The Gulf crisis that began last year appears to be living by reverse Las Vegas rules: What happens in the Gulf doesn’t stay in (or even have much impact on) the Gulf. Last June, a Saudi-led coalition cut off relations with and imposed a blockade on Qatar, invoking various and shifting rationales—Qatar was, allegedly, supporting terrorist groups, interfering in Saudi internal affairs, and displaying excessive closeness to Iran. Little progress been made in resolving the dispute, and all parties seem ready to withstand it for the foreseeable future. Qatar of course would much prefer to see its foes lift their blockade. Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates, are eager to have their neighbor curb its independent foreign-policy streak. On the whole, though, both sides have learned to live with a dispute that has become part of their habitual scenery.
But reverse Vegas rules means also this: What happens in the Gulf is increasingly having destabilizing and dangerous effects elsewhere. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Somalia.
I witnessed this last month when I landed in its capital, Mogadishu. After decades of civil war, I expected to find a bombed-out, militarized shell of a once great coastal city. Mogadishu is still plagued by violence; last October 2017, 600 people were killed by one of the deadliest truck bombs in history. Still, signs of progress abound: Streetlights function, food stalls overflow with produce, shops burst with merchandise, tuk-tuks weave in and out of traffic, people gather on the capital’s beaches, new buildings are under construction, and old buildings are being restored.
Yet this fragile progress is now under threat from an unlikely source. Rivalries among Gulf powers have spilled into the Horn of Africa.
Since Somalia’s central government collapsed in the early 1990s, civil war has gripped the country for nearly three decades in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. In 2006, al-Shabaab, a jihadist insurgent movement that later became affiliated with al-Qaeda, emerged and occupied swaths of the country, including much of the capital. A famine in 2010 that killed more than a quarter of a million Somalis was made worse by al-Shabaab’s grip on the south-central region of the country. It took until 2011, after the deployment of African Union forces, for al-Shabaab’s gains to be reversed, as African Union and Somali operations pushed the movement out of Mogadishu and began the slow process of stabilizing the country.
True, enormous challenges remained. Reconciling and allocating power and resources among Somalia’s fractious clans, and between Mogadishu and Somalia’s regions, or federal states, has proved an uphill and uneven struggle. So too has building security forces, which are often little more than an assortment of militias whose primary loyalty is to clans as opposed to any formal chain of command. Al-Shabaab proved resilient, often being a better service provider and revenue generator than the graft-ridden government. Overall, though, the general direction of the country appeared positive. The 2017 election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, who enjoyed support from across Somalia’s clans, was further cause for hope.
The Gulf crisis that began last June, however, has brought another layer of complexity and strife. I hardly expected the Middle East to dominate discussions with officials in the Horn of Africa. But in all my meetings, whether with the Somali prime minister, the national planning minister, the president’s national-security adviser, civil-society leaders—or indeed African officials and Western diplomats in the Ethiopian and Kenyan capitals—the overriding theme was how the rivalry between Qatar and other Gulf countries, specifically the United Arab Emirates, would affect Somalia and the Horn of Africa more broadly.
In the wake of the crisis, and reportedly under pressure from Gulf powers to pick sides, President Farmajo declared that he wanted to keep Somalia out of the fray. The U.A.E. didn’t buy it. It considered several of Farmajo’s appointments too close to Qatar and thus at odds with his professions of neutrality. In response, the U.A.E. appears to have doubled down on its support not only for competing Somali factions but also for Somalia’s federal states. In turn, Farmajo’s government, angered at what it views as attempts to undermine its authority, has cracked down on rivals, often using their alleged ties to the U.A.E. as pretext.
The Somali government’s confiscation in April of more than $9 million from an Emirati plane at Mogadishu’s airport brought the crisis to a boil. The government cites the cash as evidence of Emirati meddling. The U.A.E. denies the charge and argues the money was destined for Somali forces whose salaries it has long been paying. Regardless, the dispute has had destructive ripple effects. The U.A.E. cut off aid programs and withdrew personnel from the capital. The rift has exacerbated intra-Somali disputes, particularly between the Farmajo government and federal states. It is deepening the Somali state’s dysfunction—arguably the main reason al-Shabaab remains a threat—and risks allowing the group to muster further strength, despite thousands of lives and billions of dollars spent combatting it.
Not all of Somalia’s challenges can be laid at the Gulf’s doorstep. For years, the Gulf monarchies’ aid and investment has been a lifeline for many Somalis. Nor are Somali elites, long adept at navigating foreign clientelism, helpless victims. They often have been as skillful at manipulating foreigners as foreigners have been at manipulating them.
But rivalries among Gulf powers—which are increasingly on display in the fraught jockeying for influence around the Red Sea and in the Horn of Africa—have brought a dangerous new twist to Somalia’s instability. It’s not too late for all to take a step back: for Mogadishu to adhere to a position of strict neutrality between Qatar and the U.A.E. and to repair its troubled relations with the federal states; for Gulf countries to cease meddling in Somalia’s domestic politics; and for Somalia’s various actors to stop exploiting for their own ends Gulf states’ economic or strategic interest in their country.
None of that would put an end to Somalia’s long-running and tragic conflict. Even without Gulf meddling, efforts to stabilize the country, curtail the threat from al-Shabaab, reconcile clans, and overcome center–periphery tensions still face a hard and long slog. But if richer, more powerful states treat the country as an expendable battleground, and if they and Somali factions pursue a form of zero-sum competition ill-suited to the country’s fractious and multipolar politics, the bloodshed and discord that have long blighted Somalia risk taking an even darker turn.