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(WorldPoliticsReview.com) Old Game, New Stakes: How the Gulf Crisis Could Reshape the Horn of Africa

Posted by: Biniam Tekle

Date: Friday, 04 August 2017


Old Game, New Stakes: How the Gulf Crisis Could Reshape the Horn of Africa

Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017

When a group of four Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia launched a dramatic diplomatic gambit by severing ties with Qatar in early June, the crisis immediately commanded the world’s attention. The leaders of major powers, from Washington to Paris and Beijing, recognized the situation’s high stakes and—with the exception of some early-round Twitter provocation from U.S. President Donald Trump—began pushing for a resolution. 

In Africa, too, the Gulf spat drew swift responses, with countries such as Mauritania and the Comoros following Riyadh’s lead and breaking ties with Doha, while others staked out less forceful positions or promoted dialogue. Meanwhile, in the Horn of Africa, the six-country region in the continent’s northeast that is geographically closest to the action, the reaction could be summed up with one word: panic. 

Saudi Arabia, which remains the center of gravity within the anti-Qatar coalition, is an increasingly dominant force in the Red Sea basin dividing it from the Horn countries of Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. At the outset of the Gulf rift, the Saudi monarchy urged all “brotherly countries” to join the diplomatic and economic blockade of Qatar, its upstart rival in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 

It was not the first time the nations of the Horn had been drawn into such a dispute; as recently as 2016, they faced a similar dilemma when Saudi Arabia urged allies to sever ties with Iran. In that episode, though, the stakes for the Horn were much lower. Outside of Sudan, Iran was not a major political player in the region. 

Qatar, by contrast, has spent much of the last decade deploying an entrepreneurial foreign policy and large cash reserves in cultivating a network of relationships across the region. Although geographically smaller than every one of the Horn’s six states, and less populous than all but Djibouti, Qatar remains a formidable regional powerbroker that has built up a considerable reservoir of goodwill.

In the Horn of Africa, the initial reaction to the Gulf crisis could be summed up with one word: panic.

As a result, Riyadh’s polite request, which must have felt like a request in name only, placed the Horn’s leaders in the uncomfortable position of taking sides in a fight not of their own making—and at significant cost. While there is long-standing historical precedent for Middle East politics playing out in the Horn, there is the potential for this latest iteration to be of much greater consequence, and to even reshape the regional order entirely. 

Hard Choices in the Horn

Once the initial panic had subsided, governments in the region quite naturally sought to respond in ways that reflected the balance of interests they had at stake, at least as they understood them. 

In Sudan, where the government has charted a neutral path, Qatar helped manage the Darfur peace process, seeking to resolve a conflict that contributed to Khartoum’s international isolation and President Omar al-Bashir being indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes including genocide. Doha also helped the ruling National Congress Party weather the economic storm that followed South Sudan’s independence in 2011, and the Qataris remain popular in the country’s Islamist circles.

The same stance was taken by Mogadishu, where it is rumored that Qatar backed the 2016 campaign of current President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed; Doha retains linkages to key members of the new president’s entourage. The position of Turkey, which aligned itself with Qatar at the outset of the crisis, must have also carried some weight with Farmajo’s government, since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has for years evinced a relatively steadfast commitment to Somalia’s reconstruction.

Ethiopia, which has not been integrated into the web of Arab alliances in the same manner as the Horn’s littoral states, has also refrained from siding against Qatar, preferring to follow the neutral path of Sudan and Somalia.

The governments of Djibouti, Eritrea and Somaliland, on the other hand, have chosen to side with the Saudi-led camp, though there is some variation in their approaches. Each of these countries has inked security agreements with the Saudis, the Emiratis or both in recent years—agreements that have yielded, or will soon yield, military bases that serve as a source of lucrative economic rents. The Emirati base in Assab, Eritrea, which has become the fulcrum of GCC operations in Yemen, is a case in point, with reports suggesting that Asmara may have received as much as $500 million in exchange for a long-term lease.
A refugee is helped down by wheelchair after being evacuated from Yemen to Mogadishu, Somalia, May 18, 2015 (AP photo by Farah Abdi Warsameh).

Djibouti and Somaliland also have additional business linkages to the Saudi-led alliance, among the most significant being Emirati stakes in the development and commercial management of their ports. In Somaliland, the acquisition by the United Arab Emirates of rights to the development of the Berbera corridor was, one has to assume, a central consideration in Hargeisa’s decision to endorse the Qatar blockade, especially considering the deal had not been fully finalized when the latest Gulf crisis broke out.

In a region in which political volatility has been the rule rather than the exception, these economic motives were reinforced by concerns of national and regime security. Eritrea has leveraged expanding ties with the Saudis and Emiratis to puncture its international isolation, as well as balance against Ethiopia, the large southern neighbor that is its bete noir and primary security concern. 

