The Horn of Africa, one of the most geostrategic regions in the world, has strong ties with the Arab world. Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing Qatar of funding terrorist groups, and supporting Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the region. If this crisis is left to fester, it will have devastating consequences for nations in the Horn of Africa.
The Horn of Africa, according to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), comprises of eight countries including Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda). Countries in this region are more or less linked to other states in the Gulf region through historic, economic, cultural and political interdependencies. This makes this region vulnerable and easily affected by any political, economical and religious metamorphosis that unfolds in the Gulf and the Middle East at large.
The Horn of Africa is one of the most geostrategic regions in the world for the reason of its location along the Bab-el-Mandeb strait which links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea. In a larger perspective, one can deduce that the region strategically hosts one of the two maritime checkpoints that link Europe with South, Southeast, and East Asia. All sea-bound trade between the EU and these niches of Eurasia transit through this narrow passage of the Bab-el-Mandeb. This makes the hegemony over the sea route a heightened accolade for any power or combination of powers. It is for this reason that most powers have hastened their navies to the region over the past decade purportedly to “combat piracy”.
The Horn of Africa, exclusive of Ethiopia, was mainly colonized by European powers at the end of the nineteenth century and was divided between the French, British and the Italians. Djibouti was designated French Somaliland in 1885. British Somaliland included the region of the Gulf of Aden, and Italian Somaliland included control of the region nearest the Indian Ocean, as well as the Red Sea colony of Eritrea.
Eritrea shares a 640-mile boundary with its Horn of Africa neighbor, Ethiopia, from whom it gained independence only in 1991. The two countries fought a bloody two-year war over boundaries between 1998 and 2000. Since then bilateral relations between the two neighbors have been characterized as a “no war, no peace” situation. Until 1991, Eritrea was considered an autonomous region within Ethiopia. The latter’s decision to attempt to annex the former in 1961 sparked a 30-year independence war. Against a much-larger and better-equipped Ethiopian army, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front won the war and toppled Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam, with the assistance of Ethiopian rebels. Eritrea was recognized as an independent state by the international community in 1993 following a United Nations-backed referendum in favor of independence.
Djibouti-Eritrea relations have been characterized by intermittent spews resulting from the unclear border lines and regional politics. The first time the border issue came to light was in 1996 when Djibouti accused Eritrea of producing a map that included part of Djiboutian territory. After Eritrea responding to the accusations as a mere misunderstanding, the dispute seemed to fade away.
In an effort to flex its diplomatic muscles and at the same time provide geostrategic security, the government of Qatar extended mediation services to the two countries which they accepted and the border dispute was settled through the Qatari mediation process in the 2010 before its rival Gulf Arab nations stationed their troops in both African countries, with the intention of using them as a jumping-off point for the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen.
In a very misjudged and unprecedented move, Djibouti and Eritrea joined a group of GCC nations led by Saudi Arabia that have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing Qatar of funding terrorist groups, including the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) - accusations that Qatar strongly denies - and supporting Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the region. These actions by Eritrea and Djibouti against Qatar consequently, as a vengeance provoked the state of Qatar to pull out its troops from the contested Dumeira Mountain and Dumeira Islands co-claimed by Djibouti and Eritrea. With Eritrea moving its forces into the contested border area, the temperature of the conflict has been increased and the situation is now more explosive than ever before, for all actors involved. The potential fallout of the crisis could have ripple waves spiraling out of the border dispute to the much larger vulnerable regions of the Horn of Africa at a time when the region is facing a massive humanitarian crisis.
Somalia though maintained a neutral stance and offered the will and readiness to mediate the conflicting brotherly nations in the Gulf, while demonstrating friendship with both blocs, Qatari Air carriers significantly increased their flights over the Somali airspace after four Arab nations blocked the airline from accessing their air spaces, a move that did not go well with the Saudi-led Arab nations that blockaded Qatar. Also a Somali government delegation reached Riyadh in the first days of the crisis. The delegation was supposed to discuss with their Saudi counterparts the execution of several high profile projects which Saudis pledged in support for the new government of Somalia. Somali media sources claim that the delegation did not receive a cordial reception from the Saudi government, enough a gesture that forced the Somali government to reduce its ministerial level delegation to Saudi and instead dispatched permanent secretaries to Riyadh to meet Saudi officials. Thanks to the neutrality Somalia demonstrated in the crisis.
In an equal demonstration of unease with the Somali attitude towards the Saudi-led Arab nations, the government of UAE, a leading power in the Somali state reconstruction efforts that trained a good number of Somali soldiers, recalled its ambassador to Mogadishu and expelled a Somali competitor in the International Dubai Qur’an Award competition, in protest at Somalia's neutral stance in the ongoing Middle East crisis.
More sanctions by the Saudis and the Emiratis intended to punish the weak federal government of Somalia can be expected including the halting of the security and stability supports initially provided by the Arab giants in their efforts to help Somalia build its national institutions. Arab support could also be extended to the secessionist authorities of Somaliland, which would undoubtedly become a nightmare to the sovereignty of the Federal government of Somalia.
Adding insults to the injury, the spillover effects of the Gulf crisis has currently been felt beyond the borders of the Gulf states and has automatically melted towards the already troubled Horn of Africa region. It’s upon the humanitarian and security actors in the Horn of Africa to mobilize diplomatic efforts to resolve or mitigate the Gulf crisis before the situation climaxes into the escalation of a humanitarian catastrophe in the already conflict pregnable greater Horn of Africa.
* ABDI ADAN TAWANE is a Researcher, writer and analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes regions. Email: email@example.com