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Eritrea for mobile viewing Gulf Rivalries Extend Into the Horn of Africa, Further Destabilizing Somalia

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Date: Friday, 29 June 2018
Workers at a trading facility for charcoal from Somalia, in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 5, 2013 (AP photo by Kamran Jebreili).
Friday, June 29, 2018

The bitter Arab rivalry in the Persian Gulf is reshaping traditional spheres of influence and exacerbating fault lines farther south, in the Horn of Africa, the continent’s most volatile region. The spat between fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which began a year ago when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led an embargo of neighboring Qatar that shows no sign of ending, has sparked frantic diplomatic and economic activity across the Red Sea, with serious security consequences.

Thrust center-stage into these changing political geographies is Somalia, among the world’s poorest and most conflict-prone countries. The fragile nation, fighting a terrorist insurgency and rebuilding after state collapse and civil war in 1991, has been caught between the UAE and Qatar, as well as Qatar’s close partner, Turkey. While the Western-led international community is simply urging Somali leaders to work together for the common good, proxy contests and regional feuds are playing out in a scramble for resources, influence and prestige.

The International Crisis Group warned in a report this month that the ongoing Gulf spat has “added a dangerous new twist to Somalia’s instability.” Gulf countries have already been asserting more influence in the Horn of Africa with their checkbooks. Gulf investments in the region totaled some $13 billion between 2000 and 2017, according to another recent report by Jos Meester, Willem van den Berg and Harry Verhoeven for Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

While a majority of that Gulf money has gone to Ethiopia and Sudan, for agriculture and manufacturing, smaller sums have been channeled to Somalia, mostly to the political elite. Recent political infighting in Somalia over Gulf patronage has split the county into rival camps, with most of Somalia’s six federal member states aligning with the UAE. The central government in Mogadishu has maintained a formally neutral stance, but to some that is seen as tacit support for Qatar and, by extension, Turkey. These internal divisions, stoked from abroad, threaten Somalia’s haphazard process of building a federal state and undermine its already weak government institutions. It is unclear if Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known to Somalis as Farmajo, will be able to navigate the current turmoil.

Somalia’s ties with the Gulf and the rest of Arab world go back centuries, with waves of migration and trade across the Gulf of Aden. But while the recent uptick in Gulf money may bring economic opportunities to Somalia, it is also perpetuating a spiral of cronyism and corruption. That includes propping up the illicit sale of charcoal, which is both environmentally damaging to Somalia and has often been tied to terrorist financing. Despite being banned in 2012 by a United Nations Security Council resolution, and nominally by Somalia’s government, the charcoal trade is thriving in the absence of viable economic alternatives for Somalis. Gulf money is fueling the trade.

The United Nations’ Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, along with Interpol and NGOs like Journalists for Justice, have all highlighted Somalia’s continued export of charcoal to Gulf states. Somalia’s aromatic, slow-growing acacia trees produce the charcoal of preference in the Gulf, where grilled meat and shisha tobacco drive up demand for the dirty fuel, securing prices fourfold what Somali charcoal producers would get domestically.

According to a U.N. report in November 2017, the wholesale export market of charcoal was worth $120 million, and conservative estimates suggest that al-Shabab, the Somalia-based al-Qaida affiliate, earns at least $10 million a year from taxing and producing charcoal. Gulf states are, in effect, funding both sides of a conflict in Somalia, as the UAE perversely spends tens of millions of dollars every year training and paying the Somali National Army to fight al-Shabab, while also operating as the main trading hub for charcoal across the Gulf. In 2016, the U.N.’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group said that the charcoal trade was worth $250 million, a figure similar to Somalia’s annual budget.

It is unclear if Somalia’s president will be able to navigate the current diplomatic turmoil.

The European Union has spent more than 1.5 billion euros over the past decade funding AMISOM, the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia that supports the fight against al-Shabab, yet Kenyan soldiers attached to the mission are also allegedly benefiting from the industry. Similar to how opium in Afghanistan has created a narco-state and helped finance the Taliban, Somalia’s charcoal trade directly funds some regional government administrations, such as Jubbaland in southern Somalia, including their security forces, which are supposed to be fighting al-Shabab.

The charcoal trade contributes to a complex political economy in Somalia. Rather than fuel it, will Gulf states bear the responsibility of mitigating the damage caused by the charcoal trade, both to Somalia’s environment and security? With their oil- and gas-funded largesse, rivals like the UAE and Qatar could focus much-needed investment into projects targeting Somalia’s decimated savanna and acacia forests. At the same time, Somalia’s local or regional powerbrokers could be offered alternative revenue sources, or direct financial incentives, to stop the charcoal trade or enforce the export ban.

No one expects a miracle cure. But similar to schemes in the Sahel, the World Bank and other multilateral international institutions could capitalize on Somalia’s push for debt forgiveness by linking debt-relief conditions to eradicating the charcoal trade or establishing economic alternatives.

Beyond cash and charcoal, Gulf influence in Somalia and the region follows more insipid, soft-power routes. Saudi Arabia began aggressively funding Salafist scholars and conservative Sunni Muslim organizations in the Horn of Africa to counter Iran’s influence after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Much of Qatar’s aid and assistance to Somalia flows through individual charities or supports hospitals and Islamic schools that fill the gap of a formal education system. Hundreds of thousands of workers every year travel to the Gulf as domestic help, drivers and laborers, creating an economic lifeline back home; they often return to Somalia having embraced a more conservative version of Islam.

At the same time, Turkey, promoting its own Islamic credentials, has made Somalia its largest recipient of aid in Africa, giving a billion dollars in assistance since 2011. Qatar and Turkey’s close ties, perceived as promoting political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, which both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have designated a terrorist organization, have potential security consequences in Somalia for the U.S. and regional interests. Their influence is believed to be benefiting former leaders of al-Shabab and other well-known Islamists who are loosely coalescing around a new movement, known as “al-Citisam,” or “those who seek protection,” which has caught the attention of Western intelligence and security agencies.

Landlocked Ethiopia, the regional hegemon that is aligned with the UAE, which earlier this month pledged $3 billion in aid and investment to prop up the Ethiopian economy, is closely watching developments in Mogadishu. An estimated third of Ethiopia’s 104 million people are Muslim, many of whom share a close kinship with Somalia and feel disenfranchised from the strong-arm rule in Addis Ababa.

As Western influence wanes in the Horn of Africa, these clashing visions of how to engage with the region, from rival Gulf states to Turkey, will only intensify, threatening the unity of Somalia most of all.

Ilya Gridneff is a Somalia analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. He was previously an East Africa correspondent for Bloomberg and has also reported for The Associated Press.
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