Somaliland’s posture has been informed by the desire to advance its cause of statehood and to head off any revanchist ambitions by a Somali state that is slowly reconsolidating in the south. And Djibouti, the quintessential “rentier” state, facilitates an expanding array of foreign bases in order to enhance its political autonomy vis-a-vis its larger neighbors and traditional partners like the U.S. and France. It is also locked in a territorial dispute with Eritrea. It has therefore been engaged in rearguard action to dilute the fledgling relationship between Asmara and the Saudi-led coalition. 

For all six Horn states, this already-complicated decision-making calculus was made even thornier by the mixed signals emanating from Washington. In the early days of the crisis, Trump appeared to be reading from a different script than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, publicly taking credit for the rift even as his Cabinet members tried to end it. 

Outside of Eritrea, virtually every state in the Horn possesses security linkages to the U.S. Even where they have not been particularly robust, other considerations were at play—for example, Somaliland’s bid for statehood and Sudan’s effort to secure a permanent lifting of U.S. sanctions. A more coherent response from the U.S.—the primary security partner to both sides of the GCC split—might have provided a window into which camp was likely to prevail, making it easier for the Horn states to pick sides. 

An Old Game With Different Stakes

These recent developments do not take place in a historical vacuum. Rather, they are indicative of patterns of interaction between the Horn and the Middle East that go back decades. 

In this long historical saga, the Horn has been a venue in which better-resourced states in the Middle East and North Africa have sought to jockey for advantage in their own internecine squabbles. Both historically and in the present, the bleeding of such rivalries into the Horn has been aided from above and below: by great-power meddling on the one hand, and the maneuvering of local actors in the Horn on the other. The results, as episodes like the proxy fight between radical and conservative Arab states during the Ethiopian-Somali War of 1977-1978 illustrate, have often been disastrous.

Yet the recent rift between Qatar and the Saudi-led coalition has the potential to produce another kind of outcome, with entirely different implications. This is not the Arab world and broader Middle East of preceding decades. The old Baathist states of Syria and Iraq are no more, and for obvious reasons, those that now govern these countries lack their predecessors’ influence in regional affairs. The same holds true for post-Gadhafi Libya, which six years after his death remains a fractured morass of competing militias. At the Palestinians’ expense, Israel seems to have struck a modus vivendi with Saudi Arabia and its other anti-Qatar alliance partners. Non-Arab states like Turkey and Iran are certainly formidable, but alone lack the capacity to competitively project power in the Horn as they can in the Levant or Persian Gulf. 

If the move against Qatar is a harbinger of a new regional order, the early returns are not exactly promising.

While it seems that Doha is unlikely to fully capitulate to the demands of the Saudi-led coalition, a significant curtailment of Qatar’s regional ambitions remains a distinct possibility. And given the current state of play throughout the Middle East, were this to happen, it could forge what has hitherto been impossible in the Horn: the emergence of a dominant Middle Eastern axis, with Saudi Arabia—the region’s second-biggest economy after Turkey, its largest military spender and the most important American ally among the Arab states—as the central pivot. And this, in effect, could inaugurate a new era of offshore hegemony, since there is no power indigenous to the Horn with the resources to effectively balance against the new order. 

Obviously, the war in Yemen doesn’t inspire much confidence in the Saudi and Emirati ability to successfully translate their economic and military advantages into the political outcomes they desire. Yet at least in theory, the Saudi-led coalition carries with it an economic and military potential that is difficult for any actors in the Horn to match.

The New Regional Order?

So what might this new set of circumstances mean for the Horn of Africa? 

To begin with, the coalition would likely remain politically committed to the Horn in a way that has no real historical parallel, even if the war in Yemen came to a conclusion and the purported Iranian threat in the Red Sea basin were to be fully neutralized. Put differently, this is no temporary excursion. For Egypt, guaranteeing the flow of Nile waters, which will depend on shaping regional developments, is a major long-term concern. The UAE’s long-term port concessions in Berbera and Bosaso are a reflection of its growing commercial interest in the maritime economy of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and its long-term military facilities to the north and south of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait suggest a hard commitment to defending these commercial stakes with gunboat diplomacy if required. 

Saudi Arabia’s long-term interests are similar to those of the Emiratis, and must be understood within the context of Vision 2030, the now ascendant Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s strategy for moving Saudi Arabia into the post-oil era. This blueprint for a new Saudi Arabia has three mutually reinforcing aspects that are likely to impact the Kingdom’s relationship with the Horn. First, Vision 2030 will necessarily involve shifting investment away from the oil-producing regions in the east toward densely populated areas along the southern half of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, where there is potential for expanding industrial productivity. But in order for this to work, the country’s leadership will need to harness the economic potential of the Red Sea basin and broader Horn, and develop a far more robust regional ecosystem of economic exchange than currently exists. 

