Date: Friday, 29 June 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.
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.
It is unclear if Somalia’s president will be able to navigate the current diplomatic turmoil.