematic of the Somali-Somaliland and UAE-Turkey competition. In early June, Somalia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Isse Awad accused Dubai-based DP World of stoking internal divisions and creating unity challenges between Somalia and the semiautonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland (Garowe Online, June 9). The government of Somaliland, however, responded to the comments, urging Somalia to stay out of its internal affairs and the development of the Port of Berbera—a key development project for Somaliland and a point of contention for Mogadishu.
The Port of Berbera has also pulled Ethiopia into the mix, as the port is the terminus of the UAE-funded Addis Ababa-Berbera highway, which connects landlocked Ethiopia to the Gulf of Aden. In a move that deeply unsettled Mogadishu, DP World made a deal to give a 19 percent stake in the port project to Ethiopia. The project will make Berbera a significant regional hub inextricably linked to Ethiopia’s economy, granting Somaliland some implicit legitimacy and independence. The first 12 kilometers of the highway was inaugurated on June 1, just four months after Addis Ababa, with Turkish and Qatari sponsorship, hosted talks between the governments of Somalia and Somaliland (Africa News, February 11). The leaders of Somalia and Somaliland met again in Djibouti on June 14, with Ethiopia’s prime minister in attendance.
Ankara and Abu Dhabi’s divergent interests have not only placed the governments of Somalia and Somaliland in a complicated position, but have also placed Ethiopia between Qatar and Turkey on the one side and the UAE on the other. Qatar and Turkey have pushed for influence in the region, and have urged Addis Ababa to mediate between Somalia and Somaliland. At the same time, however, the UAE has invested heavily in Ethiopia and has helped open significant economic opportunity for the country. As a result, Addis Ababa will need to strike a delicate balance between its support for Somalia and its acknowledgement of Somaliland’s desire for independence.