In this task, the Saudis will no doubt be aided by another key pillar of Vision 2030, which is the effort to convert Saudi Arabia into a global investment powerhouse by leveraging its large reservoir of hard currency reserves. The Saudi investment drive has been apparent throughout the Arab world for years, in places like Egypt and Jordan. One could expect a similar surge in Saudi investments in the Horn as well. 

The last relevant dimension of Vision 2030 is the ambition to exploit Saudi Arabia’s geographic position as a crossroads of key international trade routes and become a gateway between three continents—Europe, Asia and Africa. To this end, Vision 2030 proposes investment in enabling infrastructure, particularly in the transportation sector. 

Yet for Riyadh to realize these strategic objectives, and reap the resulting rewards, it will require a commitment to the maintenance of political order in the Horn, a region with several flashpoints. These include border conflicts that have pitted Ethiopia and Djibouti against Eritrea, and Sudan against Egypt; discord over the distribution of Nile waters that has locked Egypt and Ethiopia in mutual suspicion; ongoing tensions within and between the Federal Government of Somalia and its federal member states; and finally, the seemingly irreconcilable rupture between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. These are challenging conflicts, and much will hinge on the Saudi-led axis’s ability to resolve them.

Offshore Hegemony and its Limits

If the move against Qatar is a harbinger of a new regional order, the early returns are not exactly promising. Doha’s decision to withdraw troops from the Eritrea-Djibouti border region, ending its ill-fated mediation effort, has left a vacuum that the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians have been unable to fill, even though Eritrea and Djibouti remain clear allies of what has the potential to be a newly ascendant Arab coalition. While events are still unfolding, it is the African Union that now appears to be occupying this space, largely at Djibouti’s insistence. Given Asmara’s doubts about the AU’s capacity to operate as a neutral actor, the situation stands to get worse before it gets better. While it is possible that the Chinese will help resolve the impasse, such an outcome would speak to the limits of the new Saudi-led order in the Horn, not its strength.

That dispute aside, the Saudi-led coalition faces a number of other challenges to its ability to project influence in the Horn in a way that might anchor regional stability. 

First, there is the issue of how the different members of the Saudi-led coalition are actually perceived in the region, both at the level of government and by the public. One need only look at a map to understand why the Saudis and Egyptians have had far greater economic and political impact in the region than Qatar. Yet their presence has not always been welcome. 

Consider just a few examples. Sudan’s ruling NCP, a military-Islamist hybrid with strong links to the political traditions of the Muslim Brotherhood, has had a mostly acrimonious relationship with Cairo and Riyadh since its rise to power in 1989. In Eritrea, Saudi Arabia was lukewarm toward the prospect of independence during that country’s 30-year war for statehood. When it did support Eritrean nationalists, it backed the political rivals of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front—the organization that, under a new name, now governs an independent Eritrea. 

In Ethiopia, meanwhile, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has largely inherited the grand strategic assumptions of its imperial and Marxist predecessors—that Ethiopia is a regional power that must balance against Arab encroachment. 

More recent developments have both reinforced old animosities and created new lines of division. While Cairo, like Riyadh, has been an advocate of sanctions relief for Sudan, escalating tensions over the Halaib Triangle increasingly color the NCP’s view of the military government in Egypt. The disputed Red Sea territory has been under de facto Egyptian administration since the 1990s, and Cairo has thwarted an increasingly strident Sudanese diplomatic push for arbitration or direct negotiations on the matter. Meanwhile, a seeming deadlock in Nile water negotiations and the status of Ethiopia’s soon to be filled Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam—which in its filling phase could substantially reduce Nile water flows into Egypt—leave Egypt-Ethiopia relations on a road to nowhere. 

And then there are the Emiratis, whose moves in the region have unsettled Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia: Ethiopia, because the UAE’s base in Assab threatens the balance of power between Ethiopia and Eritrea; Djibouti, because Emirati outposts in Somaliland erode its monopoly on Ethiopian access to the sea; and Somalia, because Emirati moves in Berbera and Bosasso threaten the authority of the federal government in Mogadishu. 

A woman dressed in the colors of the Eritrean flag stands chained at a demonstration by Eritrean refugees and dissidents, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 23, 2016 (AP photo by Mulugeta Ayene).

Then there is the view of the general public. Here, one needs to tread carefully, since we lack reliable indicators of public opinion across the Horn. Certainly, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have the support of important constituencies across the region’s complex tapestry of societies. It should be said that the same is true in terms of regional governments. Yet familiarity can often breed contempt, or what some might characterize as stereotype. Historical patterns of interaction between the Horn and the Arab world, marked by the intersecting lines of race and social, economic and cultural inequality, have produced in some quarters an almost reflexive suspicion of “Arab” influence. 

