Date: Tuesday, 17 April 2018
The current conflicts in the Gulf are raising tensions in the Horn of Africa, a region already plagued by complicated and ongoing problems, writes Haitham Nouri
The conflict between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Qatar on the other has now expanded to the Horn of Africa, where each side is battling for control over strategic ports in this globally vital region.
The UAE was the first to penetrate the Horn of Africa through its strong economic arm Dubai Ports World (DP World), which opened a container terminal at the port of Doraleh in Djibouti in 2009.
The largest container terminal in the Horn of Africa quickly became almost the only trade outlet for Ethiopia, the fastest-growing economy in Africa. It now generates 97 per cent of revenues for Addis Ababa, landlocked since it lost its coastline after the independence of Eritrea in 1993.
However, the UAE’s economic victory in the region was short-lived, since Djibouti terminated the DP World contract on 22 February based on claims that the company had paid bribes to win the 30-year lease on the port.
It was then followed by repossession after Djibouti lost its case at the London Court of International Arbitration, which ruled in favour of DP World.
Reports from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US think tank, indicate that the termination came after a quarrel between the commander of Djibouti’s air force and UAE diplomats after a UAE fighter jet taking part in the war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen landed at Djibouti Airport without permission.
Relations between the two countries were severed, and Djibouti ordered UAE and Saudi forces to leave a military installation.
The clash was linked to problems in the Gulf, and was possibly fanned by Qatari support for the tiny nation of Djibouti and close contacts between Doha and Addis Ababa. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia was able to contain the dispute with Djibouti, and Saudi fighter jets once again returned to the Lemonnier Air Base in Djibouti in return for Saudi commitments to help modernise Djibouti’s navy and coastguard.
Riyadh and Djibouti signed a long-term contract for a Saudi military base there in March 2016.
France’s largest overseas military base is located in Djibouti, and the country is also home to the only US base in the Horn of Africa. China is constructing its first overseas military base in the country.
During the quarrel with Djibouti, DP World moved many operations to Eritrea’s largely inactive Assab port and the city’s airport, which includes a landing strip for large aircraft such as the Boeing C-17 and Globemaster III that are used by Gulf air forces.
The UAE has been using the Assab port in the conflict in Yemen in return for financial and economic aid to Eritrea. Eritrea’s position is consistent with its support for the 30 June 2013 Revolution in Egypt, the war against the Houthis in Yemen, and opposition to Iranian and Turkish expansion in East Africa.
To the south, DP World also began doing business at the Berbera port in Somaliland, which has unilaterally declared its independence from Somalia. Although Somalia depends on Saudi and Gulf support, this did not prevent it from submitting a complaint to the UN Security Council about what it viewed as “UAE support for secessionists threatening the unity of Somali territory”.
Mogadishu accused Abu Dhabi of “lenience” in fighting terrorism because it has allowed Somali coal exports, a main source of revenue for the terrorist Somali group the Shebab Mujahideen, to reach Dubai.
The complaint did not impact DP World activities at the Berbera port since this province ignores Mogadishu.
It is an alternative to Djibouti and benefits Ethiopia because it expands its trade outlets away from relying on Djibouti alone, even though Addis Ababa and Beijing have signed an agreement to build a railway from the Ethiopian capital to Djibouti.
Before the recent quarrels, Mogadishu and Abu Dhabi signed a military and security partnership for training Somali troops that included mine-protected vehicles, Japanese jeeps, personnel carriers and motorcycles for the Somali Interior Ministry. Abu Dhabi has pledged to pay the salaries of the Somali security forces for four years.
In the autonomous region of Puntland not recognised by Somalia, the UAE has funded the coastguard at the port of Bosaso to fight pirates off the Horn of Africa. Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa, mostly on the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden to the north, and the Bab Al-Mandab Straits to the northeast, and the waters off its coasts have been plagued by piracy.
Turkey had earlier made efforts to enter Somalia by overhauling the port of Mogadishu and managing it for 20 years in return for paying 55 per cent of the revenues to Somalia.
Qatar was chosen to renovate the Sudanese port of Suakin at a cost of $4 billion after Khartoum signed a 99-year lease for Ankara to develop Suakin for tourism purposes.
While the current inter-Gulf disputes could benefit the poor Horn of Africa countries as these examples show, they could also raise tensions in a region that is already known for its wars and extended conflicts dating back to pre-colonial times.
The conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia, which became a war over the province of Ogaden claimed by Mogadishu, is an example. Addis Ababa is supporting autonomous Somaliland and Puntland, and it cannot remain silent in the face of terrorism by the Shebab Mujahideen group that threatens the central government in Somalia.
At the same time, Addis Ababa and Asmara remain in an official state of war despite a truce between them, while new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has declared his desire for a permanent peace with his neighbour to the north.
Djibouti, supported by Ethiopia, is in a border dispute with Eritrea over islands in the Red Sea. Tensions between Sudan and Eritrea recently erupted, and talks on Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam among the Nile Basin countries have so far failed to deliver.
Nonetheless, Eritrea is not allied with Somalia, despite its animosity towards Ethiopia, and they are polar opposites in the Gulf conflict. Sudan, meanwhile, oscillates between its relationship with Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Turkey and Qatar on the other, which prevents it from clearly picking a side in the Horn of Africa.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia is concerned about what it views as “Sudanese interference in South Sudan” to destabilise the region.
It cannot be said that current disputes in the Gulf triggered the conflicts in the Horn of Africa, but they can certainly either fuel or defuse them. The picture is not yet complete, and developments continue in this sensitive region of the African continent that overlooks the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea through which one quarter of the world’s trade passes.