Date: Thursday, 22 June 2017
As soon as the Arab row with Qatar erupted, some countries in the Horn of Africa jumped on the bandwagon in support of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in confrontation with Doha, while others waited on the sidelines observing the scene. Others still called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and then went silent.
Although one of the key countries boycotting Qatar is Egypt, an African country, the dispute between Doha and Cairo is longstanding since the beginning of this century and is triggered by Arab, not African, issues. Tensions eased slightly after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Cairo after the 25 January Revolution, but blew up again after the 30 June Revolution. In the ongoing dispute, some Horn of Africa countries are siding with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain against Qatar, while others are taking stock of the complex situation.
Although — or because — Horn of Africa countries are closer to Gulf countries, countries on the African coast (Niger, Mali, Chad, Senegal and Mauritania), or even OPEC members such as Gabon, have not severed ties or downgraded diplomatic representation in Doha. Eritrea was the first to describe the move by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain as “a step in the right direction”, but it did not sever ties with Doha. However, it did not risk losing a strong ally such as UAE, since Abu Dhabi leases part of Assab Port (non-active) and a small airport which it transformed into an airbase, reportedly used in the war on Yemen.
For many years, Eritrea was accused of supporting the Somali terrorist group Shabab Al-Mujahideen which targets its arch enemy Ethiopia. Addis Ababa succeeded in isolating Asmara and putting it under siege for many years under this pretext. At the same time, for more than a decade Eritrea has served as a safe haven for Sudanese opposition against Muslim Brotherhood rule in Khartoum.
Eritrea took advantage of the war in Yemen, on the one hand, and the boycott of Doha, on the other, to end its isolation and invalidate Ethiopia’s accusation that it supports Shabab terrorism. Meanwhile, the government of the small Eastern African country of Djibouti said Eritrea has occupied disputed territories between the two countries, as soon as Qatari troops withdrew from patrolling their border after Doha mediated between the two. Djibouti’s accusations against Eritrea appear to echo the Gulf-Qatar dispute, but others believe the quarrel between Djibouti and Asmara predates the Doha boycott.
Djibouti, Ethiopia’s close ally, will follow any directions from Addis Ababa since Djibouti almost entirely relies on the fact it is Ethiopia’s sole sea access to the world. So far, Addis Ababa has not taken a position on the conflict; it does not want to be in the same camp as Asmara, but if it does not boycott Qatar it will lose Saudi and UAE support, which Doha could not match under any circumstances. For a long time, it has suffered from terrorism that Qatar is accused of supporting, and if Qatar stops this support, Ethiopia would be able to catch its breath, gain tangible Gulf support, and reach consensus with Egypt.
Although this crisis will bring its rival Eritrea out of isolation, it could help it reach a peace agreement — even if temporary — that eases tensions in the Horn of Africa. In fact, the region could stabilise completely if Somalia joins the anti-Qatar camp, which gives political cover for everyone to participate in annihilating Shabab Al-Mujahideen.
At the same time, some in East Africa are calling on bickering parties to sit and talk, such as Somalia and Sudan. Somalia urged disputing parties to talk, but that is not all. Newly elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo is facing serious challenges in Somalia’s foreign relations. For nearly three decades, Somalia suffered a civil war that caused the state to collapse, and provinces to secede unilaterally and form independent states that are neither recognised regionally nor globally.
According to Somali journalist Abdi Latif Daher, Somalia has received humanitarian aid from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, and the three Gulf states have contributed to infrastructure projects in the past. Daher added there are rumours in Mogadishu that Qatar has several politicians in its pocket and funded Farmajo’s campaign, pointing to the fact that the president-elect appointed Fahd Yassin, a former Al-Jazeera correspondent in Somalia, as his chief of staff. According to Daher, Yassin began talks with Qataris to fund Farmajo’s campaign.
Some members of parliament want Mogadishu to remain neutral in the crisis and not tow the Saudi line, as former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamed did, according to a tweet by MP Abduli Kenyari. Riyadh is likely to view this opinion as siding with Doha.
Mogadishu sided with Riyadh when it boycotted Iran after attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad after the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nemr Al-Nemr for terrorist activities. Due to Mogadishu’s neutral position, Qatar Airlines diverted its flights via Somali air space after several Gulf countries banned Qatari vessels by air, sea and land.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that 15 flights were diverted to Somali air space, which is one or more flights than the day before. In Sudan, which holds a similar position as Somalia, the Foreign Ministry called on arguing parties to talk to each other. Khartoum has a special relationship with Doha that has frequently mediated between the Sudanese government and the armed opposition in Darfur, albeit to little avail. At the same time, Sudan’s government is controlled by Islamists since the coup that brought President Omar Al-Bashir to power.
These ideological ties keep the two close while traditional Sudanese political parties lean towards political Islam ideology (the Umma Party led by Al-Sadek Al-Mahdi and the Unionist Party led by Othman Al-Mirghani). Some of these parties are members in the new cabinet, which draws Sudan even closer to Qatar. The secretary-general of the Popular Congress Party, created by Turabi after defecting from Al-Bashir in 2000, which is now sharing power in Khartoum, said: “Qatar supports resistance and Hamas should not be categorised as terrorist.” He criticised Arab Gulf criteria in categorising some groups as terrorist.
Qatar is also a key economic supporter of Sudan, something Khartoum cannot do without. Meanwhile, Sudan has in recent years developed strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and participated in the war on Yemen as part of what is known as the “Arab coalition” led by Riyadh. Al-Bashir’s government severed ties with Iran at the time that Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran came under attack. Khartoum had been a strong ally of Tehran throughout the 1990s, but its crisis resulting from the secession of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011 left the north without any real resources. Thus, Sudan focused on improving relations with Saudi Arabia.
Sudanese observers are worried that Khartoum will once again stand with the losing side in the crisis, just like it stood with Iraq in 1990 during the latter’s invasion of Kuwait. At the time, this cost Sudan much needed Gulf assistance.