Attention shifts to Somalia in bid to protect maritime trade

Monday April 17 2017

Somalia is suddenly back in the limelight, with a number of high-level visits in the past few weeks signalling a renewed interest by the international community in the country that had been written off as a failed state.

Among world figures who visited the country last month were British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutterres, and the new African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, who made Somalia his first stop only four days after taking office.

In addition to the visits, Somalia is attracting fresh attention from traditional allies, as well as newcomers from the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

They include the United Kingdom, former colonial power Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Ethiopia as well as the African Union, and the traditional seafarers in the Indian Ocean such China, the Philippines, Japan and India.

Important shipping route
Experts attribute the fresh interest in Somalia to a combination of factors.

These include the recent successful presidential election that saw Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo take up the leadership;  the country’s strategic location along the world’s most important shipping route, the war in Yemen and the resurgence of piracy in the Indian Ocean.


Political risk analyst for Middle East and North Africa, James Pothecary, told The EastAfrican that a leading factor in the increasing importance of Somalia is the war in Yemen and how it impacts the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. It connects the Read Sea to the Gulf of Aden

The strait is the gateway to almost all maritime trade between Europe and Asia and any security threats in this location would disproportionally affect global maritime trade routes and the security of sea lines of communication, said Mr Pothecary, who works for Allan & Associates in UK.

“As maritime shipping is approximately 90 per cent of how the world’s goods are transported, interference at these choke points is a serious threat to international business which in the case of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, is worth an approximated $700 billion annually,” he said.

All traffic through the Suez Canal, the quickest route for European shipping to reach Asia, must pass through Bab el-Mandeb to reach the Gulf of Aden, and subsequently the Indian Ocean.

In March alone, 1,454,000 tonnes of shipping, carried on 80,495 vessels, transited the Suez Canal. But since its narrowest point of Bab el-Mandeb is only 29km across, even small craft launched by Houthis from the Yemeni coast are capable of reaching all traffic passing through it.

This has forced ships to sail closer to the Somalia coast, hence the renewed interest in Somalia.

On his first official trip abroad since his election, President Farmajo flew to Riyadh, where he met king of Saudi Arabia Salman Bin Abdulaziz and where the two discussed the issue of Houthi rebels and plans by United Arab Emirates to set up a military base in the port of Berbera in the breakaway Somaliland.


Then there is the resurgence of piracy, which at its peak 2011, witnessed a total of 237 attacks and resulted in loss of maritime business worth $8 billion, while the pirates earned $160 million in ransom.
Piracy had reduced significantly in recent years as a result of extensive international military patrols. However, it is creeping back, mainly due to devastating famine and the increased unemployment.

In early April, pirates hijacked an Indian vessel, Al Kausar with 11 crew on board. In January, a Chinese navy ship supported by an Indian navy helicopter thwarted an attack on a merchant ship, and secured the safety of all 19 Filipino crew members.

The election of president Farmajo too has attracted the attention of the international community owing to his popularity and a clear programme to rid the country of Al Shabaab militants.

On April 6, President Farmajo declared the country a war zone and replaced its military and intelligence chiefs in preparations for a new offensive against Al Shabaab set to begin in 60 days if the militants do not lay down their arms.

According to Rashid Abdi, the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa project director, there is a growing momentum within the region and the international community to stabilise Somalia, especially after the change of leadership in Mogadishu and the war in Yemen.

“Somalia has always remained strategic to the geopolitics of the region and beyond and has been gaining importance with time as the conditions in the country improve,” said Mr Abdi. 

Besides the oil, gas and mineral deposits that still lie unexploited, Somalia is emerging as a promising investment destination, as well as factor in the security of countries in the region such as Ethiopia.