How Gulf geopolitics are turning Somalia into a theatre of the absurd

Saturday September 28 2019

Previously, countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have happily welcomed the parade of Somali politicians shuttling between their capitals on discreet fundraising trips months before the presidential elections. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA | NMG


Somalia, is preparing to hold a universal suffrage election in 2020/21, the first of its kind after more than two decades of no practical elections until the 2017 one—when an indirect election was conducted, which saw ‘‘traditional elders’’ select delegates who elected members of parliament who also elected the current president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo.

The National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC) is upbeat that the country will hold peaceful and credible elections come 2020/21 despite the political, constitutional and socio-economic challenges facing the country.

The electoral body launched a five-year roadmap in 2018 to help guide the management and administration of the country's ‘‘one-person, one-vote’’ elections, notwithstanding the pending electoral law, as foreseen by Article 47 of the Provisional Constitution, is yet to be passed by the parliament.

More than 50 political parties (mostly based in Mogadishu) have been registered by the electoral body ahead of the next elections to replace clan-based politics. This is a major step towards a return to democracy and a sign of enthusiasm for multi-party politics in Somalia and would make the upcoming presidential election campaign more intense than the preceding ones.

Competition being the lifeblood of democracy, key campaign issues such as improved security, harnessing national reconciliation, a productive economy, consolidating unity including successful talks with Somaliland, delivering a non-provisional constitution, successful implementation of federalisation and democratisation political processes, strengthening Somalia’s diplomatic circles at global stage and maintaining friendly relations with its neighbours are among the key election issues that may dominate public discussions ahead of the election itself.

Continued support for the inclusion, representation and participation of women in Somalia’s electoral processes remains one of the key traits that Somalia’s Western allies will be keenly observing to shape their engagement with the future occupants of Villa Somalia.


Traditionally, presidential elections in Somalia magically lacked any predictable effects because of several systematic conditions including “the election-year-economy” which strongly influences outcomes.

In recent years, the country’s presidential elections were characterised by unprecedented influx of campaign funds from abroad, particularly from the Gulf countries whose leaders appear eager to spice up favours in Somalia.

Previously, countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have happily welcomed the parade of Somali politicians shuttling between their capitals on discreet fundraising trips months before the presidential elections.

In 2017, countries such as Turkey and Qatar played major roles that displaced arguably more powerful actors with a longer history of engagement in Somalia. This shift may be viewed from the vantage point of emerging power diplomacy to accrue political capital by Turkey and Qatar.

Turkey, a powerful political actor in Somalia since 2011, made Somalia a major focus of its foreign policy and its presence in the country certainly embodies one of the most interesting, but widely misunderstood regional geopolitical developments in the past decade.

Somalia’s ungalvanised support to Saudi Arabia against Turkey during the Jamal Khashoggi crisis which Turkey saw itself as strategically placed to extract economic benefits from Saudi Arabia to support its struggling economy in exchange for easing pressure on the kingdom’s crowned Prince; Turkish engagement with Villa Somalia has since been cautious and often provided a cold shoulder to the political machinations of the presidency.

With the country’s history of one term presidency, dramatic shifts in campaign patronage and aegis is plausible. Whether Turkey will back the re-election of the incumbent president remains highly unlikely so as Qatar whose favourite candidates won the last two presidential elections.

Following the Qatari blockade led by UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia’s subsequent declaration of neutrality in the crisis, tensions have steadily escalated between Somalia and the UAE, which has sought to extend its influence in the country.

The simmering situation was much bigger than its trilateral format would suggest because it’s taken on contours of the Gulf Cold War over the past two years. Although the two countries have been traditionally close, Mogadishu's attempts to remain neutral over the Gulf divisions have not gone down well with Somalia’s traditional-Gulf allies.

The Saudi Kingdom has maintained relatively friendly relations with the current regime in Somalia in spite of shortfall on its expectations from the government during the Gulf crisis.

Somalia exhibited strong inclination and support towards the kingdom on many occasions. Again, that has not been significant enough to earn the kingdom’s blessing to champion and warrant regime comeback in Somalia.

Barely months from the country’s general election with bewildering array of candidates expressing interest for the top seat and the seemingly ‘‘condensing’’ of the Gulf Crisis with decrease in antagonistic rhetoric, significant changes in the context and dynamics of the Somali political environment are emerging.

Possibilities for Somalia and UAE to re-engage are coming to light through joint efforts by President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and other partners to reconcile the former allies turned adversaries. This might mean burying the hatchets and forging a new relationship and reinstating UAEs practical presence in the Horn of Africa nation.

Conditions such as UAE considering to back the re-election of the incumbent will of course be part of their engagements. Any rapprochement at this stage won't change the menacing and opportunistic approach of the dragon—UAE; and Villa Somalia might not keenly be conscious of the consequences especially at “the hour of need”—the electioneering period.

Contemporary traits of many Somali political players have instinctively been Machiavellian, acting as vocal advocates of ‘‘special interests’’ and bitter enemies to the ‘‘common interest.’’ Generally, Machiavellian politicians are likely to serve their own selfish ends rather than what is demonstrably true and sensible to the eyes of the public.

Whether it is purposely strategic or not all indications signify that the president and his prime minister are set to be on different political vehicles in the upcoming elections each separately endeavouring to appropriate the presidential seat.

If this comes to light, it will affirm the fluid and unlasting nature of political alignments or “dispensations” in Somalia. Eventually one or both of the aligning issues/interests loses its salience and ceases to matter as much as it initially did at the onset.

UAE rapprochement might be Farmaajo’s remaining recourse, although many political commentators believe the relationship was always there but timing was of significance to make it public.

Only time will tell whether this rapprochements option is punitive measure to override the advances of his PM and Qatari influence in Somalia or domestic upheaval and political survival for President Farmajo come 2020/21.

Abdi Tawane is and socio-political analyst. E-mail: [email protected]; Mohamed Dubo is researcher and communications consultant. E-mail: [email protected]