In the final analysis, this means that if a new Saudi-led regional order is in the cards, many actors in the Horn—including the majority of governments that now embrace the emerging dispensation—will feel nervous. Well-choreographed high-level visits and widely heralded bilateral agreements won’t change this fact. Quietly, and often in the shadows, hegemony will meet resistance.

A House Divided

The second challenge facing the new Saudi-led order would largely relate to the coalition itself, and if, indeed, it is to be “Saudi-led.” One open question is Saudi Arabia’s stability. The designation of Mohammed Bin Salman as Crown Prince means the next succession will likely be the first time since the death of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch in 1953 that the throne will pass to a new generation of the royal family, and importantly, from father to son. This cuts against the historical norm regarding primogeniture within the Saudi royal family, a departure that could prove to be a source of increasing friction going forward. There is also Saudi Arabia’s Shiite problem in the east, and the question of how the country’s powerful religious establishment will respond to the new crown prince’s modernizing reforms. 

But there is perhaps a greater challenge to the cohesion of the Saudi-led coalition. Although recent dynamics have created a confluence of interest between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, if history is any guide, neither the UAE nor Egypt will accept playing second fiddle to their Saudi counterpart. The distance between the parties has already been apparent in Yemen, but also in Syria, where Cairo’s October 2016 vote in favor of a Russian resolution at the United Nations Security Council led to the curtailment of Saudi Aramco’s oil shipments to Egypt. The dispute was symptomatic of the two countries’ different perspectives on the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the threat posed by Syria’s Islamists. 

As Gregory Gause has recently noted, these developments point to deeper fissures in the respective foreign policy ideologies of members of the Saudi-led coalition. Saudi Arabia’s political establishment, an alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi clergy, pursues a foreign policy infused with a missionary impulse. Egypt’s military leaders, by contrast, are intrinsically suspicious of Islamist forces, at home and abroad. The UAE, for its part, supports Islamists when necessary, but lacks the proselytizing zeal of its Saudi neighbor. This means that in the Horn, members of the Arab coalition will naturally pull different clients into their orbit, and by their very political orientation, these clients will be competitors. 

If the political consensus at the heart of the Saudi-led coalition begins to fray, the Horn of Africa’s new order might deliver less “order,” and more instability.

Aside from a divergence in broad foreign policy visions, members of the Saudi-led coalition also have fundamentally different political interests in the Horn. It is not clear these interests can be reconciled. For example, Egypt is locked in zero-sum competition with Ethiopia over a scarce resource—water—that will probably only get scarcer. The Saudis and Emiratis, by contrast, have long-term interests in the region that are largely complementary to those of Ethiopia. These include the profitability of Emirati port investments and the desire by both the Saudis and the Emiratis to promote a flourishing maritime economy in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden—efforts that will almost necessarily require the full absorption of Ethiopia’s large, but still untapped, economic potential. 

There are other areas of divergence one can point to, although Ethiopia is likely to be one of the bigger ones over the long term. The broader point is that, in international politics, the line between an ally and rival is sometimes thinner than we might think. If the political consensus at the heart of the Saudi-led coalition begins to fray, the Horn of Africa’s new order might deliver less “order,” and more instability. 

Qatar Goes the Distance

While the Gulf crisis has the potential to usher in an entirely new dynamic in the Arab world’s engagement with the Horn of Africa, much uncertainty remains about a core premise: that the Saudi-led camp will actually prevail over Qatar. The architects of the anti-Qatar alliance—the crown prince duo of Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE—banked on firm support from Washington and Qatar’s quick capitulation. Neither has materialized. All indications are that Doha is preparing for a long war of attrition, and that the Saudi-led power play may have incited a formidable new alliance that marries Qatari wealth to Turkish and Iranian military power. This would be a game changer.

A long, extended stalemate in the Gulf would also have ramifications for the Horn of Africa. It is possible we would see a hardening of the competitive dynamic that has been the historical norm, with increasingly counterproductive bidding for political loyalties across the region. To be sure, a new Saudi-led dominion in the Horn wouldn’t necessarily be devoid of strategic competition and rivalry either—that much has already been made clear. Yet the new competitive dynamics driven by the GCC rupture stand to be more acute.

In the end, the path to peace and prosperity in the Horn of Africa will depend on its governance. This is a region creaking under the weight of authoritarian political systems in need of dramatic reform. It is the same basic problem that has beset the region for decades. Economic dynamism and political stability require a fundamental reordering of political power, away from the autocratic elites toward ordinary citizens. The Horn of Africa needs a political renaissance. Unfortunately, neither offshore hegemony nor an era of more acute Middle Eastern competition in the Horn promises to resolve this problem. In fact, it can only make it worse. 

Michael Woldemariam is an assistant professor of international relations and political science at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. His published work focuses on security dynamics in the Horn of Africa region. He can be followed on twitter @mikewoldemariam.

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