The tiny Gulf state of Qatar is shaping up to be the “most important Arab actor” in Somalia, even edging out the traditional Arab powerhouse Egypt, says a new report by Mohamed Hussein Gaas, a Norwegian scholar, adding that this is part of a bigger push to expand the rich state’s influence in the Horn of Africa.
Although Qatar has been carrying out humanitarian efforts in Somalia since the late 1990s, Mr Gaas, argues that such aid — some of it given to politicians who use it to buy political support — intensified after the Islamic Courts Union took power in Mogadishu in 2006.
The group was removed from power after Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia, a move that angered many Somalis who later took up arms and forced Addis Ababa to withdraw its troops after two years of bloody confrontation.
Mr Gaas’s report says Qatar’s foray into the Horn of Africa started when it tried to broker a deal between Eritrea and Djibouti over a dispute rooted in disagreements over the Ras Doumeira mountains that in general are claimed to belong to Djibouti.
In June 2010, a seven-point agreement was announced by Qatar, and both countries accepted the establishment of a committee consisting of two members from each country led by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim to help resolve the demarcation issue.
The 2009 withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia presented Qatar an opportunity to change tack away from Eritrea and Djibouti and focus more on Somalia.
“Today Qatar is perhaps the most important Arab actor in Somalia, even surpassing ... Egypt,” says the report.
Egypt — now mired in turmoil of its own making after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi — had strong ties with Somalia before Mogadishu’s central government imploded, plunging the Horn of Africa nation into a chaos that lasted more than two decades.
The report says Qatar’s foreign policies sometimes lead to strained ties with regional powerhouses who are not happy with its interventions.
In April 2008, Ethiopia cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, saying that Doha supports Eritrea, Addis Ababa’s arch enemy. Qatar denied the Ethiopian allegations, and now the two countries have restored ties.
“Qatari politics thus shows the combination of considerable pragmatism but also considerable will to follow a separate Qatari line of politics despite pressure from, for example, the United States and Saudi Arabia. Qatar is not out to just appease or get recognition from these actors,” says the report, which also touches on the Gulf state’s intervention policies in Yemen, Lebanon, Eritrea and Syria.
Mr Gaas’s piece is part of a larger, compartmentalised report attempting to explain Qatar’s foreign policy engagement in Africa and the Middle East.
Analysts said it is hard to say for sure how much Doha spends in Somalia, both as budgetary support and as humanitarian aid. But they estimate that it runs into hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Like other Arab countries’ monetary support for Somalia, Doha’s assistance is shrouded in secrecy,” said Abdiwahab Sheik Abdisamad, Horn of Africa specialist at Kenyatta University’s Department of History and Political Science in Kenya.
Mr Abdisamad, however, said Qatar’s involvement in Somalia is “good” for Somalia, because “Doha can lobby Mogadishu’s interest in both Arab and Western arenas.”
A recent UN report showed how Doha had manoeuvred to have its favourite candidate, the current head of state, elected to presidency.
The UN report said that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had received several million dollars from Qatar, which was used to buy political support.
“Qatar played an important role in funding the election campaign of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and continues to be a key financial and political partner of the Federal Government of Somalia,” said the UN Monitoring Group report on Somalia, noting that Doha had also tried to help Mogadishu in its attempts to co-opt Islamists.
The report said Qatar depends on Somali professionals who live in its country to carry out its policies in the Horn of African nation.
Qatar’s tools of influence in Africa and the Middle East include diplomatic efforts; controlled aid programmes often through non-state actors, and on rare occasions, military support in a conflict zone.
The report adds that although the Gulf state’s support for Somalia was “limited in scale and without the actual presence of any Qatari humanitarian organisations in the country,” yet it provided “an important entry, building up local connections and a positive image that, along with its Islamic credentials, enhanced its legitimacy not necessarily in the wider Somali population but in the eyes of Islamic charities and Islamic organisations including the Muslim Brotherhood in Somalia.”
“Qatar will remain an important foreign policy actor in the future,” said the report.