One year ago, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies severed diplomatic relations with Qatar. Their rivalry has turned Somalia, one of the Horn’s most fragile states, into a proxy battleground for the Gulf monarchies.
This has aggravated Somalia’s already fractious domestic politics, worsening Mogadishu’s relations with its federal states and the breakaway region of Somaliland.
Long adept at manipulating foreign involvement, Somali politicians across the spectrum have exploited the escalating rivalries for their own ends. All sides urgently need to step back to prevent events from taking a darker turn.
Following the June 2017 split within the Gulf Co-operation Council, newly elected Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” faced intense Saudi and Emirati pressure, reportedly pushing him to cut all political ties with Qatar. Farmajo refused, claiming that he preferred Somalia to remain neutral.
But for the UAE, reports that the president had received Qatari support ahead of the election and the appointment of officials known to be close to Doha belied his claims of impartiality.
Abu Dhabi fears that increased Qatari and Turkish support to the Somali government will embolden political Islamists, whose influence it views as a threat. It is concerned, too, that it is losing ground to its two main geopolitical rivals in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
In response, the UAE has pursued a dual strategy: It has reduced its ties and aid to Mogadishu – its relations with the Farmajo government have deteriorated sharply – while deepening its already close commercial and political links with the five federal states.
While Farmajo’s reluctance to cut ties with Qatar and Turkey is understandable, particularly given the scale of Turkish aid and investment, his increasing reliance on both countries has further soured relations with the UAE.
The mounting tension with Abu Dhabi intersects a number of Somali political fault lines:
First, it has amplified disputes between the government and rival factions in the capital, complicating a crisis in the parliament that threatened to turn violent in late 2017. The government has become increasingly authoritarian, using rivals’ alleged ties to the UAE to justify violent crackdowns on key opponents accused of working with Abu Dhabi to destabilise the government, and ousting the Speaker of the lower house and the mayor of Mogadishu.
Second – and still more perilously – it has contributed toward a mounting tension between Farmajo and federal states, some of which depend on Emirati investment. Federal state leaders have banded together to pressurise Farmajo to change tack, arguing that the president had unilaterally taken a position on the Gulf crisis that ill serves their interests and those of Somalia itself.
Third, Gulf rivalries and Farmajo’s hardline posture have also exacerbated the deepening row between Mogadishu and Somaliland, culminating in President Muse Bihi Abdi’s assertion that Mogadishu’s attempt to block an agreement on the port of Berbera with the Emirati conglomerate DP World amounted to a declaration of war.
Clearly, Somalia’s many challenges cannot all be pinned on Gulf powers, particularly given that their aid and investment for years has been a lifeline for many Somalis. Nor are Somali elites, long adept at navigating foreign clientelism, helpless victims.
That said, the extension of the Middle East’s fault lines across the Red Sea have unsettled already fraught relations among Horn states and led their leaders to recalibrate their policies toward neighbours and outside powers alike.
Leaders in the region recognise the risks, not just for Somalia but also for the Horn more broadly.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is the latest African leader to warn of the danger of renewed instability in Somalia.
The African Union’s chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, echoes Kenyatta’s sentiments, pointing to the wider dangers of foreign actors’ rivalries playing out in the country.
The Farmajo government should acknowledge the need for coalition building, the cultivation of national unity, and tighter limits on foreign funds in its politics as essential steps to alleviating the impact of outside interference.
It should adopt a more conciliatory approach to rivals, including by rekindling talks with the federal states and rescheduling a meeting previously planned between Farmajo and Muse Bihi.
It should also observe strict neutrality in the intra-GCC spat; its senior officials should dial down their anti-Emirati rhetoric.
For their part, the Gulf powers and Turkey must exercise restraint across the Horn, particularly in Somalia. The fractious nature of Somali politics means that no axis can fully dominate.
Attempting to consolidate control is likely to further fracture the Somali state, which would serve nobody’s interests.
Talks between Abu Dhabi and Mogadishu are essential. Saudi Arabia, which enjoys the relative trust of both Somali and Emirati leaders, should promote dialogue between the two; Riyadh could be an emissary and potential facilitator of talks.
Western powers with close ties to both the Somali government and Gulf monarchies should promote a Mogadishu-Abu Dhabi dialogue, and back any attempt by Riyadh to mediate. European Union officials, also reportedly trusted by both sides, can play a facilitation role too.
Even without Gulf meddling, efforts to reconcile clans and overcome centre-periphery tensions – a prerequisite for peace in Somalia – face an uphill battle.
If the country becomes a battleground for richer, more powerful states, and they and Somali factions pursue a zero-sum game ill-suited to the country’s multipolar politics, the bloodshed and discord that have long blighted Somalia will deepen, almost certainly playing into the hands of Al Shabaab.
All involved need to reverse course before this happens.
Rashid Abdi is the Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group.