Since the Saudi-led coalition imposed an embargo on Qatar on 5th June, pressure is mounting on Somalia’s government to take sides in the rift and abandon its neutrality. Certainly, the timing of this Gulf stalemate was bad for Somalia. A new president, Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo was elected in February this year, bringing hope to Somalia and prompting months of jubilation across the nation unseen in the last two decades.
Mohammed Farmajo, a US citizen and an unknown figure, became a Prime Minister in 2010 and immediately rose to prominence gaining the hearts of Somali people for his policies of fighting rampant corruption and paying security forces but he also gained the animosity of some figures in his government that were loyal to the parliament speaker who was in power dispute with the President.
After months of political stalemate, a UN brokered political settlement in Uganda forced Farmajo either to accept the outcome or resign as PM. As a man of principle, he chose the later and stepped down provoking public protests and he returned to the United States for his own security. Subsequent attempts to tarnish his image after leaving office failed to undermine his public support and he returned to Somalia early this year to run for president, which he has won in a landslide victory, defeating the incumbent president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
For many observers, his election symbolised independence and Somali sovereignty where lawmakers defied all fears and foreign interventions to join ranks and vote overwhelmingly to Farmajo, breaking religious and clan barriers.
So was his election a defeat to UAE, which spent millions of dollars to hijack the political process in Somalia at all cost, inviting presidential candidates to Dubai, bribing them individually to rally behind its favourite candidate, Omar Abdirashid Sharmake. Omar as the PM of Somalia was secretly behind the planned UAE military base in Somaliland and many other controversial agreements some of which have not come to light to date.
Soon after his election, Farmajo paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia after an invitation from King Salman. He received a warm reception from the Saudi family who promised huge funds to support his government. It was not clear at the time what Saudis wanted in return, but it is now evident that they were plotting the Qatar blockage and wanted Somalia aboard. After sanctions were imposed on Qatar, Somalia’s neutral stance and support to Kuwaiti mediation has taken the Saudis by surprise. For them, it was as an insult from a poor African nation that they had offered a ‘major economic’ deal to provide housemaids to Saudi Arabia in 2016!
Somalia, emerging from 25 years of conflict, has no major economic ties with Qatar to sever but its airspace used by Qatar Airways as alternative route, has undermined the severity of the Saudi sanctions designed to bring about maximum devastation to Qatari economy.
Out of contempt for Somalis and protest at their neutrality, the Saudis has withdrawn their financial pledge to Somali government and turned to Ethiopia for support since Qatar is accused of supporting Somalia’s Alshabaab militants that Ethiopia is at war since its intervention in Somalia in 2006. Because of Ethiopia’s influence on Somali politics, Saudis may have calculated if they got Ethiopia aboard against Qatar, Somalia may at the end succumb to their pressure and change its neutral stance. However, Ethiopia with a diplomatic history that precedes the Arab World snubbed the Saudi demands and supported the Kuwaiti initiative like Somalia. What the naïve Saudis princes did not consider is that, in the eyes of Addis Ababa, Egypt’s threat to Ethiopia’s development and support to armed groups seen by Addis Ababa as terrorists, is nothing short of Alshabaab’s.
The accusations against Qatar of funding Islamist militants across the world such as Alshabaab are serious in nature, but needed to be dealt with in a diplomatic manner. Such accusations have international implications as the global security is at stake and should have been dealt through the United Nations. But the Saudi’s unilateral action to blockade Qatar, and their fantasies that go too far against the international law and diplomatic conventions undermine the sovereignty of other states and could destabilise the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
For far too long, the Saudi role in spreading radical ideology across the globe has been tolerated because of their economic interest to western powers and this has allowed them to act a destabilising force beyond their borders. Western governments have ignored their war crimes in neighbouring Yemen, although some opposition leaders such as Labour’s Jeremy Corby have been vocal and demanded their governments to take action.
Now that their attempt to isolate Qatar is not going their way, the Saudi-led coalition is planning more severe sanctions until they achieve their unrealistic demands or told to back-pedal by their masters. It is not about Qatar. Since the Somali government declined to side with them, they have been taking steps to undermine its legitimacy, inviting members from Somali parliament and opponents to UAE to weaken the elected government. The Somali PM, Hassan Ali Khayre is highly regarded as a potential leader to rebuild the country and empower its feeble institutions after years of war and corrupt leadership. However, his government, in office for months, has to deal with threats from multiple fronts, Alshabaab militants and UAE-backed politicians who in fear of accountability trying to fight the government from within and frustrate any return to stability. Ironically, one of the main arguments of the Saudi-led coalition is that Qatar has been meddling in the internal affairs of their respective nations while they too are not only meddling in other nations’ but are destabilising them!
UAE has its own ambitions in Somalia that are both economic and military; building a military base in Somaliland and controlling Somali ports of Berbera and Bossaso, both close to Yemen. If the UAE could undermine the Somali sovereignty and stability from distance, their military presence in Somalia could not only spell the end of Somali statehood if unchallenged but also destabilise the whole region. Ethiopia’s PM, Hailemariam Desalegn has warned that Qatar and Saudi rift may destabilise the region after Eritrea and Djibouti clashed over border when Qatari soldiers withdrew. But it is not clear if the Ethiopian PM was referring directly to the Eritrean-Djibouti dispute or to the wider implications of the Saudi-Egyptian forces of destabilisation.
The Qatari-Saudi impasse should not be allowed to spill over the Horn of Africa and undo the relative security in Somalia. A clear warning should be sent to Saudi Arabia and UAE to refrain from any actions that could undermine the Somali government before it is too late. What has been achieved in Somalia in the past ten years is laudable and any reversal will have far reaching consequences for the region and beyond.
The writer is a former Somali journalist with interest in regional security and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org